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Life as an Army Chaplain

Tanya Bindernagel is the first female Adventist chaplain on active duty for the United States Army. She is currently deployed in Afghanistan.


RD: What is your current assignment in Afghanistan and how long is your deployment?

TB: I am the Battalion Chaplain for the 129th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion (CSSB) “Drive the Wedge” out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I am currently deployed forward in support of Operation Enduring Freedom at Camp Leatherneck, in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Our battalion’s mission is to conduct logistical support in the southwestern region. The 129th CSSB is currently comprised of companies in different stages of the deployment cycle. These companies conduct escort missions, heavy equipment transport (military version of the semi-truck), and supply accountability and distribution. Our deployment is for 365 days– from October 2010 until October 2011.

RD: What attracted you to military chaplaincy? What do you actually do in your role as chaplain?

TB: I was originally interested in youth and student ministries during my undergraduate time at Indiana University and somewhere during my studies I started to consider going to seminary for youth ministry so I could do it full time. At the beginning of my senior year of college, I had a co-worker enlist in the Marine Corps. I had considered the military at one point as something that might be fun to do but had set it aside as not something I would actually do. But the more I talked to my co-worker as she prepared to go to basic training, the more interested I became. Before I knew it, I was in an Army recruiter’s office (I could never get the Marine Corps to call me back). I explained my interest in the military and my interest in ministry. The recruiter, who was a Baptist lay-pastor, suggested I consider becoming a chaplain. I didn’t even know what a chaplain was but it sounded good and I agreed. The recruiter then pointed out I would have to go to seminary first, but that I could enlist as a chaplain assistant to get the military experience started and to get a feel for what being a chaplain might be like while I worked on the seminary requirement. I agreed and enlisted. I completed basic training and advanced individual training (AIT) for chaplain assistants. In 2002, I submitted my packet to become a chaplain candidate but before the packet was approved, I was deployed with a reserve unit to Germany in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During that time, even as a chaplain assistant, I learned more about what a chaplain actually did and realized I really enjoyed it. By the time I returned to the US, I was convinced that I wanted to be a chaplain. In 2006, after graduating from the seminary at Andrews University, I became a chaplain in the reserve. And in 2009, after leaping over what felt like an endless line of hurdles, I finally became the first Seventh-day Adventist female chaplain on active duty assigned to the 129th CSSB, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell.

I am attracted to military chaplaincy because it allows me to minister in a way that is completely “outside the box.” It is incarnational ministry at its best! I am integrated into the Army as a soldier and as a special staff officer with the purpose of providing religious support and spiritual fitness opportunities in a variety of settings to a variety of ranks and positions. Most of my job involves simply being a “ministry of presence,” going where my soldiers are and doing what my soldiers do, and in that bringing God into their experience, not by force but by gentle example. It’s exactly what Jesus did – spent time with people where they were at, subtly planting and nurturing seeds until they were ready to come to him on their own terms. Much of my time is spent visiting with soldiers at work sites, motor pools, ranges, and other training and/or combat locations such as convoys, where I simply hang out with them. I also spend a lot of time counseling soldiers on a variety of issues including spiritual mentorship, relationships, work stress, battle fatigue, and post-traumatic stress. I provide chapel services, conduct Bible studies, pray over and ride on convoys, teach classes on a variety of topics, and serve as an advisor to my commander on counseling trends and spiritual fitness needs within the battalion. I also assist in traumatic events, conduct critical incident stress debriefs, and help with memorial ceremonies.

RD: What is your living arrangement at Camp Leatherneck? What is it like to live in such cramped quarters amidst such diversity?

TB: We live in what are called “relocatable buildings,” although I’m not sure how relocateable they really are because they are anchored to solid concrete foundations. Either way, it is a place of luxury compared to the tents they replaced. I share a room with five other females. There’s enough room for each of us to have our own bunk, the bottom for sleeping and the top for storing our belongings. Up until recently we had some rooms with twelve soldiers in them so I really can’t complain. My roommates include our supply officer, our supply sergeant, a support operations warrant (technical) officer, a support operations sergeant, and an information technology sergeant (computers, etc.). We all get along for the most part, although I have noticed that over the past few weeks more and more barriers have been erected to faciliate increased privacy and “alone time”.

