|December 16th, 2006|
Tools For A War Zone: The Bible And A Teddy Bear info
December 16, 2006
By Samuel G. Freedman
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — In the evening, after she led a workshop on combat stress, after she talked some paratroopers through the anxiety of their final training jumps, the Rev. Shareen Fischer drove home a few miles off this sprawling Army base and tended to her own soul.
She serves as both a captain and a chaplain in the 782nd Brigade Support Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division, and next month she is to deploy with her 470 soldiers to Afghanistan. On an oddly balmy December night recently, she had arrangements to make.
She had learned the routines back in 2003, when she was sent with her fresh ordination papers into the Sunni Triangle of Iraq. Appliances would have to be unplugged, the car locked in the garage, the neighbors given a spare set of keys. Of all the material things that Captain Fischer had accumulated by age 35, she had already selected the three that could fit in her rucksack: a Bible, a book of psalms and a teddy bear.
As she had in Iraq, she would use the Bible to lead services. She read the psalms as a personal devotion, a habit she had acquired while learning Hebrew in seminary. As for the teddy bear, it ensured that for all the hugs Captain Fischer expected to dispense to her soldiers in the months to come, there would be at least the sensation of someone who could hug her back.
“There’s so much going on militarily as you get ready” was how Captain Fischer put it. “Not enough time, not enough days. So I like to have my quiet time. When David said, ‘I look to the hills’ and ‘My strength comes from the Lord,’ he was alone in the desert. And I have to remember where my strength comes from. Because if I am not strong, how can I be a strong leader for my paratroopers?”
She is, by many measures, an unlikely one, as well. Of 1,362 chaplains on active duty in the Army, only 52 are women, according to military statistics. And of these, Captain Fischer must be the only one known even in her formal duties by the candy-floss nickname she got as the sole, cherished daughter in her family. She is, as they say here, Chaplain Pinkie.
The soldiers come to her because they are drinking too much or fighting with a spouse or falling into debt or just plain feeling homesick and scared. They come to her, at least some, because confiding in a woman feels safer, less weak, than confessing to a man.
“We wouldn’t know she’s a chaplain if it wasn’t for the cross on her uniform,” said Capt. Douglas Ralph, the commander of Echo Company in the 782nd. “She is the most down-to-earth person I’ve ever met. She doesn’t make you feel like you’re being scrutinized by God. She makes you feel God is there to help you.”
Captain Fischer began her journey to Fort Bragg, Iraq and Afghanistan as the daughter of a church deacon and choir singer in Brooklyn. Devout as young Pinkie was, however, her career interests ran elsewhere. From the time she built models of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyscrapers out of cardboard grocery cartons, she aspired to be an architect.
She was, in fact, on the verge of earning a degree in architectural engineering from Oklahoma State University in 1995, she said, when she impulsively switched to a Bible college. She decided to become a missionary teacher in the Philippines, and sold off most of her furniture in anticipation of leaving. But when she prayed for divine assurance, she felt only unease, and she remembered something her pastor had taught: “God leads you by peace, not by urgency.”
After a wayward year as a saleswoman, she recalled, “My spirit finally heard.” What it heard, she said, was instruction to become a military chaplain, a singularly odd course for a young woman who barely knew what a chaplain was. When Ms. Fischer called home with the news, she said, her mother fainted.
The military existence, though, suited Ms. Fischer immediately. “For the first time in my life,” she recalled, “neither the color of my skin nor my gender mattered. Being able to fire a weapon proficiently and get my battle buddy out of trouble if necessary was top priority.”
While Ms. Fischer enlisted in the National Guard in 1997, she did not receive a chaplain’s appointment until she had earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, as well as ordination in the Pentecostal movement. Thus equipped, she went with her engineering battalion to Iraq for a yearlong tour of duty.
There she had to use all facets of herself. She led worship services for Christian soldiers and helped arrange them for guardsmen of other faiths. She made sure Jews and Muslims received kosher and halal Meals Ready to Eat. She taught lessons on Bible passages that were set in Mesopotamia. After her unit was attacked, she conducted the required stress debriefing for the victims. And sometimes she simply held the men and women who were crying.
“It’s all based on experience,” she said of being a battlefield chaplain. “You cannot learn that in books. You cannot practice dealing with the emotional trauma.”
Soon after returning to the United States, she put in the paperwork to move from the National Guard into the active-duty Army. The approval took her to Fort Bragg, the 782nd, and, now, the impending deployment to Afghanistan.
Lately she had been surveying her soldiers to determine their religious backgrounds and so meet their needs. She has found Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, Protestants of myriad stripes, Eastern Orthodox adherents and even a few Wiccans. If there are atheists now, then Captain Fischer said she tended to believe the old line about how there were none in the foxhole.
“Sometimes praying is the last thing soldiers think of, like a good-luck charm,” she said. “But I don’t want it to be. I want it to be central in their life. Because prayer is a means of communication. It’s something private and personal. It’s a way to be more balanced. And that’s my message when a soldier comes to me struggling.”