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NEWS | June 13, 2023

Spiritual Support Interoperability: Enhancing Spiritual Readiness across NATO

By U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa Public Affairs

Throughout exercise Baltic Operations 2023 (BALTOPS 23), Allied and Partner nations operated alongside more than just land, air, and sea forces – they implemented, trained, and strengthened their spiritual corps as well.

In preparation for the exercise, 14 chaplains representing eight nations met aboard the USS Mount Whitney for the Pre-Sail Chaplain Conference, focused on interoperability concepts, exercise events, logistical coordination, and shared competencies and protocols. During the actual exercise, 19 chaplains from eleven nations on eleven ships supported their own naval personnel, and participated in chaplain interoperability events.

During the two-week long exercises, the chaplains engaged Sailors in ten different events. These engagements, ranging from two hours to two or more days, introduced different national chaplains with a diverse set of religions and backgrounds, ranging from Humanism to Protestantism. During shorter visits, many simply met Sailors, expressed their appreciation, and wondered after their wellbeing. Longer visits saw in-depth conversations, religious services, and training provided on spiritual topics relating to the military, such as moral injury.

“We are doing what we can support each other as humans during this exercise, and in NATO operations, said U.S. Navy Capt. Brian Weigelt, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa / U.S. Sixth Fleet Chaplain. “This demonstration of care across national boundaries is indicative of the trust we have across the Alliance. In this sense, our ‘otherness’ is a great strength. This chaplain is not obligated to be here, but because of the concern we have for each other, they are investing this effort… It then becomes a source of encouragement to their people.”

These chaplains already serve on deployments in their respective nation’s armed services – in the most naval services, chaplains are naval officers and religious ministry professionals who focus on the spiritual readiness of their assigned crew.

“Chaplains relate to Sailors and Marines out of their pastoral identity, their vocation to care for the whole person,” said Wiegelt. “While serving as religious ministry professionals, they care for all regardless of rank or religious or non-religious beliefs, and have complete confidentiality. But they also serve as Navy officers who understand the unique challenges of life at sea and the culture of the larger organization.”

That understanding couples firmly with their vocation to reinforce spiritual readiness. Directly concerned with the individual Sailor’s or Marine’s welfare, they offer solutions and guidance that a war-minded leader may not. Concerned with the mental and emotional wellbeing of the leader, they are often a guiding force for commanders in assessing and reinforcing the overall readiness of their commands. They’re integral to unit – more so when that unit is underway, separated from civilization by miles of trackless sea. What happens when that ship has no chaplain? Who’s to fill the gap?

So, enter BALTOPS – practicing that integration, familiarizing operational commanders with those foreign chaplains, and introducing crews to new venues of spiritual guidance and personal support. The interoperability of the allied and partner spiritual forces is centered on building trust for everyone involved.

“Having a foreign chaplain trained and capable of operating with another nation's force reflects the nature of the NATO Alliance—we are working toward interoperability in all areas,” said Weigelt. “There may be scenarios where a chaplain isn't present on a ship, and there is a critical need; or something has happened that has overwhelmed the capacity of an individual chaplain. For instance, if there was a suicide on a ship at sea, the only immediate resource to provide additional crisis response may be a chaplain from a foreign navy. Or if there was a man-overboard fatality, the whole crew would be traumatized by that, and more than one chaplain might be needed to deal with the initial response. We are practicing interoperability in the Chaplain Force during BALTOPS23 so that we have developed the confidence and trust needed to be effective in that kind of a crisis response.”

As the exercise nears its end, the chaplain force will meet in Kiel, Germany, for the inaugural NATO MARCOM Spiritual Support Interoperability Conference. There they will review the events of the exercise, determine what went well and what they should focus on next year, and begin preliminary planning. Their two topics of focus will be standards of care for chaplaincy in the NATO maritime domain, and the role of chaplains in maritime combat.

“The benefits of this dialogue is that we own bring our own range of experiences in chaplaincy and various contexts,” said Wiegelt. “By thinking through these topics and engaging with other approaches, we must think more fully and deeply about our own practices, which serves to strengthen our own professionalism. As we engage at this level on how we care for Sailors and Marines, we are actually improving the quality of the care we provide. And as was mentioned earlier, there is a strong bond that develops as we work through these issues, giving us a sense of solidarity that enhances our own commitment to the work, and our Sailors and Marines benefit from that increased level of energy.”

BALTOPS 23 is the premier annual maritime-focused exercise in the Baltic Region, in which NATO Allies and Partners are the main participants. BALTOPS brings together both NATO and non-NATO countries to exercise largescale interoperability. U.S. European Command and Naval Forces Europe have promoted the traditional U.S.-led or bi-lateral exercises as opportunities for NATO to improve interoperability as a collective force, using NATO command and control systems as a foundation for the exercise design.

For over 80 years, NAVEUR-NAVAF forged strategic relationships with our Allies and Partners, leveraging a foundation of shared values to preserve security and stability.

Headquartered in Naples, Italy, NAVEUR-NAVAF operates U.S. naval forces in the U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) areas of responsibility. SIXTHFLT is permanently assigned to NAVEUR-NAVAF, and employs maritime forces through the full spectrum of joint and naval operations.

STRIKFORNATO, headquartered in Oeiras, Portugal, is Supreme Allied Commander Europe’s (SACEUR) premier, rapidly deployable and flexible, maritime power projection Headquarters, capable of planning and executing full spectrum joint maritime operations.