Prideful ride -- Soldier reflects on 25-year career as chaplain

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Story by Terrance Bell on 09/28/2017
FORT LEE, Va. (Sept. 28, 2017) -- Aside from those who regularly attend worship services, it can be said the average Soldier's encounter with a chaplain can be narrowed to the two-minute prayers the spiritual advisors typically perform to open military ceremonies and other functions.

Then, they seemingly disappear into the shadows of anonymity.

That is until the uniformed require prayers to help them deal with the strain of marriage problems, the loss of loved ones and a myriad of other matters of the heart that cannot be fixed with a simple "shake it off," "drive on" or tough PT session.

Chaplain (Col.) Claude A. Crisp the U. S. Army Garrison, Fort Lee, and CASCOM command chaplain has dealt with the hardship-and-healing dynamic for the past 25 years as a Soldier, minister, chapel leader and advisor, among many other roles. Pending his retirement, he said he has mixed feelings about leaving the profession that can be described as critical yet obscure.

"I have a lot of mixed emotions about leaving the active duty military," he said. "It has been the most diverse, exciting, fulfilling, meaningful career and ministry one person could ever hope for I'm not running for the door or counting the days. I just believe this is the time."

Health issues, said Crisp, are affecting his ability to carry out the mission the way he desires.

"I wanted to be that Soldier who does soldier things," he said. "My physical limitations have hindered that now."

Crisp, one of roughly 2,700 chaplains comprising the Chaplain Corps, is a Church of the Nazarene follower who was served in Alabama, Georgia, Germany, Afghanistan, Korea and other locations. The Kentucky native's mother and father were World War II veterans, and he was reared with a reverence and appreciation for those who serve.

"I've had the privilege of meeting privates and generals, everybody in between and their families," said the father of four and grandfather of six. "I've also had incredible experiences with our veterans. My father was a survivor of Pearl Harbor, and I grew up with a love for the military, especially for World War II vets. I was a teenager in the Vietnam era and knew enough about it to know our military members suffered greatly. The people are what makes this the richest job in the world. I wouldn't trade the people experiences the relationships for anything."

The chaplain counts wartime and other trying experiences as periods of enrichment for him. Take for instance the year he spent in Afghanistan in 2005-2006.

"That was an incredibly rich experience to be with Soldiers in that environment," said Crisp, who was assigned to the Joint Logistics Command, 29th Support Group, in Germany. "That was one of the highlights. The pinnacle is to be with Soldiers when they are in hardship situations and in harm's way. It's not what we live for, but what we train for, and to be in that environment in Afghanistan nothing will ever top that."

The chaplain is not saying he loves war or difficult situations but rather he sees honor in serving those entrusted with the country's freedom in their times of hardship. The time spent with a young Puerto Rican mortuary affairs team in Afghanistan underscores his feelings. These Soldiers, charged with recovering the fallen from battlefields and preparing them for transference to their families, are witnesses to the crushing brutality of warfare like few are.

"I still have fond memories of what I saw them do," he said with a measure of heartfelt pride. "Every flag draped on those transfer cases was pressed meticulously, and when they put it on the case, they carefully folded it into the corners, tucked it in and tied the 550-chord around it to hold it in place. The care they gave our fallen Soldiers when the remains were brought in the room for preparation was impressive. You know, this is all that's left. In some cases, it's a lot and some cases it's not, but they cared for everyone the same."

The mortuary affairs Soldiers were led by an E-5, said Crisp, and four or five E-3s and E-4s rounded out the team. Worried about how the experiences might affect them, Crisp said he would often visit when they were not under pressure. He said it was fun to see them let loose while playing video games and "being human." Although they were a resilient bunch, they were in fact living, breathing vessels, vulnerable to their circumstance.

"After many months, it began to wear on them, and that's when a chaplain becomes valuable being the eyes and the ears of the command," he said. "There were occasions when I would walk into the commander's office, close the door and say, Private so-and-so could really use a break' When chaplains make those kind of recommendations, commanders listen."

Of the many roles chaplains might fulfill, dealing with the loss of life may be the most difficult. Crisp found out firsthand its impact while assigned as deputy chaplain, Arlington National Cemetery, for 18 months ending in December 2002. He conducted 1,200 funerals during that time, including the "humbling privilege of burying some of our Army personnel killed in the Pentagon (as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks)," he said. Despite the staggering amount of interments, Crisp has a decidedly positive retrospect.

"I met some of the most amazing people in that year-and-a-half (at Arlington) from our World War II vets to our Korean War vets and those comprising our military families of the current wars," said Crisp. Not mentioning Vietnam vets was an oversight. Clearly the chaplain has a special respect for those who did not return with the measures of respect and gratitude enjoyed by others. That fact sank with heart-wrenching clarity at the funeral of Staff Sgt. Robert Nicholas Vennik, who was killed 46 years ago in South Vietnam. The New Jersey native's remains were not recovered until 2000.

