Fr. Arek Ochalek is a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, currently serving as the United States Chaplain recruiter for the Army. A native of Poland, he has two brothers and one sister. He has been a priest for twenty years, 11 of those years in the U.S. Army. Arek was ordained a priest for the Discalced Carmelites before entering the military. Currently a Major, he is the only priest serving as a chaplain recruiter in the United States. He also serves as senior chaplain at Fort Meade in Maryland, while traveling all over the country where he recruits Catholic priests into the military chaplaincy. Fr. Arek humorously describes himself as a “gypsy for Jesus.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your position as a military chaplain?
Let me go first to the beginning of my adventure with the U.S. Army. It goes back to 2003 when I was a young, happy Carmelite friar working for the Vatican at Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center in the Holy Land. I was asked at that time to work with some of the American troops coming to our place from Mt. Sinai. After a while, their chaplain asked me, “They like you. Would you like to become an Army chaplain?” At the time, the idea seemed kind of crazy, but I said, “You know, I will try.” I was moved by the hunger for Jesus among the troops. In 2004, I came to Baltimore and exchanged my habit for an Army uniform, and my sandals for Army boots.
As a priest, I traveled to many parts of the world: London, Italy, Spain, etc. So I didn’t have any issues when it came to switching from Polish to American culture, except for the language. The biggest change for me was switching from a Carmelite to a diocesan priest lifestyle. That took some time and energy. But now, after 11 years in the Army, 14 of which include my time in Baltimore, I feel at home. I’m very grateful for the formation and the contemplative nature of the discalced Carmelites which has helped me as a chaplain. I left Carmel because there was a bigger need for me in the Army. The hunger for Jesus displayed by the soldiers moved my soul, and I knew that was where I needed to be – bringing Jesus to God’s people in the military.
What does a typical day look like as a chaplain?
Working as a Catholic priest in the garrison setting, we begin in the morning with our units. We participate in PT (physical training) with them. Then we have breakfast, take a shower, and go to the office. We meet with the soldiers and check on how they are doing. There may be briefings or meetings, then at noon I go to the garrison chapel for Mass, hear confessions, then go back to work. When I work in my unit, my job is less overtly religious but still consistently relationship-oriented and pastoral. And I always wear my cross, introducing myself as a chaplain. Right now, there are 86 priests serving as active duty chaplains among roughly 1,300 chaplains of other faiths. As you can see, a Catholic priest is in high demand in the Army where the needs are so great.
What is the relationship like with other non-Catholic chaplains?
As chaplains, we never work alone. There is always a group of us. We are team players. Working in battalion or brigade settings, there are other battalions and there is often a rabbi or Protestant chaplain. If a solider comes to me with a need from his Protestant perspective, I can always ask another chaplain to help. If I cannot perform, I can provide. It’s the same for a Protestant chaplain when he has a Catholic soldier who needs help. He can reach out to me. We’re team players and learn to work with each other, even if we don’t always agree theologically. We respect different traditions, and if you make it all about Jesus, there is consensus in the end. We take care of everybody regardless of religious background. Our job is to make sure that the troops are okay. Again, if I cannot perform, I provide.
As a military officer, do you carry a gun?
As chaplains, we have non-combatants status, and we do not carry guns. We are very strict about it. However, because of the wisdom of the Army, we have a Religious Affairs Specialist and they are part of Unit Ministry Team. They protect us.
What is it like to be deployed?
From the chaplain’s perspective, when we deploy, we immediately become gypsies for Jesus. For the priest, it’s the best time ever because we are with our people 24-7. We share meals with them. We share tents with them. It’s like living in a parish 24-7. When you are a chaplain, you are with the people. So, if they stink, you stink. If they are hungry, you are hungry, “you just smell like your sheep.” Pope Francis remarked a few years ago that, if you are a shepherd at heart, “you must smell like you are of the sheep.”
We fly from place to place. You might spend one week on one base but always travel from place to place to cover the entire country. Wherever you go, you meet with the people, you prepare for Mass, hear their confessions, maybe have a meal with them, then fly out to another location. When I was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, especially around the holidays, there were very few priests around. We were constantly traveling. We fly on military helicopters called black hawks and chinooks. We have the very best pilots and aviators whom work tirelessly to maintain these flying chariots so that we can safely traverse the battlefield.
Do you ever experience trauma as a chaplain?
That’s part of the job description. We deploy quite often. As I mentioned, there are only 86 priests on active duty. If there is need for our assistance, we offer it. So yes, we witness some tragic stuff here and there. But we are well protected, too. We have a God that covers us with his care and nourishes us as we go about nourishing others. We don’t want anyone to be in danger, but the reality is that a soldier’s job is dangerous. As much as possible, we try to take the light of Jesus amidst the darkest of places.
What is it like when the soldiers deploy, leaving their families?
