Career Profile: Chaplain Assistants

Military Chaplains Travel Afghan Battlefield Ministering To Troops
John Moore / Staff

Chaplains have been around as long as the need for spiritual guidance in the military (so in other words, forever.) But today's military also provides enlisted personnel with a military occupational specialty (MOS) dedicated solely to supporting these spiritual leaders, rather than forcing them to scavenge help from other personnel. The Navy refers to them as religious program specialists (RPs) while the Army and Air Force call them simply chaplain assistants, designated MOS 56M or Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) 5R, respectively.

(As with medical professionals, the Marine Corps receives religious services from the Navy side, so they have no similar MOS.)

But what do these enlisted assistants do? The US Army Chaplain Center and School paints a nice broad stroke on their website, stating that "the Unit Ministry Team (at least one chaplain and one chaplain assistant) provides or performs religious services and counseling and ensures the free exercise of religion for every . . . soldier and his or her family members wherever those soldiers or family members may be."

They're not ordained in any particular religion, and so don't actually provide the same pastoral care as their chaplains. Instead, chaplain assistants must provide a full spectrum of administrative support to their unit's religious program, including generating and filing paperwork, auditing budgets, and even helping the chaplain conduct religious ceremonies (for any religion or denomination necessary.)

Chaplain assistants are also, simply put, armed bodyguards. See, chaplains are in a pretty tough spot: In addition to facing faith-based proscriptions against violence, they are bound by laws of war as non-combatants, unable to even carry a weapon for self-defense. Thus as the Navy's recruiting website simply puts it, "Religious Program Specialists are trained as combatants, and one of their essential duties is to protect Chaplains."

Military Requirements

Chaplain assistant is essentially the same job no matter which service you join, so requirements between each branch vary only on minute points. The common thread running through all three services' requirements is willingness to set aside personal beliefs and dedicate yourself to providing services to all servicemembers in need of spiritual assistance, regardless of faith.

What about other military standards: In the name of tolerance and free exercise of religion, are chaplain assistants able to dress or groom differently based on their beliefs? If you answered "no," thank you for paying attention. Sure, the Army's made an exception or two, like allowing a fully-bearded Jewish chaplain, or permitting a few bearded Sikhs to join -- but standards by and large remain just that. Plus, enlisted personnel are not chaplains: They're administrative and combat support to chaplains, with no particular attention paid to their own faith in the execution of their duties. So if your faith requires exceptions to military grooming standards or other regulations, you'll still need to do some research and ask yourself, "Is My Religion Compatible with a Military Career?"

On to more minute differences in each branch's requirements:

  • In the Army, recruits need to score a 90 in clerical skills on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), and GoArmy.com suggests applicants possess an "interest in organization and keeping accurate records, preference for clergy office work, [be] experienced operating typewriters, computers and other office machines, [and have the] ability to organize and plan."
  • Navy RPs, according to US Military Guide Rod Powers, must take the ASVAB and achieve a 105 from their combined scores on verbal expression and mathematics knowledge.
  • The Air Force requires ASVAB scores of 43 in general aptitude (a combination of arithmetic reasoning and verbal expression) or simply an administrative (verbal expression) score of 40. Their Enlisted Classification Manual also adds that recruits may have "[n]o record of conviction for any major offenses or sexual-, larceny-, theft-, or assault-related serious offenses . . . [and] [n]o history of emotional instability, personality disorder, or other unresolved mental health problems."

    Education

    It goes without saying that all chaplain assistants and RPs first attend boot camp for their chosen branch of service.

    Afterward, Army 56Ms are trained at the Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Fort Jackson is also home to the Navy Chaplaincy School and Center, which receives new Navy RPs. Air Force 5Rs attend training at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. All three courses can be completed in under two months.

    Certifications

    You might be surprised to find quite a few professional certifications recommended for chaplain assistants, but this just proves the diverse nature of their duties:

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