Fort Campbell keeping up with chapel need

To keep up with demand, a new chapel is under construction at Fort Campbell, Ky. It’s scheduled for completion in February. Enlarge photo

U.S. Army/Associated Press

To keep up with demand, a new chapel is under construction at Fort Campbell, Ky. It’s scheduled for completion in February.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. –A new chapel is taking shape at the U.S. Army’s Fort Campbell to accommodate a wide range of religious congregations that is outgrowing the existing chapels built in the World War II and Korean War eras.

There are more than 20 different religious services held at the installation on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line that draw between 2,000 and 2,500 people weekly.

The post’s seven chapels are getting too small for the needs of the soldiers and their families, said Chaplain (Col.) Roger Heath, the installation chaplain at Fort Campbell.

“None of our buildings will hold more than 300 people,” he said. “Three of them are World War II-era wooden chapels that only hold about 100 on a good day.”

Heath said the new chapel complex under construction will hold a maximum of 1,200 people and include space for religious education, child care, a kitchen and other meeting spaces.

The $8.4 million, 32,900-square-foot complex is scheduled to be completed by February as long as weather doesn’t delay construction.

It’s the first chapel to be built at Fort Campbell since the 1980s, and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the demand for religious services for the approximately 30,000 soldiers and their families there.

Fort Campbell is the Army’s fourth-largest installation in the continental U.S. and home to the 101st Airborne Division.

Heath said more soldiers are married with children than in previous generations, so having a chapel with space for children was important to attracting more families to worship on the installation.

“Families tend to stay here, so we have a higher use by family and spouses and kids on this installation than we ever had before,” he said.

The chapels can be used by any denomination and are frequently used for religious education classes, youth groups, prayer groups and Bible studies, as well as nonreligious briefings for soldiers and families before and after deployments.

The added space will also allow them to hold large memorial ceremonies, funerals and other special events for units as large as battalions.

Heath said they are currently determining what services will move to the new chapel, such as teen and young adult groups that often incorporate music, videos and other technical elements.

The Army chaplain corps has grown steadily throughout the two wars to about 2,900 chaplains in active duty, reserves and National Guard. Fort Campbell has 81 chaplains from 34 different denominations.

The religious services available at Fort Campbell range from Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Pentecostal, Lutheran and even Pagan services. When the military doesn’t have a chaplain available for a particular religious service, they use designated faith group leaders, who are volunteers.

But Heath noted that chaplains of all faiths work across denominational lines to serve soldiers and their families in their times of need.

“The denomination is not important,” he said. “It’s whether you are committed to the military person and to God.”

Most of Fort Campbell’s chaplains serve in the brigade combat teams that have seen multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 and Heath said it was not unusual for chaplains to have been deployed two or three times.

A chaplain’s own combat experience makes soldiers feel comfortable talking to them confidentially about their struggles throughout a deployment, Heath said. Chaplains also run the Army’s Strong Bonds program, a popular weekend marriage retreat for soldiers and their spouses.

As the Army seeks to reduce its rising suicide rate, chaplains address post-traumatic stress both during a deployment and immediately after. Heath said chaplains start by meeting troops on the airfield as soon as they get off the plane and continue to follow-up with counseling months after they return.

This will be a key issue this year at Fort Campbell, where thousands of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division have returned from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.

“We recognize that people come back with invisible wounds and so you try to help them realize that it is not unusual to feel the way you feel,” he said of the returning soldiers. “It’s normal to be weird for a little while.”