The Rev. Greg Moser keeps a stack of books on jihad in Asia next to a copy of the Bible in his office. He stores a ‘‘battle book’’ in a drawer at United in Faith Lutheran Church in northwest Chicago. And when Moser is not tending to his flock, the fit pastor with the buzz cut is learning to decode signs of mental stress on the battlefield.
Far from the role of Father John Mulcahy, the wisecracking chaplain portrayed on the television series ‘‘M*A*S*H,’’ chaplains sent to support troops in Iraq and Afghanistan today are increasingly being tapped to deal with the darker side of combat, including recognizing the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and potential suicide while they help train soldiers to mentally transition in and out of battle.
‘‘We don’t just veg out and say prayers all day,’’ said Moser, 43, who enlisted to become a military chaplain eight years ago, long after he was ordained.
Chaplains have always been on war fronts to cater to soldiers’ spiritual needs. Most soldiers never need a battlefield pastor beyond church services and an occasional sympathetic ear. But as the military tackles a rising suicide rate and increased instances of PTSD, it has turned to chaplains to help stem combat-related stress disorders.
To get ready for a stint in Afghanistan this fall, where Moser and five other chaplains will support the largest overseas deployment of Illinois National Guardsmen since World War II, the pastor was assigned to take military classes with names like ‘‘combat operations and stress control’’ and ‘‘combat medical ministry.’’
He learned about cues — quick anger, hyper-vigilance, changes in eating habits — that might signal a soldier could be in mental distress. And he learned how to teach soldiers to mentally prep for war and then to leave the battlefield behind when it’s time to come home.
‘‘In the old days, it’s what one old chaplain would have passed to another old chaplain,’’ said Col. Daniel Krumrei, who served overseas in 1991 during the first Gulf War and now heads Illinois’ Army chaplaincy.
‘‘Nowadays a lot of it is more formalized, comes out of the behavioral sciences,’’ he added. ‘‘The young guys are better trained than I was.’’
The military’s suicide rate, which lingers just under 20 per 100,000, according to reports in Army as well as mainstream publications, is still below that of a similar demographic in the general population. The Department of Defense estimates that up to 20 percent of soldiers return with combat stress disorders — a number disputed by some soldiers and chaplains as too high.
But a slight upswing in suicides — an increase of fewer than a dozen a year, according to some reports — as well as the realization that as many as one in five soldiers may have to cope with PTSD has forced the military to take the situation seriously. In 2004, it dispatched a team of behavioral scientists and psychologists to Iraq and Afghanistan to identify combat stresses specific to these wars and find ways to combat them. The result: a concept called ‘‘battlemind readiness’’ designed to ease anxiety by teaching soldiers what to expect.
The military charged chaplains with the job of teaching the concept to soldiers.
‘‘Chaplains are such an integral part of morale and quality of life issues, it was an easy fit,’’ said 2nd Lt. Col. Justin Antweiler, 34, a chaplain-in-training who oversees the Guard’s re-integration program in Illinois.
‘‘We’re not teaching them to fight. We’re teaching them to cope.’’
To do that, chaplains use stark and sometimes startling pictures from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The curriculum covers such topics as what you may smell (such as burnt flesh and hair) and what you may think (I’m wasting my life, for example).
Battlemind teaching materials also offer some grim statistics: 94 percent of deployed soldiers, for instance, reported that they knew someone who had been killed or seriously wounded. On the other hand, almost 20 percent of soldiers reported having saved the life of a soldier or civilian. The point is to prepare soldiers for what to expect.
‘‘Hats off to the Army for saying, ‘let’s find out how folks are doing,’ ” said Maj. Todd Yosick, who headed the battlemind office in Washington for three years and helped design the program.
The biggest issues facing soldiers still involve family relations and employment or schooling, and not the residual effects of combat stress, according to Chaplain John Morris, a pastor with the Minnesota National Guard. He developed a program to help soldiers re-integrate into American life.
‘‘It’s culture shock,’’ Morris said. ‘‘Over there, hey, you were a war hero. Here, people think you’ve wasted a year of your life. Your family learned to row the boat without you. School is boring, and you’re on campus with people who might be the same age but aren’t the same maturity level. This is the stuff that will make you crazy.’’
Some soldiers find it tougher than others to leave their battlefield experiences behind. The first challenge for chaplains is to help reduce that number by acclimating soldiers to conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan before they touch ground since follow-up research suggests soldiers who receive such training fare better when their tours end, Yosick said.
Then the challenge is to identify the returning soldiers who might be having trouble — not an easy task in a military culture that lauds bravado and looks down on weakness, chaplains said. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the scars of battle manifest differently in everyone. Many returning soldiers have trouble driving on suburban streets without jumping at the sound of a car backfiring or seeing a box on the side of the road, some chaplains said.
Sometimes a distressed soldier’s buddies will alert a chaplain to a problem in time to avert tragedy. That was the case a while back when a soldier’s buddy told Antweiler he thought his friend might be suicidal, for instance, and the chaplain-in-training was able to help the man deal with a lost sense of purpose outside of the war zone.
Other endings aren’t so happy.
Near the books in Moser’s office in Chicago is a photo of him presiding over the funeral of a soldier who took his own life. He keeps it there, surrounded by other pictures and books on Holy Scripture. But he prefers to dwell on the positive. It’s what drove him to his hybrid life’s calling, part pastor, part soldier.
‘‘I love being a chaplain,’’ Moser said. ‘‘I love taking care of soldiers and their families.’’