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Interview with Chaplain Donna Weddle

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Does the life of an Army Chaplain in any way resemble the experiences of Jaime Richards in the Eden Thrillers?

This first exclusive Jaime's World interview may provide some insight for you, as we talk with Donna Weddle, Army Chaplain (Colonel, retired).

    Donna is a Presbyterian minister who spent many years serving the country as a military chaplain.
    One of only two women who have reached the rank of colonel as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, her final assignment before retirement was to serve as Chaplain to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Donna Weddle speaks of the chaplain ministry of presence to Presbyterian Women gathered in 2006.

What made you decide to become an Army Chaplain?  Did you prepare for the ministry with  plans to become a chaplain, or did that idea come later in your career as a pastor?

I felt called to ministry some years before I entered seminary.  While in my last half of seminary, I realized that I was called to be an Army chaplain, a position for which I believe I had been preparing while serving as an enlisted soldier, NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer), and Army wife.

What did you find most rewarding about your career?

The opportunity to help many people, and the chance to learn so much about other faith groups and other cultures throughout the world.

Could you tell us a little about one of the more memorable experiences during your career? 

One of my more memorable assignments was spending a year in Bosnia (early in that operation) as a Division Chaplain for an Infantry Division with soldiers from 11 nations.  Also, I will never forget my service as Joint Staff Chaplain for the last three years of my service, serving in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What was the most difficult thing you ever had to do?

Probably the two events I participated in which bracketed the Pentagon.  In 1981, I was the sole chaplain for the recovery operation of Air Florida Flight 90, the plane which hit the 14th Street bridge in Washington, D.C.  The Engineer and MP units which I served were heavily involved in the recovery operation, and I really knew in those ten days of working with the rescue and recovery crews that God had put me in that place, even among the death, to give hope to others.

On September 10, 2001, I had come to Pentagon City from Ft. Hood, TX to serve as President of a Chaplain Board in a building two blocks from South Parking at the Pentagon.  My committee was locked in a room on the morning of September 11th, without phones or televisions, and only found out about the World Trade Center attacks as our building was evacuated after the plane hit the Pentagon.  As we ran to the sight of the flames, I saw the calm Potomac and remembered the chaos of 1981.  I prayed quickly as I ran, “O, God.  You got me through this before, and I know you will be with me now.” I looked to the left, and ran to help in the triage areas. Soon I saw that the exact place I had happily worked while serving in the Pentagon for three years was now in flames.  It was difficult to work with survivors and family members of those lost in the next week, but it was something I know God put me there to do.
You've read Chasing Eden. Does Jaime Richards ring true to you as a chaplain?

Absolutely.  She does the things that all chaplains do, in terms of pastoral care and advice to commanders.  And she deals with some of the same difficulties with those commanders and staff who aren’t as sympathetic as others.  The “humanness” of chaplains shows in this account, something that any clergy could recognize, as opposed to the occasional memoir which never has the chaplain/clergy deal with any worries or frustrations.

You were one of the first women to be promoted to Colonel as an Army Chaplain.  Did you feel any special pressure or obligation to perform at a higher level than your peers?

No, I don’t think so.  I may have felt that way at the very beginning of my chaplaincy service, since there had been some challenges for the first women chaplains when they were a novelty.  But even early, I had tremendous Commanders and Chaplain mentors who were very supportive.   By the time I was a Division, Corps, or Joint Staff Chaplain, I felt that I had plenty of friends, both chaplain and others, who treated me the same as other chaplains, and evaluated me on my merits.  When talking with clergywomen of many faith groups, serving within their faith groups’ congregations, I seem to hear anecdotally of more prejudice there.

You have recently retired from Active Duty, what do you miss most about your time as a chaplain? What do you definitely NOT miss?

Of course I miss many of the people. But, living in the Washington, DC area, I still see many of them.  I definitely do NOT miss getting up at 5 a.m. every morning for physical training or staff meetings. 

What advice would you give to someone who thinks they might want to become a chaplain?

Be sure you absolutely feel called by God, and are supported by your faith group, for this form of ministry.  Also, be sure you understand what is most important in your own faith tradition, and are solidly grounded and comfortable in that faith tradition, whether a Protestant denomination, or a form/school of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or others. Then, ask yourself whether that understanding would allow you to provide religious support to people of all faith groups, without trying to change them to your own group’s belief.  The Oath of Office which military officers take has you swear/affirm to support the Constitution, including the free exercise of religion, and military chaplains are most responsible for supporting that clause of the First Amendment.

On a practical level, check out the websites for Army Chaplains, Navy Chaplains, and Air Force Chaplains.  They will give you information on education requirements, age limits, faith group requirements, etc.

Thank-you, Donna, for taking the time to share your story with us!

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