There are all kinds of people with me from all parts of the United States, Puerto Rico, and even Nepal and China! We also work closely with Marines, airmen, British, Danish, and other armed forces, as well as with contracted civilians from all over the world. I love the diversity, although it does have its challenges and its abundance of conflicting personalities. After five months, true personalities have started to emerge and tempers have started to flare. Even so, we have become like a family, clinging to each other as we ride the ups and downs of deployment and combat; I know there isn’t anything we wouldn’t do for each other, especially in a time of crisis.

RD: You and your battalion see some painful things from day to day. How have you processed your experiences, and how have you been able to support the men and women to whom you minister?

TB: Everybody develops a coping mechanism. For some folks, its spending hours each day in the gym. For others, its movies or video games. And to some extent, we have all engaged in what they call “emotional detachment” in order to survive the long separation from family and the trials that come with working in a combat environment. I wrote it in my blog but I saw the following written in the hat of a Marine I sat next to one day as I was waiting to get my hair cut: “Stay hard and cry”. That is exactly how I have processed my experiences. I have remained tough and strong. But at the same time I have cried. In other words, I know what this job involves. I know the hard realities and the fine, fragile line we walk between life and death. But I also maintain a transparent, empathic spirit that allows me to provide genuine comfort and encouragement during times of intense pain. I am always reminded that we are in this together over here, and that we will also get through it together. When I lost two of my soldiers in an IED blast several months ago, it hurt and I cried. I was not immune to the pain of the tragedy. And in that I was able to minister to everyone else who was hurting. I support my soldiers by being a presence, walking with them through the trials in hope of triumph. It is never forced, but in the trauma and pain I provide a listening ear, quiet words, a gentle prayer, a friendly touch, spiritual wisdom, or whatever else may be helpful and appropriate.

RD: What is your impression of the Afghan civilians? What are some of the good experiences and interactions you’ve had with them?

TB: I have had minimal contact with Afghan civilians. On the road we are not permitted to stop and interact with civilians. The only interaction has been with the drivers of our host nation trucks and our interpreters, and even that has been minimal, especially since I am female.

RD: What’s it like to counsel macho men? How do they relate to you and vice versa?

TB: Counseling macho men is no different than counseling anyone else. A soldier is a soldier and a soldier is still a person regardless of gender or personality. There have been some instances where I have had to “prove” myself. Although the Army is co-ed, it is still largely male, even in the logistics units. Not long ago, I was on a convoy where I was the only female out of 35 soldiers. I have learned that it really all comes down to building relationships. I visit my soldiers and treat them all with respect. I attempt to understand and meet their needs. And as I get to know them and they get to know me, they are able to relate to me with relative ease regardless of gender.

RD: What has been the most difficult aspect of your work in Afghanistan so far? What has been the most rewarding?

TB: The most difficult thing I’ve had to do so far here in Afghanistan is escort the bodies of two of my soldiers on to a C-130 after they were killed by a command-wire improvised explosive device (CWIED). I will never forget the morning I got up at 2:30am to pray over the departing convoy. I will never forget the news that came across our convoy tracker ten hours later reporting the IED blast that cut the lives of two of my soldiers tragically short. I will never forget the trip to the mortuary affairs office where I was to escort the soldiers’ command team in to pay final respects. And I will never forget the dignified transfer ceremony where we proudly and sadly escorted the remains of both soldiers onto the airplane. In a broader sense, the most difficult aspect of my work in Afghanistan so far has been dealing with so much tragedy. Yes, the blessings flow in abundance, but that does not mean complete immunity from pain and suffering.

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing soldiers come up out of a dark place and into the light. For some this is a spiritual thing, starting without knowledge or with an incorrect knowledge of God and ending with a dynamic relationship with him that revolutionizes their life and purpose. For others this is a relationship thing, starting in a place of conflict with a spouse or child or friend and ending with a relationship repaired and solidified in a way that is enduring. For still others this is starting in a place where the things of life and war have left traumatic scars and ending in a place where the things of life and war expose an opportunity for growth and for a chance to make a positive difference in the world. I love my job. I love my soldiers. And I love the way I am able to help and serve, hopefully and prayerfully making my unit and the Army a better place to be.

