PETERSBURG, Va. -- Jumping out of an airplane or rappelling down a rope from a helicopter may be a sort of "leap of faith" for everyone who does it, but in Col. James White's case it's literally true. The new head chaplain at Fort Lee has spent his 26 years in the Army "doing what the soldiers do" as part of following the call to help those who wage war find inner peace.
White arrives at the local Army base at a good time to make a big impact on a lot of people's lives. With Fort Lee's expanded role in training the nation's soldiers, he noted, "one-third of the Army passes through this post. We have the ability to touch one-third of the Army with our religious support and let them at least think about their spiritual life."
The staff reporting to the command/garrison chaplain, who heads up the post's Religious Support Office (RSO), has grown with Fort Lee and currently includes 17 chaplains, 19 chaplain assistants and seven staffers, a total of 43 employees. And it has a big, bright new facility at its disposal, Liberty Chapel in Building 9100 on C Avenue.
That facility already has allowed the RSO to expand the programs and services it provides for Fort Lee's troops and their families. The new chapel includes an open-plan worship space that can be adapted to accommodate the full range of denominations and worship styles. There's also a baptistry that allows for full-immersion baptisms; previously, the chapels on post only had baptismal fonts designed for sprinkling or dipping. There's also a kitchen, a nursery and a generous number of classrooms for religious education.
Liberty Chapel is home to one of the RSO's newer programs, Chapel NeXt, a contemporary Protestant worship service held on Sunday evenings. White noted that despite being less than a year old, the family-friendly program "is already running about 100 people a week." Participants can gather for dinner and a service that features a praise band made up of soldiers and family members.
Fort Lee's oldest chapel, Heritage Chapel (Building 2607, C Avenue), provides a similar opportunity for the post's temporary advanced individual training soldiers to get involved. White said services there feature spontaneous, impromptu performances by the soldier-students themselves -- troops who, because of their short stay on post, might not normally participate much in religious support activities.
Memorial Chapel at 1901 Sisisky Blvd. includes the Family Life Center, something White considers central to the RSO's mission of helping soldiers and their families cope with the strains and pressures of armed service.
It isn't hard to see how White developed such deep empathy for soldiers and their emotional and spiritual issues.
"I was an Air Force crew chief back during Vietnam," he explained. "I got out determined to get into ministry. I felt God calling me into ministry."
After completing his seminary work and starting his ministry at what he calls "a traditional church with 16 committees," he saw something that pointed him in a different direction: a World War II-era movie called "For God and Country."
The movie told the story of the Army Chaplain Service and featured a Roman Catholic chaplain (played by an actor named Ronald Reagan) "out on the battlefield with no weapon, praying for soldiers," White recalled. "It got my attention, started moving my emotions. I woke up one day and said, 'I'm going to do that.'"
So White signed up for the chaplain service, and "as soon as I hit the ground, I knew I was in the right place."
White's Airborne and Air Assault insignia testify to the fact that he didn't choose the easiest path in the Army. Not only was he a jumpmaster for nearly 15 years with the 82nd Airborne Division, he also deployed with them during operations in Africa, Haiti and Iraq.
"I like being physical," he said. "You're with the soldiers, doing what the soldiers do -- you are a soldier."
No surprise, then, that the one thing that gives White the most satisfaction is helping his fellow soldiers when they or their loved ones are suffering.
"Our nation's at war, and less than 2 percent of this nation has a commitment to that like the soldiers, the Navy, the Marines. It's taking a toll on families," he said. "Seeing that put back together, you feel like you're fulfilling your calling in life, when you see changed lives."
That's the thinking behind the RSO's triple mission of "healing the soldier, strengthening the bond and reaching the next generation."
White said healing means "healing from the wounds of war," in this case the spiritual or emotional wounds. He noted that many of the permanent-duty personnel who provide the training at Fort Lee have served multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They're tired. There are a lot of hurting people on the permanent-party side."
Essential to healing, White added, is "strengthening bonds," or improving and building relationships.
"One of the keys to human resiliency is human relationships," which are crucial for people to "find meaning and purpose in their lives."
Through solid relationships, he said, people can learn that "life is not just about me, it's about other people, about God, it's not just for ourselves."
Having relationships with other members of a faith community in particular, White said, can help people learn that one of the things "having faith" means is "the conviction that you can get better, that you can accomplish things."
Finally, the mission of "reaching that generation that's coming through here" for training is a priority but also a challenge.
"Fifty percent of Americans are under 30," White noted. "How do we reach that generation, how do we make sure they're thinking spiritually?" In addition to the special services for AIT students at the Heritage Chapel, the RSO has a Facebook page to try to reach out to young soldiers accustomed to wireless devices and social networks.
Even Fort Lee's permanent-party personnel present some challenges. Only one-fourth of them live on post; the rest live in the surrounding communities.
As a result, White said, "one of our goals for the next year is to work with local churches to get help working with those people who live off-post. We want to partner with them because most of our folks are not on post."
And that means partnering with all faith traditions, in keeping with the Army's longstanding policy of recognizing the full gamut of religions, which White said is something to celebrate.
"The diversity of this post is just amazing, and I mean cultural, ethnic and religious," he said. "We celebrate our diversity. It's one of our strengths as a nation that we have religious diversity. We may not agree, but we strengthen each other. It doesn't have to be a contentious thing. I'm a deeply committed Christian, a Southern Baptist, but dialogue is just fantastic."