When someone enlists in the U.S. military, they’re sacrificing a lot, including holding off on getting married, starting a family and, above all else, knowing they may have to give the ultimate sacrifice. All of that can weigh on a person: Physically, mentally, and spiritually.
As we continue with our Veterans Voices series, we focus on not one but three men who have the responsibility of counseling and ministering to our brave men and women, helping them become the healthiest and most well-balanced members of the armed forces they can be.
At first glance, you’d say David Johnson’s uniform looks like any other military uniform — unless you took a closer look. The familiar symbol of a cross indicates David Johnson is the State Chaplain for the North Dakota National Guard. All told, his military career spans 31 years. Johnson said ministry is in his blood.
“As a kid, my parents were missionaries, so I grew up in the country of Cameroon for the first little bit of my life and then we came back to the states and I went to college and the seminary in the Twin Cities,” Chaplain (Col.) David Johnson said.
Staff Sergeant Chad Franson, the Religious Affairs NCO for the 141 Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, has had 19 years of military service. He explained that his role is different from a state chaplain.
“Our mission is a little more focal towards deployment type aspect, where I would serve another chaplain and we would go to a field environment and provide services in a wartime situation,” Ssgt. Franson said.
Before joining the military, Franson was in the IT industry, but like Chaplain Johnson, he, too, has the ministry gene. “My grandfather was a minister. Every Sunday, we’d go to church. I was very active within our community,” Franson recalled.
While he didn’t have any prior military experience, Monsignor Chad Gion, of the Diocese of Bismarck, has been serving as a chaplain for the North Dakota National Guard for 10 years. Chaplain Gion first approached Chaplain Johnson and was eventually permitted to take on the role of a chaplain by Bishop David Kagan.
Gion’s reason for asking was simple: There were no priests serving the guard at the time.
“Thinking as a Catholic, soldiers being able to receive the Eucharist, being able to have their confessions heard before going into life-threatening circumstances or to receive the Anointing of the Sick in the event of being wounded, it seemed that’s something that one of us should step up and do,” Chaplain (Maj.) Chad Gion said. “And I wasn’t alone, there were others also who were interested.”
While all three men could help a soldier to a certain extent, it’s up to Chaplain Johnson to make sure each soldier gets their individual spiritual needs met.
“For example, even from a Catholic perspective, there’s [sic] certain things that I can’t do as a Lutheran Minister, as a Christian minister, chaplain that a solider may need to talk to the priests. So, it’s my job to help coordinate that, to facilitate that.”
Johnson, Franson, and Gion have all been overseas ministering, serving their military brothers and sisters, all while trying to help them determine “what doing right looks like,” Gion noted. “Obviously, nobody puts their mind in neutral when they enter into the military. At the same time, the only way the military, any military, can function is if those designated to do a particular job are willing and able to do the job when they’re asked to,” Gion added.
“And if I can make a difference and help those soldiers through their time or when they struggle, then this is where I should be,” Franson said.
“It’s hard to put into words, but it’s a unique and amazing ministry,” Johnson said. It’s a ministry all three men say they are blessed to carry out “Pro Deo et Patria”: For God and Country.
The office of the chaplain also offers crisis intervention support, marriage enrichment training, as well as deployment support for soldiers and their families.