We prepare for it. They know that deployment is coming. We have Family Readiness Groups (FRG) and many other resources. Right now, the deployments are shorter than they used to be. They used to be 13-15 months. They might be a little more often now, but last only 6-9 months, which makes it easier. Once the soldiers return, there is a period where they can decompress. They have plenty of resources. We tell them, “When you return, don’t change everything immediately. Your spouse was in charge so let them be in charge. Give time to your kids individually. And once the soldier is deployed, there is also a chaplain who stays behind to help the family if needed. Again, team players.
Before I joined the Army, I used to believe that all soldiers are Rambos and untouchable. After some years, I learned that they are human beings like the rest of us. They have struggles. They have extra stress, and their families go through extra stress having to move from place to place. They are tough, and they are trained to be tough, but they are humans like the rest of us.
Do you think that the military takes good care of families?
Absolutely. It is a well-structured organization… and not just the Army… but all branches of the military. We organize retreats for them. We call them Strong Bones. They aren’t always faith-based, but it’s about respecting each other, about communicating, building connections and relationships.
How do you deal with a deployed Solider who has a spouse who says, “I want a divorce” or some other serious situation, and they can’t get home?
The military has many resources and some chaplains go to a special school to become Family Life Chaplains. So, if a situation is too complicated for me to solve, I refer them to the Family Life Chaplain. It’s basically counseling and therapy. Every Army post has the counselors to help the soldiers and their families.
How are special days like Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrated during deployment?
We work with the commanders asking them to slow down for a short period of time. They still must do their job but at a slower pace. They have time to call their families. Sometimes the commander will serve a meal to show servant leadership. Everything slows down for a short time then goes back to high up tempo. Sometimes families will send a Christmas tree so the whole unit will get together and sit around the fireplace and maybe smoke a cigar and talk about each other’s families. No one should feel alone at that time.
What is the situation like when a soldier dies?
The whole unit feels it especially during the deployment because you become a family. You see the same people almost 24-7. When there is a loss, it’s like losing a sister or brother. So we get together, have a Memorial Service, and we send the body home on a special flight. We salute them, say our goodbyes and grieve as a community, as a unit. It takes time to heal. Some of them take it harder than others. It’s not an easy time for anybody. The Army will always give you tools to work with. And when we go to chaplaincy school, we are trained to be a grief counselor, to help people to go through the bereavement process.
You mentioned resources, do you promote particular techniques for healing and grieving?
First of all, the soldiers know I am there for them. I am their brother. I’m not a spiritual guru, but I know their pain and am able to empathize with their feelings. You get training, and they don’t grieve differently than anyone else. That’s why I like to simplify. And if they are Catholic or Christians, you can say, “Hey, it’s all about Jesus. He’s there with you crying, weeping. Don’t forget Him.” Without Jesus, it’s difficult to manage.
How do you think non-Christians cope with the difficult challenges in the military?
When we work with them and they don’t have a religious background, we just work with the humanity. Just a very basic human level. There is something common in all of us and you can connect through that. It would make me happy if they were Christian, if they had that extra step, but I cannot make a decision like that for them. That is their personal choice. I am not allowed to proselytize. As a chaplain, I have the mandate to serve soldiers no matter what they believe, in order that they may freely exercise their Constitutional – and if I may add, God-given – right, to believe as they wish. As Jesus taught us, we are to love others.
Does wearing camouflage raise any stereotype against the military?
Wherever I go there is a lot of respect for the uniform and service. Americans are very patriotic. It’s very moving, very touching.
Are there specific values that the Army seems to promote?
The Army has a few things that are very simple but important. One of these is the Army values. It’s explained in the acronym LDRSHIP which means loyalty, duty, respect, selfless-service, honor, integrity and personal courage. And when you think about it, they are very Christian values.
Is there continuity between active service and retirement/veterans?
Very often, retirees like to stay at the base because they have access to all the facilities like the VA hospital, the commissary, and shops. And the chapels very often become the center of life. So, you have Mass, you have your priest who is leading the community. As we serve side by side, they become quickly connected with us. Our retirees become lectors, extraordinary ministers in the liturgy. When they transfer from place to place, there’s still a connection. And chaplains know how to connect people to people.
What kinds of items are always needed by the troops that civilians can help them with?
From the physical perspective, they have what they need, but please just don’t forget them. They are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. There are many organizations that donate items to them from sending candy to socks to any number of items. They like basic stuff – toiletries, powder, a little tree. Something like that. Just give them respect. Twenty percent of the Army population is Catholic and most of the senior staff is Catholic. It’s a very Catholic-Christian culture in general. They are good people, willing to sacrifice their lives, and in doing so creates a lot of camaraderie.
If you would want the people to remember one thing about the troops, what would it be?
They are people like the rest of us. They have their problems; they have their crosses to bear. Just remind them that they are loved. They are part of the community. And when those Catholic soldiers put away the uniform and retire, they come back to the parishes. Work with them. You will never have a better-trained person than a prior-serving soldier. And you will never have a better pastor than a retired chaplain. They have served with thousands of troops. Just love and respect them.