Do you remember the scene from the movie Band of Brothers where the chaplain, in the middle of the gunfire, was calmly checking each fallen soldier to see if anyone was still breathing so he perform Catholic Last Rites over them? Military service personnel are familiar with the chaplains — representatives of a religious tradition who serve both the troops and their families, often portrayed as a man with the same combat uniform holding a small bible and a rosary in the middle of the warzone in the movies. In reality, they could be a bit different.

Chaplain in the Military

Although their label “chaplain” referred to the representatives of the Christian faith, it is now not just exclusive to that. Other religions or philosophical traditions like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, and the likes also apply. In the military, the first appearance of chaplains was in the 8th century, with the English military-oriented chaplains on board proto-naval vessels. In contrast, land-based chaplains were first known during the reign of King Edward I. As for the current form of a military chaplain that we know, they first appeared in the World War I era to keep morale(and morals) up among the troops

The selection process of the chaplains also varies from country to country. They could be army-trained soldiers with theological training, or they could also be nominated and ordained to the army by religious authorities. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence employs these chaplains, although their authority comes from the church that sent them. They undergo a bespoke induction and training course for four months, including a short course at Britannia Royal Naval College and specialist fleet time at sea accompanied by a more experienced chaplain.

With that, here are more facts about military chaplains.

They Don’t Fight

Although it’s obvious that the chaplains are sent in the middle of the war, they do not engage in combat. As per the Geneva Convention, they are non-combatants. In connection, they could not be taken as prisoners of war unless they were needed to provide the religious needs of prisoners of war. If they were captured, they had to be repatriated as soon as possible. That, of course, does not guarantee that they won’t be killed while in the service. During the Civil War, 419 American chaplains died while in service, including those of the Confederate Army like Father Emmeran Bliemel. He was a Catholic priest and the first American chaplain to die while on the battlefield as he was giving the last rites to the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Jonesborough when a cannonball hit him.

Civil War Union Chaplain
1860s, Civil War Union Chaplain. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

During World War II, 100 chaplains from the US Army and the US Marine Corps were killed in action. This was higher compared to other branches of military service, like the Navy and the Army Air Corps. They were given the Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism, a special US military decoration awarded to military chaplains for acts of heroism in performing their duty. So far, there have been four recipients who all died when the Dorchester sank in 1943, and they gave up their lifejackets to others. They were Rev. George L. Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander D. Goode (Jewish), Rev. Clark V. Poling (Reformed Church in America), and Fr. John P. Washington (Roman Catholic).

Photo By Staff Sgt. David Lietz | Father Matt Foley, fourth from the left, parish pastor for St. James Catholic Church, in Arlington Heights, Illinois, pauses for a photo with local Soldiers, assigned to the 85th U.S. Army Reserve Support Command


200+ Religious denominations

As mentioned above, chaplains represent lots of different religions. The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense issued a memorandum on the “Faith and Belief Codes for Reporting Personnel Data of Service Members” with the goal of expanding the list of faith groups for better protection of the conscience of the Armed Forces and their chaplains, in line with Section 533. Aside from the known ones like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, or Roman Catholics, some other ones include Magick and Spiritualist, Wicca, and Unitarian Universalist.