Guatemala was the site of U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) 2017 Annual Chaplain Symposium, held August 1st to 3rd, where the topic of “The Impact of Faith in the Armed Forces” was addressed. For three days the spiritual leaders interacted during workshops, forums, and talks that allowed them to study the importance of religion for each service member. This event offered the military chaplains, assistant chaplains, and other clergy information, language, global perspective, and views on religion’s essential role in the militaries of North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean.
Colonel Oscar Jacobo de León, the chief of Chaplain Services for the Guatemalan Army and one of the hosts, welcomed each of the representatives from partner nations, reaffirming to them that one of the most important missions of the Army High Command is the welfare of its service members and that spiritual support is part of that welfare. “If a soldier is searching for God, he will be more productive in his work and in his service, and will improve his family relationships, friendships, and society at large,” Col. De León stated, indicating that 56 percent of service members in the Guatemalan Army are Catholic and 44 percent are evangelical Christians. “Those of us in chaplain services must work on the soldier’s soul so that it reflects his peace and his love on the outside. Those unseen actions, faith, and a clear conscience are what we need to be working on, and our work is precisely that,” he added.
U.S. Air Force Colonel Greg Woodbury, Jr., the SOUTHCOM chaplain and co-host, indicated that the symposium was being held in order to forge relationships with other leaders and, above all, to emphasize that spirituality is an important part of life. He said the intent was to look for solutions to service members’ personal problems. “We believe that God created us, and we need to have a relationship with him. We’re here to discuss ways of helping people, not only within the military but also sharing that help with all those around us,” he stated.
Talks and lectures
Various topics were covered on the first day of talks. Among them was “Faith Works,” given by Major General Dondi Costin, the chief of chaplains for the U.S. Air Force, and by the chaplain’s assistant, U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Dale McGavran.
They were followed by retired Guatemalan Army General José Luis Barrientos Paau, who spoke about how to bring God and faith into military culture. In 1996, Gen. Barrientos gave his thesis on the importance of chaplain services, and he shared how to help service members get this type of support. During his talk, he noted how service members experience certain difficulties in their lives, such as prolonged separation from their families, the death of their fellow privates, injuries, and even how to resist temptation during their military service.
“We need to incorporate God into the armed forces and spiritual strength within military culture. Times are changing but human beings are still the same. That’s why faith must be reaffirmed, not only among the institutions of the army but also throughout society,” Gen. Barrientos said.
During the event, the topic of suicide and how to prevent it was covered. According to the clergy, this is a topic that their service members frequently present. They also sought solutions and the correct mechanism for chaplains to provide support as facilitators, caregivers, and advisors to service members.
Monsignor Adalberto Martínez Flores, the bishop of the Paraguayan Armed Forces and National Police, expressed his gratitude to SOUTHCOM for having been able to talk about faith and strengthen religious convictions in the region, above all, in countries like Paraguay, where 85 percent of residents profess the Catholic faith and where the population is relatively young. “Most men and women in uniform come in without any sense of faith in their lives, and it is through the work of chaplains that we have been able to create conviction with God and with our service members,” he said.
Colombian military Bishop Fabio Suescún Mutis, who participated in the event for the fourth time, said that these exchanges of ideas enrich every one of the religious leaders present. “We’ve overcome 50 years of armed conflict, and these have been very difficult situations for our personnel. This requires help, solidarity and, above all, support through the presence of God to keep families from falling apart,” Suescún said. “Giving everything for your country while continuing to have peace in your soul is very hard if you lack spiritual support. That’s what we’re here for, to share our experiences with the rest of our neighboring countries.”
A symbolic act was made during the closing ceremony in which the Guatemalan hosts passed the baton to Jamaica, which will host the leaders again in order to continue God’s mission in the armed forces.