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Orlando Sentinel

Chaplains Provide Comfort To Troops

By Roger Roy

February 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

Fort Stewart, GA. -- When the 1,200 soldiers of the Florida National Guard’s 2nd and 3rd Battalions find themselves in need of spiritual guidance, or maybe just a friendly face to talk to about their problems, they’ll turn to two chaplains from Central Florida.

While the chaplains share a common mission, their backgrounds and routes to where they are now were as different as those of the soldiers themselves.

Capt. Tony Clark, chaplain for the 2nd Battalion headquartered in Orlando, grew up in Jacksonville, and lives in Longwood. Pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Apopka, he’s been the battalion’s chaplain for 2 1/2 years and already knew most of the 600 or so men in the unit before they were called to active duty in December.

Capt. Luis Lopez, chaplain for the 3rd Battalion based in the Panhandle, grew up in Puerto Rico and lives in Orlando. A minister at First United Methodist Church in downtown Orlando and chaplain for Florida Hospital, he was only assigned to the 3rd Battalion on Dec. 26, when the unit was called to active duty. He’s been busy getting to know the soldiers in the battalion while they train at Fort Stewart.

But the men also have much in common, including more than a decade with the military. Clark joined the Army Reserve in the mid-1980s, and Lopez first joined the Guard while in Puerto Rico 12 years ago.

And they share a common desire to establish a bond in which the soldiers see them not as officers or superiors, but as someone they can turn to for help, spiritual or otherwise, as they deal with the fear, boredom and loneliness of an extended deployment overseas.

"It’s important to build a relationship and a trust, so that if they have a problem or a family situation, they’ll come to you for help," Clark said.

"Sometimes the only thing our soldiers need is somebody who can sit down and cry with them," Lopez said.

And while they’ll be there to help the soldiers, they’ll also be facing the same discomforts and challenges as the soldiers themselves, and missing their own families just as badly, especially their children.

Clark has a 10-year-old daughter, Rebecca, and an 8-year-old son, Patrick, whose first reaction when they learned their dad would be gone for a year was, "Dad’s going to miss his own birthday," Clark said.

Lopez has an 11-year-old son, Arturo, who’s spent enough time around when his dad was in uniform that son, like father, salutes the soldiers.

"It will be hard not seeing my family for so long," Lopez said. "But that's something that we all have to face together."

In the end, the only real difference between chaplain and soldier is the chaplains, who otherwise have the same training as the troops, carry no weapons.

That in itself is a blessing in the infantry, where the soldiers must carry huge packs loaded with all their gear.

"That’s the great thing about not having a weapon," Clark said. "It’s one less thing you have to carry."

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