"When asked to do his funeral, I showed up at the gravesite and there was no one there," Crisp recalled, "except for members of the Old Guard and cemetery representatives. It highlighted the fact that for Vietnam vets, especially, some people still haven't gotten over it. Our Vietnam vets have really paid their price."

Crisp said he took the advice of the Old Guard Soldiers and eulogized the Soldier "like there were a thousand people' present," he recalled. As a result of Vennik's funeral, Crisp and his wife, Janet have supported Vietnam veteran causes over the years to include participating in the Rolling Thunder motorcycle event honoring former prisoners of war and those still missing.

The memory of SSG Brian T. Craig's funeral is another Crisp cannot shake off. An explosive ordnance disposal Soldier assigned to the Texas National Guard, Craig volunteered his time teaching and guiding inmates toward Christian salvation, said Crisp. When he found out he was headed to Afghanistan, he wrapped up his life in a very responsible way.

"Instead of spending his last days here in the states partying and living the high life, he ramped up his ministry at the prison because he didn't want to leave those incarcerated folks alone," said Crisp.

Craig and three others were killed dismantling a rocket a few weeks before his scheduled return. Crisp said he met Craig's minister father and was struck by how he lived his life.

"When I heard Brian's story I was so moved by the fact his priorities were right," said Crisp.

The chaplain's demeanor of comfort while recounting some of his funeral experiences noticeably changed when he began speaking about the casualty notification duty he endured at Fort Rucker, Ala., after returning from Afghanistan. Around the time of the Iraqi troop surge of 2007, Crisp had several notifications in the Florida panhandle, an area covered by the installation.

"It is the hardest thing we have to do, and yet, it's the most honorable thing we do," he said.

Casualty notification teams include an officer of greater or equal rank to the deceased who notifies the next of kin, and a chaplain. Upon arriving at a residence, predictability was elusive but the pain was palpable as loved ones many of them unknowing and children counted among them stood before the crushing and deflating words uttered by casualty notification officers. Crisp said some would break down upon seeing the uniformed messengers, some would refuse to open the door, and some protected themselves from the truth with shotguns.

"It's a challenging thing, and I don't know if you (can) really let go of those moments," he said (he later noted he remembers the experiences but is not haunted by them). "You kind of relive them over-and-over in your mind ... We've certainly seen the anger, and we've certainly seen the sadness and the incredible, overwhelming emotion of a mother when you tell them their son has been killed in action or a wife or a child (Crisp said he has done death notifications for 7-year-olds). No two death notifications are the same."

The casualty notification duties along with all other responsibilities on the pastoral plate burdened Crisp at some point, and the living, breathing vessel he is made him vulnerable to circumstance.

"It was physical and emotional and it all just kind of added up until I found myself having a lot of sleepless nights and was experiencing physical exhaustion," he said. "My blood pressure went up, I had chest pains and on a couple of occasions (I) went to the emergency room. I didn't know what was going on. After a couple of trips, the doctor said I was physically fit but I needed to learn how to handle stress. I was slowly eroding my own resiliency."

Crisp said he did two things to alleviate his suffering: He found a prayer partner in a fellow chaplain and made notification to his boss a break was needed.

"I don't know if I took a whole lot off my plate, but it kind of helped me reorganize my priorities," said Crisp, who feared his ministry was coming to an end. "That helped me bounce back rather quickly."

In retrospect and having been witness to resiliency on the highest levels, the chaplain said everyone is susceptible to dysfunction due to stress and anxiety.

"I want people to know that no matter who you are, you can experience things you've never have before, and if you not willing to talk about it, then you have no options," he said, noting he has not hidden his struggle. "If you are willing to talk about it, it's amazing how you can bounce back."

Crisp having experienced so much humanity as a pastor, advisor, counselor and confidante has concluded the longest, darkest days can see light through sober thought and deliberation.

"A calm approach to every problem allows you to think through it, and find solutions," he said. "And taking it to another level, from my perspective, if you can reach deep and find faith you can apply in the circumstance, then you have an added measure of strength you normally wouldn't have."

Yes, said the chaplain, military members need faith, given the potential for hardship and struggle.

"The Bible tells stories of great people who went through very hard times," said Crisp, "and their faith, while it didn't protect them from hard times necessarily, it gave them the foundation in which to prepare their responses to hardship. I believe this is where faith has its greatest value to the individual, especially to the Soldier."

Crisp and Janet will retire to the Asheville, N.C., area, where he said he has plans to volunteer at the Veterans Affairs hospital there and continue to serve Soldiers and veterans.

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