Oklahoma National Guard looking to fill combat chaplain shortage

Sunday, August 22nd 2004, 11:00 am

By: News On 6

EDMOND, Okla. (AP) _ The Oklahoma Army National Guard is looking for a few good men _ of God.

With about 7,500 personnel across the state, the Oklahoma Army National Guard has only nine chaplains. Paul Fritts, chaplain for the Guard's 345th Corps Support Battalion, said there is an urgent need for chaplains.

Fritts, 38, was deployed to Kuwait last year during Operation Iraqi Freedom. As camp chaplain for the entire transportation battalion headquarters and logistics camp of Camp Victory Kuwait, he was able to meet people among the 12,000 soldiers there he would never have been able to otherwise serve as a clergyman.

``It was just a huge opportunity to minister,'' Fritts said. ``And it's been greatly rewarding _ it's been very satisfying to me.''

Now back in Edmond, Fritts is organizing a drive to recruit chaplains for the Guard. Chaplains, who minister to troops in the field, can be ministers, priests, imams, or rabbis, said Fritts. Students who are enrolled in a seminary full-time can also qualify and have 100 percent of their tuition paid by the U.S. Army, he said.

Split training allows pastors to serve their churches and fulfill their chaplain duty for the U.S. Army. And chaplains enter the service as a commissioned officer.

Chaplains must be 40 years old or younger and be able to pass a favorable national security check. They must be physically fit.

``When I joined I was already an ordained minister but I was overweight, so I lost some weight,'' said Fritts, who became a chaplain in 1999.

National Guard soldiers share the same problems and concerns of everyday people, Fritts said, except their concerns can be compounded by war.

Although they're assigned assistants for their protection, chaplains are also at risk.

While Chaplain Brad Hanna was deployed in Afghanistan, enemies fired at him, car bombs exploded outside his camp and rockets landed within 100 meters of him.

``They're coming whether you want them to or not,'' said Hanna, an Edmond pastor who was deployed for 10 months with the 45th Infantry Brigade.

While dangerous, Hanna said the experience was rewarding because he was able to share his faith with a lot of people who would otherwise never attend church. Soldiers would seek encouragement from chaplains and share a variety of concerns.

``People like you because ... they know you're coming not to bark out an order but just to give them a handshake,'' said Hanna, 32. ``Sometimes you give them a hug. And nobody else is doing that. They're just dictating the next mission.''

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