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Society

Military Chaplains Pivot to Serve Soldiers in Virus Outbreak

FORT BRAGG, N.C.  — Maj. Brian Minietta's eyes are locked down the barrel of a camera lens. He sways gently back and forth in silence, then his gruff voice belts out, in singsong: "A little patience … yeah, yeah!" 

He finishes the chorus — it's the 1989 Guns N' Roses hit "Patience." And he tells the Green Berets he counsels as an Army chaplain: "Yeah. Patience. That's the word we're going to talk about today."

For two years, Minietta, 46, has served the 3rd Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, though many of the soldiers have spent more time bouncing from deployments to conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria than at home. As Green Berets — the better-known moniker for the elite soldiers of the Special Forces — these operators specialize in unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense and counterinsurgency.

Now, the coronavirus outbreak has upended the norm on base and beyond. Some training and deployments continue, but many have been sidelined. Only essential workers are reporting on post, ushered through gates patrolled by military police officers wearing masks.

A chaplain's ministry — no matter the religion — has always been about in-person connections. How does that continue when the flock is forced apart? Minietta and others are figuring it out on the fly, with the help of technology, all while tensions are high for soldiers. 

"Whether that's anxiety, whether that's fear, whether it's the family dynamics that come up from being home — we have the opportunity to support," he said. "This has given us the opportunity to be innovative and creative."

Minietta's patience-themed video message is the third he's recorded since the pandemic began. He's also preached about fear and hope in video clips uploaded to his group's Facebook page. 

The Green Berets he serves are known as quiet professionals. They've done a lot, seen a lot — but they don't talk about it much. Gaining their trust takes time and effort, Minietta said. And while most chaplains don't go through the Special Forces selection process, they train, deploy and are airborne qualified, jumping out of airplanes alongside the operators they serve. Minietta, after spending years as a missionary and youth pastor, was commissioned in 2007 and has deployed seven times. 

When Capt. Scott Britton, a fellow Fort Bragg chaplain who serves the Green Berets of 3rd Group's 3rd Battalion, joined the Army in 2012, he felt he was walking among giants. But through his training and building relationships, he now feels connected to his soldiers.

"This style of ministry allows the shepherd to smell like the sheep," Britton, 42, said. "We get to experience a lot of the same things the soldiers do, and I think for a lot of chaplains that's a comfortable place to be." 

This month, Britton preached his Easter sermon alone on his back porch, while 35 soldiers training in the field listened on the phone. It was certainly a first, he said, but "we do find ways." 

Both chaplains say they're used to being out of their comfort zones. Working with soldiers whose lives are grounded in chaos and loss can be hard. 

Since 2002, the 3rd Special Forces Group has lost 60 Green Berets in action. Sixteen times, Minietta has knocked on doors alongside casualty assistance officers who are giving families the worst kind of news. 

"Every time I knock on a door, there are an unbelievable amount of nerves," he said. 

Minietta brings up those door knocks at the end of his video message. He tells the camera he couldn't have done it without patience — patience to know the worst thing is never the last thing, whether it's death, divorce and or a pandemic.

"May we remember that Axl Rose ultimately had it right," he told his video audience. "All we need is a little patience."

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