As a kid, I recognized every episode of M*A*S*H within the first 30 seconds. B.J. Hunnicutt was my favorite, but I knew Father Francis Mulcahy was the show’s quiet, even-keeled hero. Counseling patients wrestling with themselves and with God, caring for the orphans, supporting the crew of the 4077, and holding his temper until he just couldn’t take it anymore. Father Mulcahy was a great character and the spiritual core of one of television’s finest shows.
Military chaplains like Father Mulcahy are a walking paradox: a voice for compassion, kindness, and humanity while wearing the uniform of those who are, in the worst of times, directed to inflict damage, show as little mercy as possible, and ordered to forget their own humanity. For those of us who have never served in the military, the closest we can come to understanding a military chaplain’s life is to hear the stories of those who come closest to God walking among us.
Owen R. Chandler, an active-duty army chaplain, shares his stories in Chalice Press’ A Bridge in Babylon: Stories of a Military Chaplain in Iraq. A Kentucky native, Chandler is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and most recently served a church in Arizona. He and his wife, Emily, are the proud parents of three kids with whom they have been enjoying every moment lately—because Owen is shipping out any day now for a tour of duty in Kuwait.
When we scheduled A Bridge in Babylon to release in June, nobody knew Owen would be called up late last year and in training while the final edits were wrapped up. We’re hoping to connect with Owen from his base over the coming months, an opportunity to see a book put into action.
During his first deployment, Chandler earned the Bronze Star, awarded for heroism, achievement, or service in a combat zone.That may reinforce the stereotype of the stoic soldier or sailor or airman, but Owen is anything but stoic. (I hope someday we can release the hilarious set of author photos he sent our way). As he shares his letters, journal entries, and post-service reflections on his work, you’ll see the reality of deployment: the loneliness, the boredom, the worry about relationships that may or may not survive the distance and time apart, regret for missing life’s big moments, the fear of what may be just outside the camp’s gates.
A Bridge in Babylon did provide two unusual editorial challenges. First, the manuscript had to be cleared by the Pentagon, and that took longer than expected. Also, we toned down a section on sexuality that could have kept the book out of the more conservative bookstores. But the reality is, this book takes place in a war zone populated with young adults in their physical prime, and Owen doesn’t flinch. You’ll find a few bad words and perhaps a few places that will make you blush, but this is certainly no worse than what you’ll see on network television. The book portrays these honest, raw moments that convey the sense of what it’s like to be gone from the ones you love month after endless months.
Military chaplains are, by and large, conservative or evangelical. Finding a chaplain from the moderate to liberal end of the theological spectrum is tough, and it’s a challenge that the military is slowly addressing. One reason this manuscript jumped out at us was the opportunity to show the chaplain breaking from that stereotype—just as many of our books show the underrepresented progressive Christian point of view that gets drowned out by the more influential, more provocative theological right.
This is Chalice Press’ the third book on the military. Being a veteran is not all parades and public recognition; veterans experience higher suicidal rates than the general population, and there are additional mental and emotional challenges that accompany the transition to civilian life. Zachary Moon’s Coming Home: Ministry That Matters with Veterans and Military Families guides congregations through a ministry to soldiers and their families once they have returned from service. Military Moral Injury and Spiritual Care: A Resource for Religious Leaders and Professional Caregivers, edited by Nancy Ramsay and Carrie Doehring and made possible with support from the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, addresses the consequences of choices made on the battlefield and the specialized care needed to effectively serve those carrying those burdens every single day. If we’re going to say we support the troops, we need to ensure that support doesn’t end when they take off the uniform for the final time. We need to support the troops when they are our neighbors and friends.
I think Father Francis Mulcahy and Reverend Owen Chandler would have gotten along really well. They both recognize the humanity that the military tries to subdue. They recognize the pain that can accompany military life. And they both know how to speak to that pain in ways that will help both the soldier in triage and the readers in their easy chair better understand what military life is like and how we can all work together to serve those who served our country.
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Photo by Diego González on Unsplash