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A Connecticut / New York Yankee in the Kabul Compound
YDS Alumnus Ministers in Afghanistan

By Jeff Wells '05

For a long time, Lee Hardgrove, M.Div. '76, had a keen interest in military history but never wanted to be a combat soldier because of his religious beliefs. But after a few years in the pastorate in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church it occurred to him that he could combine his interest in the military with his desire to provide ministerial care by being a chaplain in the army reserves. He signed up in 1982 but never saw active duty—that is, until May 2004, after 28 years in the pastorate, when he was called up as a reserve chaplain. Hardgrove spent the first six months of his tour of duty at Fort Drum near Watertown, NY and then, in December, found himself bound for Afghanistan. Recently he returned to the United States.

Hardgrove holds the rank of lieutenant colonel and served as base chaplain, or “staff chaplain,” for the Kabul Compound, which is the headquarters for the American Command in Afghanistan. There are 18,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan plus contract workers, UN workers, and troops from several other nations including the UK, Romania, Albania, France, and Germany. Four other U.S. chaplains reported to Hardgrove directly, but he worked with chaplains from the other countries as well. He coordinated all religious activities in the compound, including presiding over Protestant services (a priest presides over Catholic worship). He also managed religious activities at the American embassy in Kabul. In addition, his office organized discussion groups, men's and women's groups, Bible studies, and volunteer community service activities. Since Hardgrove was a senior officer in the compound, he attended senior staff meetings. He says there was a good balance in his own work between worship, counseling, and administration.

According to Hardgrove, the majority of the pastoral counseling cases addressed issues related to attachments back home—including marital, parental, and romantic (non-married) relationships. Another great challenge he faced was to care for the many reservists who had never been called up before and had never been away from their families. There were financial hardships for many reservists who earned less in the army than in their civilian jobs. He and other chaplains also dealt with cases of depression, homesickness, and loneliness.  Hardgrove cites several passages from Christian scripture that he and soldiers he worked with found particularly comforting: Psalms 121 and 129, Ephesians 6:10-20, and many passages in the Gospel of John.

Asked about counseling soldiers who might question the morality of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, Hardgrove declined to talk about specifics, noting that conscientious objector sessions are “strictly confidential.” He said he was not involved in questions involving treatment of Afghani prisoners and did not have direct contact with any prisoners, although other chaplains were involved.

Hardgrove had significant contact with local Afghanis who work on the compound and those helping to provide support to schools, orphanages, and refugee camps. His observation was that the Afghani people overwhelmingly see U.S. forces as liberators and are very grateful for the assistance the U.S. (along with 38 other countries) is providing to rebuild the country. In addition to working on officially sponsored projects, many soldiers volunteer for community service ventures. These include supporting several orphanages, two women's hospitals, and refugee camps. Soldiers also work to collect money and goods from the U.S. to support these projects. Hardgrove points out that the country has been through 25 years of civil war that has left the physical infrastructure devastated. The task is huge and the progress slow, he said.

An assignment that Hardgrove especially enjoyed was serving as an official military escort for Senator Hillary Clinton, representing his home state of New York, during her 90-minute visit to the Kabul compound in February. He was present at Secretary of State Condolezza Rice's visit as well, but not in an official capacity.

During his time in Afghanistan, Hardgrove noted, he did not experience any conflict between his religious beliefs and U.S. military actions there. In and around Kabul, he said, there was virtually no combat going on. In his view, the military's current efforts are directed at establishing a democratic government that is stable and secure. The greatest challenges in his role, said Hardgrove, were dealing with the military bureaucracy and providing decent clothing to poverty-stricken Afghanis. There is desperate need, according to Hardgrove, and many Afghanis die from lack of heat in winter or suffer from lack of adequate clothing and shelter.

Hardgrove faced an enormous personal challenge as well. He has been married for 30 years but had never been separated from his family for so long a time. While his children are adults, he missed them tremendously and was fortunate enough to be granted a two-week leave to attend his daughter's college graduation in May. Hardgrove also struggled to maintain his own spiritual health in the midst of caring for the well being of so many others.

Amid the ongoing debate over military recruitment on campuses, including seminaries, Hardgrove makes a distinction between recruitment of chaplains and recruitment of combat officers. He said he has “never met a chaplain who is pro-war.” He believes it would be counterproductive to remove the opportunity to minister to the approximately two million persons in the military. Hardgrove pointed out that he had to be endorsed by his denomination (United Methodist) before being sent on any chaplaincy assignment and that the army contractually agreed that he was not required to do anything that would violate the principles or doctrines of his denomination. Finally, his United Methodist bishop could pull him out of his active duty assignment any time the bishop deemed it necessary.

In his time at YDS, Hardgrove focused on preparation for parish ministry and received what he terms a more than adequate preparation. In addition, he said he left with a strong sense of the importance of ecumenism and interfaith work, which has served him well in his pastoral work in the UMC as well as in his role as military chaplain. It has been especially important to Hardgrove to maintain a connection to YDS and to be able to return to campus periodically. He has served both as a class agent for his own class and for the past several years as chairperson of class agents.

While Hardgrove's tour of duty in Afghanistan came unexpectedly after a long state-side career in the reserves and involved great personal sacrifice on his part, he views his opportunity to minister there as a tremendously humbling and fulfilling experience.