Army Col. Carleton Birch was in his first year as a chaplain and on a 30-day field exercise in Hohenfels, Germany, when his supervisor pulled up to him in a Jeep and unloaded several boxes at his feet.
“You have some Jewish soldiers in your unit; here are their names. Go find them and give them these Seder kits,” he was told.
Birch, a Baptist minister, didn’t know anything about Seder, the Jewish ritual feast that marks the beginning of Passover. But as a military chaplain responsible for providing religious support for all troops regardless of their faith, he set out that frigid February night on a search for the soldiers. He found one of them asleep in the back of a vehicle.
“I woke him up and said, ‘Here’s your Seder kit for Passover.’ His eyes got real big, and tears rolled down his face as he thanked me for thinking of him. I already knew it, but he reaffirmed for me that faith is a critical component of most soldiers’ lives. We shouldn’t neglect that,” Birch said.
The Defense Logistics Agency helps chaplains meet service members’ spiritual needs by supplying over 500 religious items. Birch oversees the mission, which is handled by the Clothing and Textiles and the Subsistence supply lines at DLA Troop Support in Philadelphia.
Though Bibles were issued to troops as far back as the Civil War, DLA has been providing other religious items only since the mid-1990s. Troop Support C&T provides items ranging from communion wine to rosaries and Hanukkah candles.
Made Just for the Military
Chaplain’s kits are a hallmark of DLA’s religious supply program, Birch said. Designed for use in field or combat environments without a nearby church, synagogue or mosque, the kits contain basic supplies and come in Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Eastern Orthodox varieties. Standard Christian and Eastern Orthodox kits include chalice assemblies, holy water and crosses, for example. Muslim kits have compasses and prayer rugs, and Jewish kits contain Kiddush cup assemblies and Torah scrolls.
“In the Army, you get this kit when you graduate from chaplain school. Receiving it is sort of a rite of passage into the Chaplain Corps,” Birch said.
Most chaplains personalize their kits. Birch added to his things like a cassette player, battery-powered speakers and music on laminated cards. Though the kit he received over 25 years ago was heavier than today’s version, he still uses parts of it.
“Chaplains are usually dressed like all the other soldiers, so it’s hard to tell us apart when we perform services. In a combat zone, we use a stole that’s included in our chaplain’s kit to distinguish us as clergy,” he said. “The last time I used mine was a few years ago in the mountains of Turkey, overlooking the Syrian border, with U.S. soldiers at Christmas.”
The chaplain’s logistics support package is another religious supply made specifically for the military. It resembles a plastic cube and can be configured into a desk or altar and even has enough storage space to transport chaplains’ supplies during deployment.
The field immersion baptismal liner was also designed for military chaplains who need to perform baptisms in the field. The liner is placed in a hole in the ground, lined with sandbags to hold it in place, then filled with water.
Christmas is the busiest religious holiday for many Americans, but at DLA Troop Support the period between Ash Wednesday and Passover is the most hectic as customer account specialists closely track customer orders for simultaneous observances. The frantic season begins with orders for ashes for Ash Wednesday and continues with palms for Palm Sunday, followed by Seder kits, kosher meals and sacramental wine for Passover.
Orders for palm fronds start trickling in as early as September, and by February Chris Gaudio from Clothing and Textiles’ Religious Supply Items Team starts to manually process them. He closely watches delivery from the time the palms leave the vendor’s facility until they’re in customers’ hands to ensure they arrive fresh.
“It’s live vegetation, so there are transportation and shipping challenges. You can’t have the palms dry out because they’ve been sitting in a warehouse or truck. They have to be kept at a regulated temperature,” he said.
Tracking of overseas shipments is critical to ensure palms are sent to the proper consolidation point, where packages are loaded on military aircraft because Department of Defense policy prohibits the shipment of live vegetation via commercial flights. The process eliminates potential hangups with customs officials who closely scrutinize plant imports and exports. And to prevent ashes or palms, typically shipped in small boxes or envelopes, from getting misplaced amid hundreds of packages flowing in and out of consolidation points, DLA requires the vendor to boldly mark the items.
Seder kits go through a similar process. They contain everything needed to observe the first two nights of Passover, with food items like matzo and bitter herbs, as well as ceremonial items such as an ornate plate and grape-juice box. When digital tracking information indicates Seder kits or palms have been delivered, customer account specialists reach out to chaplains to personally verify it.
