Imagine caring for the minds and souls of 2,500 soldiers and their families. How about 12,000? Better yet, how about 42,000? Or 98,000? Chaplain Timothy Mallard doesn’t have to imagine. This has been the U.S. Army Colonel’s role in his 30 years of active-duty military service.
Mallard currently serves on the faculty of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. The school specifically needed a chaplain with a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics—which Mallard earned from the University of Wales in Cardiff (in addition to two seminary degrees)—so his mandatory retirement date was extended beyond 30 years so that he could fill the position.
With the milestone, members of the Mallard family have ministered to soldiers for more than six decades. Mallard’s father served for 30 years as an Army chaplain. Though Timothy never felt pressure from his father to follow in his footsteps, when God called him to the ministry he answered. And while growing up in a military home provided some understanding of the Army lifestyle, Mallard notes that his experience is not the norm for enlistees—particularly those with little or no religious upbringing.
“Many soldiers enter the service with no faith background or tradition,” Mallard said. “The spiritual and moral demands on a soldier present a challenge for all of us.”
America under attack
The spiritual and moral demands became very real to Mallard on September 11, 2001. Despite being miles away, he heard American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. He had stayed home that day to care for a sick child, but immediately rushed to the Pentagon, knowing that America was under attack and that he would be needed.
Mallard and a physician were assigned to a FEMA team from Tennessee. The two were with making that section of the Pentagon safe to allow for the recovery of victims. The doctor determined if a victim located was alive. Mallard’s role was to say a blessing over the victim.
“I remember being utterly stunned at how fragile the human body is … the suffering,” Mallard recalled. “I felt so inadequate. Nothing in my theological training had prepared me for that.”
One morning as Mallard arrived in the chaplain tent, a member of the FEMA team found him and said he was needed immediately. The team told him they wouldn’t go back into the building until he spoke to them and gave them a word of hope. The grief and trauma of the task overwhelmed them, and morale was low.
Mallard pulled his military issue New Testament and Psalms from his uniform, turned to Psalm 23, and began reading. As he came to verse 4, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …” he looked over to the gash the airplane had cut into the wall of the Pentagon and began crying.
“Maybe that gave others permission to start crying as well,” Mallard reflected. “Then I realized that I had to finish the remainder of the Psalm. One man said, ‘Okay, now we’re ready to go.’ And they did.”
After the team left, Mallard returned to the chaplain tent where he found a dark corner and wept with a “deep sense of despair and utter abandonment by God”—questioning his ability to minister, lead, and care for others.
A fellow chaplain, unknown to Mallard, appeared at that moment and laid a hand upon his shoulder, offering up a prayer of encouragement and strength. He remembers the smile and the uniform, the lifting of the burden, and the sense of resolve in fulfilling his care for the rescuers.
The many days and weeks spent at the crash site prepared him to mentor young chaplains as they prepare for their service.
“I never anticipated the cost to my service, and it took a toll on my spirit, my soul, and my family. There is nothing in seminary that prepares you for that. You have to learn to integrate suffering into your person and then how you minister to others.”
The suffering component of ministry is particularly critical for military chaplains. Suicide and suicidal ideation—especially among junior enlistees—is an area of concern across all branches of the military. Mallard notes that military leadership across the board spends enormous amounts of time and money on training and resources to mitigate the risk of suicide.
“These young soldiers come from backgrounds that often lack moral formation, language, and thought,” he said. “They lack the ability to face problems with a solid foundation of ethics. They are far more at risk when they enter this complex organization that makes many demands of them. They are unprepared to deal with this stress.”
A significant part of that stress involves deploying to combat zones—which for military chaplains is what distinguishes the role from that of civilian clergy. Mallard has completed multiple deployments, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
From September 11 to COVID-19
Nearly 20 years after 9/11, Mallard was supervising chaplains and a staff of more than 340 people in 104 countries in Europe and Africa when COVID-19 hit in 2020. Ministering to soldiers and their families required working within the differing local and national restrictions and requirements. Due to the dedication and creativity of the chaplains and religious affairs specialists, they were able to pivot from direct ministry to fully virtual within two weeks.
“We had to ensure that our ministry would not be a potential venue for infection, so the advisory role was vital to maintaining safety as we adapted to the pandemic,” he said.
Mallard emphasized that EPC chaplains view their ministries as an extension of the church—one that will strengthen the church as well. But it will require an intentional effort to help bridge a growing divide between the military and the nation it serves.
“We have a tremendously capable force with lots of experience and expertise, but there is a cost to this,” he explained. “This cost is not known to the average American.”
He believes that this sense of separateness presents both a challenge and an opportunity to the church. When a service member leaves the military, they leave a community that understands firsthand the mission and the lifestyle. Soldiers deploy—and redeploy—over and over. They deal with complex and ambiguous issues that civilians typically do not face. Reintegrating into civilian life can be challenging for the veteran, as well as his or her family.
“Our churches should move beyond the ‘thank you for your service’ and intentionally develop ministry programs that attend to the needs of uniformed active duty, guard, reserve, veterans, and their families,” Mallard said. “What is your church doing to reach out to them? Are you drawing upon their expertise and experience?”
Mallard noted that experience gained in military service—both technically and tactically—also comes with a sense of professionalism. A veteran’s deep-seated sense of commitment carries over into his or her life, job, and church participation.
“This commitment means that they are always contributing to the life of our churches and to our denominations,” he said. “Churches should be in the vanguard in wanting to support these members, to help them with their issues that can be lifelong—long after they take off the uniform.”
Mallard is one of more than 70 EPC chaplains serving in a variety of military and civilian roles. For more information about EPC chaplaincy ministries, see www.epc.org/chaplaincy.
The PBS documentary on Mallard’s 9/11 experience, “Heroes of 9/11,” from the series “We’ll Meet Again” is available at www.pbs.org/video/heroes-of-911-emp4nw.
by Kelli Lambert Gilbreath