USMA Chaplain dedicated to providing services for all
Story and photo by Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Jan. 24, 2013) — In some circles she is known for the inspirational story she once shared about a deployment in Kuwait. Ask her what’s on her dog tags and the U.S. Military Academy’s newest chaplain just might share that tale.
Chaplain (Col.) Barbara Sherer arrived at West Point shortly after Thanksgiving and assumed responsibility for the chaplaincy at the U.S. Military Academy from Chaplain (Col.) Mike Durham who retired in November.
This is her first assignment at West Point, and while Sherer admits it’s a unique installation to work at, the territory is not unfamiliar.
Sherer can draw heavily from her experiences while serving at the Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Va.—a Training and Doctrine Command post—as the combat developer for the chief of chaplains. Then there was her assignment as deputy commandant at the Army’s Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C., and her studies at the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., where she received a Master’s in Strategic Studies.
“Being at West Point will bring together many aspects from my own background, both academic and military,” Sherer said. “Twenty-eight years as a ‘green suiter’ provides an understanding of the tradition and the mission of the cadets who graduate from here. My doctorate in education supports my interest in graduating cadets who are well-educated and prepared to be leaders in a military environment.”
“You don’t have to believe the same as somebody else to care about what their needs are.” — Chaplain (Col.) Barbara Sherer
She began her civilian schooling at Southwest Missouri State University and earned a Bachelor of Science degree and later a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. She was heavily involved in campus ministry at Oklahoma State University where she received a doctorate in educational media.
“I think I’m very familiar and comfortable with the academic community,” she said. “And, of course, I’m forever a student. So I’ve seen both sides of it.”
Military service was never part of the plan when Sherer was serving as an associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Stillwater, Okla. She looked forward to eventually becoming a senior pastor someday. Then a member of her congregation, an Army Reservist, mentioned there wasn’t a chaplain at the local battalion and Sherer was asked to conduct the occasional service.
“In doing so, I saw the opportunity for ministry and I saw that there was a need. I applied for a commission and became a chaplain for the Army Reserves,” Sherer said.
She spent the next several years serving with the 3rd Brigade, 95th Division in Stillwater while also ministering locally in a church, still with no plan of transitioning to active duty and especially not until she finished her doctoral studies.
However, after receiving her degree, the idea of serving in the Army fulltime appealed to her and she was immediately accepted.
“That was 20 years ago. From my perspective and my background, I would definitely say it was God’s plan and not mine,” Sherer said. “I had all sorts of plans for my life. But then things were presented to me in a different way, and I recognized that God was calling me in a different direction.”
Three weeks into her first assignment, she found herself already on deployment status—tagged to support Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. A somewhat unexpected turn of events she said, being in Fort Lewis, Wash., conducting field training one day and then ministering to troops in Africa the next.
“It was like, ‘Welcome to active duty’ and then we got alerted to deploy,” Sherer said.
It wouldn’t be the last deployment, either. Sherer also served in Kuwait and Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom I, and two more times, first with 3rd COSCOM and again in 2009 with the 1st Cavalry Division from Ft. Hood, Texas, where she was the Division Chaplain for Multi-National Division, Baghdad.
Still, that calling—or recognition—to serve “For God and Country” continued to go well enough in Sherer’s mind that she never considered resigning her commission. There were bouts of fatigue, mental stress and personal experiences while deployed that challenged her resilience, but she found the means to overcome them.
Sherer can relate and empathize with Soldiers who have experienced less dwell time between deployments.
Chaplain (Col.) Barbara Sherer with Sgt. 1st Class Michael Nichols, chaplain assistant, and Connie Wagner, office manager, at the USMA Chaplain’s Office in Taylor Hall. Sherer is the first female chaplain to be assigned the position of U.S. Military Academy Chaplain.
“That was certainly the case on my third deployment. I had the most difficult times after my second Iraq deployment,” Sherer said. “That was when I had my lowest low afterward, and it took the longest to recover from. One of the blessings of going back on my third deployment to Iraq—with, fortunately, sufficient time to recover—I went as a division chaplain working for a great command team with an interesting mission. All the pieces seemed to come together and I walked away from that one feeling very good about myself.”
At West Point, Sherer said her mission is to serve as a technical supervisor for the chaplaincy and senior adviser to the USMA superintendent on matters relating to religion.
“The chaplains don’t work directly for me, they work for their commanders. It’s the same as in any unit. Chaplains don’t command other chaplains, but they do provide technical supervision because they’re the subject matter experts in the provision of religious support,” Sherer said.
As the USMA chaplain, Sherer oversees the spectrum of cadet religious clubs and activities.
“All the chaplains at West Point, myself included, are involved with providing religious support for all the USMA personnel, and, of course, the cadets are the largest population,” Sherer said.
That means either performing a service or providing for one, and Sherer is among the chaplains who conduct services at the Cadet Chapel. Chaplains of various denominations also conduct weddings and funerals and provide counseling services.
A chaplain of Protestant faith, Sherer is passionate about providing services for people of all faith groups.
“The whole basis for the existence of the Army Chaplaincy is the first amendment,” Sherer said. “It’s why we’re here. Without it we would have no legal means or reasons for having a chaplaincy in a government organization.”
Sherer said the chaplaincy’s mission is to provide for the free exercise of religion, a right that extends to everyone working and living at West Point.
“If I were unwilling to reach out and provide for someone of a different faith group than mine, I would be unable to uphold and support the Constitution, which is the whole reason I am here in the first place,” Sherer said.
There is undoubtedly a wide range of interests within the Corps of Cadets, but the challenge lies in garnering enough support to satisfy those needs.
“When we don’t have a chaplain who is able to provide for a particular faith group, we reach out to others who are certified by that faith group to help provide religious support for that group,” Sherer said.
Regardless of a person’s faith, Sherer believes cadets can benefit from the knowledge such services and activities exist at West Point, and will exist elsewhere when, as Army officers, they travel from post to post.
“If they become commanders, they need to know their responsibilities to Soldiers,” Sherer said. “They need to be able to support their Soldiers’ free exercise of religion. It’s about being able to provide for others even if they have differing faiths than yours.”
That’s one lesson Sherer is eager to help teach cadets.
“You don’t have to believe the same as somebody else to care about what their needs are,” she said. “I’ve had to help many company commanders when one of their Soldiers had a very different faith view than they did. You have to let go for a moment and say, ‘It’s not about me. It’s about this Soldier and what he or she needs.’”
In a short time, Sherer has come to appreciate her command team at the chaplain’s office to include Sgt. 1st Class Michael Nichols, the noncommissioned officer-in-charge. Command teams are unique in general, but the pairing of the chaplain—a noncombatant—with a noncommissioned officer required to provide security in a combat environment creates another sort of unique relationship.
“I’m just getting to know Sgt. Nichols but he’s great,” Sherer said. “His experience here at West Point and in the resource management area is very helpful.”
Connie Wagner, the office manager, is another critical member of her team.
“In this environment, being able to touch base across the command group and the staff; knowing and understanding what’s going on and being in contact with everyone—Connie’s experience here and the connections she has built makes a big difference. The three of us working together is fun. It’s fun because everyone looks out for each other and takes care of each other. When it’s fun, you can accomplish all sorts of things,” Sherer concluded.
(Editor’s Note: Regarding the personal story Chaplain Sherer has become known for—if you can’t wait to see the chaplain anytime soon, Google it. We promised not to reveal it here.)