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Counseling on the Front Lines

Jane Pauley interviews a minister who left his church to help soldiers in Iraq

Richard Rittmaster spent most of his career as a Lutheran minister at parishes in New Jersey and Minnesota. But at age 45 he felt that something was missing — and found his new calling as a chaplain with the National Guard. Here, Rittmaster, now 53, answers questions about his new life calling.

Q. What inspired you to make such a dramatic life change?

A. I'd gone through a divorce two years before and that started a process of reflection on how I was living my life. I realized that I wasn't very happy in my current position. I was restless in the parish ministry and there were lots of administrative things that were really burning me out. It seemed to me that I was doing 80-90 percent of the things I didn't like in order to do 10-20 percent that I did like. I just wondered what it would be like to reverse that, to be enjoying the majority of what you're doing.

Q. So how did you decide to become a chaplain in the military?

A. After I decided that I wanted to make a change, I'd tried my hand at a number of things: writing, being a life coach and working with a couple of men's transitional groups. And nothing really felt fulfilling. Then, my son suggested I look at craigslist to see if anything there appealed to me. And sure enough, I found a recruiting advertisement for chaplains in the National Guard. I'd been an officer in the Air Force in the 1980s, so I knew what I was getting into. Before I knew it, I was doing a three-month Army chaplain basic training and shortly after that I was assigned to counsel soldiers in Iraq. I spent eight months doing that.

Q. Do you view this as a career change or a spiritual calling?

A. I see it as a manifestation of what my spirit was looking for. When we truly listen to our heart's sincere desire and begin to take a step in the direction of where the heart is calling us, things will manifest themselves. When our focus is on the area that creates energy, enthusiasm and life, we're able to see things we weren't able to see before. It's all about changing the lens through which we begin to see our life development and that's when things appear.

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Q. How is ministering to a soldier different from a civilian?

A. As a chaplain, I'm right there with our servicemen, living in their environment. I am in the trenches with them, and it's direct ministry, which is deeply fulfilling for me. Sometimes in my parish, the issues were, 'I don't like this Sunday school teacher' or 'I don't like the color of the carpet.' That doesn't really compare to, 'we had a rocket attack last night, and I don't think I can continue this' or 'I saw my friend blown up and I don't know what to do.' It's just a different level of interaction with people. 

Q. How was it for you being in a war zone?

A. I experienced some traumatic things while in the Air Force as a young man, and had the great opportunity to work through them. I brought something different to the war zone than someone that is 20 years old and experiencing this for the first time. But when the rockets are coming in, I was afraid just as anyone else. I think I was a little more resilient maybe than some folks.

Q. What do you plan to do in the future?

A. I'm assigned in Fort Hood (Texas) right now and after a year I'm going back to Minnesota to work part time as a chaplain. I'm also thinking about branching out and helping others outside of the military as a part-time therapist. I'm not exactly sure what the future holds but I do know what I've done has been an extremely intense and very rich experience.

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