Enlisting the faithful to support Md. Guard

Reserve turns to congregations for aid to families, soldiers returning from duty


Faced with a shortage of military chaplains, the Maryland National Guard is enlisting congregations from across the state to form a loose-knit support network for Reserve soldiers and their families, including those rejoining their communities after tours of duty.

Partners in Care includes congregations spanning a range of denominations. The network is a community-level response to what many regard as insufficient domestic support for Reserve soldiers, who represent about half the troops in Iraq. Reservists typically do not receive the assistance that on-base personnel have at their disposal.

"It's particularly important that soldiers who return home feel a part of their community rather than apart from it," said Robert Ursano, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda. "Faith is very much a part of every unit ... and of the reintegration programs, because faith communities provide important recognition of the needs of an individual."

Twelve congregations have signed up, including Redeemer Lutheran Church in Parkton yesterday morning. Others are expected to join soon, including a Jewish temple in Greenbelt. The goal is to have at least one congregation available in all 23 counties and Baltimore.

Maryland Guard chaplain Col. Sean Lee said the network was assembled in part because of a shortage of chaplains in the state. He is the only full-time chaplain, and six of 15 positions are vacant. Nationwide, the Reserve has only about half of its chaplain positions filled because members of the clergy are hesitant to join the Guard, Lee said.

Participating institutions agree to provide free help. Most of the soldiers referred through the program are unaffiliated with a religious group, Lee said. The only basis for referral is proximity to the congregation, he said.

"Nothing's expected, except to welcome Guardsmen and their families," he said.

The needs extend beyond those of returning soldiers. When she and her husband split recently, Staff Sgt. Patti Caporellie was forced to take on dual roles as a parent, which included tending to repairs to their Havre de Grace home.

"I was never the handyman part of the household," said the 42-year-old mother of two.

Caporellie, a member of the Maryland Air National Guard, was referred by the state chaplain to a local church, which arranged for two members to remove the front porch and fix a leaking sink for free.

Churches across the region are finding ways to help. In Bowie, All Saints Lutheran Church created a "sanity time" program for parents whose spouses are overseas. Congregation members watch their children for two-hour periods.

In Lanham, a licensed social worker and member of Good Samaritan Lutheran Church has been performing free marriage counseling for a couple that has been experiencing difficulty since the husband returned from war, Lee said.

Studies show soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing more marital troubles than soldiers from past wars.

"It's not about proselytizing. It's about reaching out to one another and helping them out," said the Rev. Thomas Carter of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in North Baltimore, whose son, Patrick, is serving in Iraq.

Response from soldiers has been slow, but Lee and other religious leaders hope it will pick up as word spreads and families warm to the idea of seeking assistance from their community.

But other states have taken notice, Lee said. The federal National Guard Bureau heard about the Maryland program and has been offering it to other states as a model. Officials in Idaho, Montana and Minnesota have contacted Lee for information, he said.

The military provides counseling for reservists through Military OneSource and, in more extreme cases, through the Department of Veterans Affairs. But there's little officials can offer to a soldier who doesn't feel accepted or valued by neighbors, a need programs such as Partners in Care are trying to fill.

And for spiritual assistance, some experts say, the community should be the first option. David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, said military chaplains are becoming increasingly evangelical, and a community-based approach is important to maintain a desirable church-and-state balance.

"I think community pastoral support for the military is more in keeping with our notion of the citizen-soldier than having a uniformed and commissioned chaplaincy," Segal said. "This is another bridge between the community and National Guard."

Support for the war is not a prerequisite for inclusion in the program. Two branches of the pacifist Church of the Brethren, in the Maryland towns of Accident and Oakland, asked to join.

"They took a little extra time to come aboard. They wanted to make it clear that they were not endorsing war," Lee said. "[Their participation is] not a political statement; it's a matter of caring about people from the community."

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