A new symbol for America’s military chaplains

Views of proposed insignias. Image via Arnold Resnicoff Today’s chaplains wear one of four separate insignias: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or … Continued

Views of proposed insignias. Image via Arnold Resnicoff

Today’s chaplains wear one of four separate insignias: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist. Now that Pratima Dharm is the Army’s first Hindu chaplain, we need to create a fifth. But the time has come to do more: to create a new approach to the insignias that all chaplains wear.

In both religion and the military, symbols carry powerful messages. For generations our armed forces chaplains, spiritual leaders in military uniforms, have themselves served as symbols: symbols of faith during times of chaos; of hope during times of despair; and of dreams during times of nightmares. Chaplains have symbolized for countless men and women in uniform that even in war we do not leave our dreams behind; that even during the worst of times we must continue to believe that better times–even the best of times–are yet to come

With a fifth chaplain insignia (and more in the future, given the religious diversity of our nation) our military personnel will always recognize the cross on a chaplain’s uniform-but will find it harder to remember and recognize insignias worn by other chaplains. During hard times the insignia has been a silent reminder that a chaplain is present. A “ministry of presence” begins with an awareness of presence, and we must recapture the power of the chaplain’s symbol to broadcast the message that he or she is present, part of the team.

Additionally, today’s insignias symbolize the diversity of our religious faiths-but not the unity of our chaplains. No individual chaplain insignia links it to any other.

In the militaries of other nations, separate symbols are often enough, because in many other militaries chaplains only serve members of their own faiths. But in our military, chaplains do more: they minister to those of their own faith, to be sure – but they also “care for all.”

Our chaplains support men and women of all religions and those who claim no religion. Our nation understands this historic role of the chaplain. For generations, parents have reminded children going off to war that if they needed help – any help – they should “go see the chaplain.”

The time has come to rethink the insignias our chaplains wear. Chaplains can still wear the religious symbol that links them to their faith communities – but that symbol can be part of a larger insignia, instantly recognizable as that of a chaplain, and symbolizing both the unity and diversity that has been the hallmark of the American chaplaincy since the founding of our nation.

The Wikipedia article “Religious symbolism in the United States military” traces the history of our chaplains’ insignia – and notes that from 1880-1888, the first uniform insignia for U.S. chaplains was not the cross, but the shepherd’s crook. That staff, symbolic of the caring role all chaplains share-and the history of our chaplaincy, is still part of the Army’s Chaplain Corps regimental insignia.

A new approach to insignia could create a device for chaplains that would combine their religious symbol and the shepherd’s crook. That insignia would link our chaplains to their faith communities and to the historic military roots of the chaplaincy as a whole. Both of those symbols could be displayed on the face of an open book that symbolized both the wisdom (and the Word) of our faith traditions-as well as the founding documents of our nation and our military that have created the vision for our Army, Navy, and Air Force Chaplain Corps.

In 1980, then-Chief of Navy Chaplains Ross Trower successfully recommended a change to the Jewish Chaplain insignia to the Navy Uniform Board, urging that the Roman numerals in the tablets of the Ten Commandments be changed to Hebrew letters. In his recommendation, Trower stated that the old device had been “worn with pride by all previous and present Jewish chaplains.” He wrote, however, that the new symbol would be “a source of still greater pride” because it would reflect a “more significant and authentic representation” of the Jewish heritage.

Our present chaplain insignias have been worn with pride by all previous and present chaplains–of all faiths. But I firmly believe that the new insignia would be a source of even greater pride, as a “significant and authentic representation” of the dual challenge accepted by all U.S. military chaplains: the challenge to represent both unity and diversity, as they “minister to their own,” while at the same time they care for all.

Rabbi Resnicoff is a retired Navy Chaplain.

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