RD: What is it like to be away from your family?

TB: The worst part of the deployment is the separation from family. There are moments where the separation is absolutely heartbreaking. A year is a long time, especially for my children– a four and a two year old– and although the days go by fast for me as I stay busy, the thoughts of all I am missing back home intrude and leave a sadness that is not easily ignored. It is an important sacrifice, but a sacrifice all the same.

RD: Some people who read this interview will have strong positions either for or against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is there anything you’d like to say to those people?

TB: I always like to highlight that my particular job has very little to do with my views for or against the war. I don’t always agree with decisions that are made from the top but that doesn’t affect my job. My job is to provide religious support to the soldiers who, for whatever reason or conviction, have made the decision to serve their country in this capacity. My job is also to provide spiritual fitness opportunities so that when soldiers are placed in situations where they have to make those tough decisions (to pull or not to pull the trigger), they can make those decisions in good judgment and conscience. We are one of the few militaries to recognize the importance of the spiritual element in the context of war and the value of having spiritual fitness along with the physical and mental. This has more to do with the individual soldier and less to do with the actual war.

But my comments wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t at least note how the story most people receive in the States is not the whole story of what really happens. The news is full of stories about all the things that have not worked and about all the service members who have lost their lives, but the news rarely shows the often little and seemingly insignificant things that are being done to help the people of Afghanistan. I was in Afghanistan as a civilian in 1996 and now I am here as a soldier in 2011. I have seen both sides of the fence and know that even the worst help we can provide is better than nothing. It’s not without flaws, and war is war, but it isn’t as hopeless and as terrible as a lot of people think. It is a very hard war to fight because the enemy is sneaky and willing to sacrifice in ways we are not. But once again, it is not my job or even the job of my soldiers to pass judgment on whether or not the war should exist, but rather to serve God, each other and our country to the best of our ability.


Official Army Biographical Excerpt

Chaplain Tanya K. Bindernagel was born on March 1, 1979 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota and was raised in Cupertino, California. In November of 2000, Chaplain Bindernagel enlisted in the US Army Reserve as a Chaplain Assistant and was attached to the Eighth US Army Reserve (CONUS) detachment in Indianapolis, Indiana. She served there until she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Telecommunications from Indiana University, Bloomington in May of 2001.

In summer 2002, Chaplain Bindernagel began seminary studies. She was interrupted several months later with a deployment as a Chaplain Assistant to Germany with the Reserve component of the 21st Theater Support Command in support of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. Upon redeployment, Chaplain Bindernagel transitioned into the Chaplain Candidate program where she would remain until the completion of a Master of Divinity degree in 2006 from the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Chaplain Bindernagel reentered the US Army Reserve as a Chaplain in May 2006, serving with the 384th MP BN, Ft. Wayne, Indiana and the 766th Transportation Battalion, South Bend, Indiana. In 2007, Chaplain Bindernagel became the first Seventh-day Adventist female to receive ecclesiastical endorsement for active duty Army Chaplaincy through Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries and in February 2009 entered into active duty as a Chaplain. She is currently serving as the Battalion Chaplain for the 129th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion based out of Ft. Campbell, Kentucky deployed forward to Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, 2010-2011.

Her military education includes Basic Combat Training, Advanced Individual Training for 56M, and the Chaplain Officer Basic Leadership Course.

Her awards include: Army Overseas Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Armed Forces Reserve Ribbon with mobilization, Global War on Terror Service Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Army Reserve Component Achievement Medal, Volunteer Service Medal, Army Achievement Medal w/Oak Leaf, and Army Commendation Medal.

CH Bindernagel is married to Jonathan Bindernagel and has two children, Michael Isaac (4) and Macrina Angelyna (2). She enjoys backpacking, traveling, running, and spending time with her family.

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