There isn't much for U.S. soldiers stationed in the Afghan plains to do during their free time, said the Rev. Dave Zerby, so he's expecting to field a lot of questions as an Army chaplain.
Captain Zerby, who is in the Ohio Army National Guard's 416th Engineer Group, will kiss his wife Diane, 6-year-old daughter, Amanda, and 2-year-old son, Michael goodbye Monday and head for Fort Dix, N.J. From there he will head overseas, most likely to Afghanistan, but he could not confirm his group's destination.
“If we do end up going to Afghanistan, there's not a whole lot to do besides work,” he said. “We'll spend a lot more time in conversations and discussions, and there will be more opportunities to attend Bible studies or worship.”
The 38-year-old chaplain and minister has been working as associate pastor overseeing the youth and outreach ministries of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in West Toledo, where he started in May after a five-month National Guard assignment in Panama. He had been director of Mountain Mentors, a program for troubled teens, and a police officer.
He said the primary duty of a military chaplain is to oversee the soldiers' free exercise of religion.
“I'm a Christian chaplain and I can offer the sacraments or rites - baptisms, funerals, marriages, the eucharist,” he said. He is responsible for making sure that soldiers of all faiths, whether Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or other, can observe their holy days and faith traditions, even if it means he must hire local civilian clerics to conduct services.
Challenges facing National Guard troops are somewhat different from those of active duty soldiers, he said. “They are leaving civilian employment, or some are leaving school. They and their families are usually prepared to serve a weekend a month and two weeks during the year, while active duty families are used to seeing their soldiers in uniform every day.”
Captain Zerby, a graduate of Central Catholic High School and Winebrenner Theological Seminary, said chaplains are considered to be “the commander's person to talk to soldiers when it comes to morale or morals issues.”
The 416th Engineer Group, which provides oversight for other engineering units, was told its assignment will last six months to a year, he said, but it could be extended up to two years.
Captain Zerby has been in the guard 15 years and was stationed in Germany during the 1990 Desert Storm campaign, but for many soldiers in the Toledo-based unit it will be the first time away from home and family for any length of time, he said.
“In times of separation, in times of stress, when they're away from their comfort zones, people often are searching for answers,” Captain Zerby said. But he does not believe that being sent to a battle zone makes everybody more religious.
“There's the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes,” he said. “It's a great line, but I'm not sure how much credibility there is to it. It's pretty much an individual thing, and it's almost impossible to generalize.”