“Being delivered doesn’t actually mean the chaplain has those items in his chapel, only that it’s reached the destination on the address label. Sometimes the package has been received by a unit supply sergeant who doesn’t have any idea where to direct items like Seder kits, and there’s no interaction between that supply sergeant and the chaplain. We get the communication going,” said Paul Diak, a supervisory customer relationship specialist for C&T.
At the same time, rations experts are orchestrating the production and delivery of kosher for Passover military field rations known as meals, ready to eat for Jewish troops refraining from foods such as rice, legumes and baked goods made with leavening agent, like bread and cake. Service members observing Passover receive two cases of Passover MREs, enough for three meals a day for the eight-day observance.
Like traditional MREs, the meals come in a flexible pouch and contain an entrée and side items equal to about 1,200 calories. Though kosher MREs are available year-round, the kosher for Passover version requires manufacturers to go through a labor-intensive process of shutting down machinery so it can be cleaned according to Jewish law. Each step is observed by a rabbi who certifies meals as being kosher.
DLA also provides halal MREs, which are certified by an imam. And Birch has visited the facilities where kosher and halal MREs are produced to ensure workers are adhering to strict guidelines outlined in the contract.
“It’s amazing to see the halal meals being packaged by church ladies who take great pride in ensuring both the quantity and quality of the production are maintained regardless of their faith. They get it; they know how important it is for our service members to be able to celebrate religious holidays no matter where they’re stationed,” he said.
Birch and his team are working with the chief of chaplains for each military service to refine DLA’s religious supply program. The goal is to eliminate items that’ve had no demand since the program was created 20 years ago and increase the variety of religious items provided for smaller or lesser-known faith groups. The environment of worship is ever-changing, he said, and the challenge for DLA is providing items that may only be needed by a handful of customers.
“We’re going out and asking customers what exactly it is they need so we can be responsive to those needs. DLA has a tremendous capacity for providing supplies, but it’s another thing to find out what the warfighter actually has a need for,” Birch said.
Service chaplain chiefs have requested that DLA create a more encompassing one-stop-shop for religious supplies so chaplains and religious affairs specialists don’t have to hunt for things they’re unfamiliar with on the economy.
“To meet the need for those ‘onesie and twosie’ items, chaplains have been forced to go out there on the marketplace and fend for themselves. And in most cases, they don’t even know where to get these things,” Birch said. “Where do you find a Buddhist wheel or some of the Muslim supplies when it’s not your faith tradition?”
DLA Troop Support and DLA Logistics Operations officials are exploring the possibility of an open marketplace pilot program in FedMall, the online ordering system customers use to buy DLA-managed goods. The concept would allow commercial vendors to sell items without having a contract with the agency, similar to the way office supplies are sold.
“We’d continue to offer supplies as we do now, and make this an additional source for our customers. It would require us to make sure the goods being sold aren’t degrading to other faith groups, but it would enable chaplains and their enlisted assistants to find the stuff they need on a government platform. In my view, that’s critical to enabling the free exercise of religion for our warfighters,” he continued.
DLA has already made ordering easier for chaplains with the recent introduction of the chaplain’s corridor on FedMall. FedMall is better for chaplains and religious affairs personnel than the previous ordering system, EMall, because it can be accessed by anyone with a government-issued Common Access Card. That’s critical, since chaplains aren’t familiar with military ordering systems traditionally used by supply specialists.
“Our customers aren’t supply people, so we’ve had to take into account that they probably don’t have access to some of the systems a supply officer would. That means they’re not aware of the tracking tools we offer,” Birch said, adding that a benefit of FedMall is the availability of tracking numbers for vendor-direct shipments.
And since many of the items offered today have remained unchanged since DLA created the religious supply program, DLA Troop Support officials are also working with the chaplain chiefs of each military service to determine whether products like chaplain’s kits need an update. Potential changes include a change in the size and material used in crosses, Diak said.
“Small changes like this could potentially bring the cost down. Another thing we’re talking about is the possibility of a pick-and-choose option so chaplains can decide what they want to include in their kits,” he added.
While the purchase of religious supplies is minimal compared with things like repair parts and fuel, it’s still important to chaplains like Army Lt. Col. Michael Crawford. He serves with the Black Sea Area Support Team, providing religious support to troops in Romania and Bulgaria. Seeing items like communion sets and vestments worn by priests, Crawford said, reminds service members of how they practiced their faith before joining the military.
“These things connect them with home and connect them with faith, which for many is what builds resilience and enables them to continue forward with the mission,” he said.
Birch agrees. “Like the Seder kit I provided for that Jewish soldier in Germany, these small items show service members that their command cares about them. And that can have a positive influence about their morale and attitude toward the military.”