Forty years after the U.S. military commissioned its first female chaplain (Rev. Dianna Pohlman Bell by the Navy in July 1973), each of the five women chaplains have a shared experience as the “first” in her own right. The diverse group includes the medical center’s first female rabbi and the military’s first Hindu chaplain, who is also one of two female Army chaplains, who work alongside two Navy chaplains.
“Just last week I was in the commissary in Little Creek, Va., and a lady at the [checkout] told me I was the first female chaplain she has ever seen,” explained Navy Chaplain (Lt.) Valerie Eichelberger, who was ordained as a minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1995.
The command chaplain for Naval Support Activity Bethesda ministers to outpatient wounded warriors and their families who live in Tranquility Hall at Walter Reed Bethesda. Eichelberger’s “Daily Words of Inspiration” appear in the medical center’s postmaster e-mails.
With 20 years as a military chaplain, Army Chaplain (Maj.) Denise Hagler said her assignment at WRNMMC is the first time she’s ever worked with so many female chaplains.
“We can support one another,” Hagler said. The camaraderie and special bond the Reformed Church of America minister shared with her female counterparts showed recently, when the five assembled together for a photograph.
The veteran of three deployments to Iraq said people are still surprised to meet a female chaplain. “Mostly retirees,” Hagler said, and explained their curiosity draws them to her. “Overall, they realize that you’re just as good,” she said.
Special requests for female chaplains are not uncommon to Hagler or her colleagues, especially in matters involving personal crisis. “And not just women but men too, of all ethnicities,” explained Navy Chaplain (Lt.) Kimberly Cain, an elder in the Church of God In Christ ordained since 1995.
Cain said, “It has been my personal experience, being requested as a female chaplain, when a service member has experienced a significant trauma or some type of assault or battery, their immediate need is for comfort care and safety. If you think about it, mothers are usually the first to offer care and comfort. In my experience, it has nothing to do with personal theology - it’s about comfort.”
She added it’s not uncommon to be the only female chaplain on an assignment. “At my first assignment, Mt. Fuji, Japan, there were only six females on that base, including me. I was the only chaplain.”
Army Chaplain (Capt.) Pratima Dharm, the military’s first Hindu chaplain, called her assignment as the only female chaplain of the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., “very lonely.” She said she faced her most dangerous mission as a military chaplain when she deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2008.
Dharm traveled in Black Hawk helicopters and armored vehicles on battlefield circulation. “Being shot at while trying to provide ministry to my Soldiers and the locals was the toughest part of my job,” she explained. She said her daily challenge is to be accepted as a good chaplain, “not simply a female chaplain.”
Working with four other female chaplains at WRNMMC was nothing new for Rabbi Risa Weinstein, a civilian hospital chaplain who serves as the medical center’s first female rabbi. The mother of a 4-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter worked alongside six female chaplains as she trained to become a hospital chaplain.
“It was helpful to watch the other women as they balanced their lives as students, wives and mothers, along with their chaplaincy work - I learned from watching them,” Weinstein said. The female rabbi explained parents request her to serve as a role model for their daughters. “I think they want [their children] to see a female with a strong connection to their religion and faith in a position of leadership.”
Two months after Rev. Pohlman Bell became the U.S. military’s and Navy’s first female chaplain in July 1973, the Air Force commissioned its first female chaplain on Sept. 27, 1973, Rev. Lorraine K. Potter. She eventually rose to serve as chief of chaplains nearly 30 years later, and retired as a major general. On July 8, 1974, the Army commissioned its first woman chaplain, Rev. Alice M. Henderson. Navy chaplains serve the Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Lt. j.g. Christine Miller became the first female chaplain assigned to the Marine Corps in 1976.
Even though Pohlman Bell is credited as the first female chaplain commissioned in the U.S. military, the retired Presbyterian minister said every individual female chaplain is a pioneer in her own way. “Every woman chaplain is going to be the first woman chaplain that somebody sees, and somebody works with, and so it’s not all over yet, it’s still a new, new thing,” she said.
The services reported their most recent statistics for overall active duty chaplains and numbers of female chaplains for March 2013. According to the Navy Chief of Chaplains Office, more than 800 active duty chaplains serve in the Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard; 60 of those active duty chaplains are female.
The Army Chaplain Corps counts a total of 1,700 active duty chaplains, with 68 of those female. The Air Force Chief of Chaplains Office counted 472 total active duty chaplains in their branch, 27 of those female.
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