Bringing the Sacred to the Soldier

January 28, 2019
Karen Meeker
CH (COL) Karen Meeker, MDiv '94, speaks at the Institute of World Politics in May 2016

An explosion killed the sons of a local family, but the mother made it to Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan. There she gave birth to a baby girl. The child was beautiful as all newborns are, but the parents rejected her because she was a girl. In Afghan society, females are required to have a dowry when given at marriage so families prefer male children.

Karen Meeker, MDiv ’94, joined with the medical team on the base to open the parents’ hearts to their daughter. She and her colleagues showered the girl with love and attention. Eventually, the mother and father began to change.

“The whole medical staff was just falling over this cute little baby,” she says. “Over the time that the family was there at the hospital—a week or 10 days—they started to warm up to her. They could see how much everyone was caring for the little girl. It was the medical personnel and all of us just showing affection and love and care for that little life, and for all of them.”

Bringing love and care into battle zones like the war in Afghanistan is just one part of Karen Meeker’s job as a Methodist chaplain in the United States Army. As Chief of Clinical Pastoral Care at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the HDS alumna brings the divine to soldiers and families when they need it most.

“We have a large behavioral health staff who deals with mental and emotional issues from a secular approach, but with the chaplain it's sacred,” she explains. “It's between them and I and God. Just to have that opportunity to unburden one’s soul, to talk through things and seek pastoral counseling, to pray through things and ask God for healing, reconciliation —it is the sacred ground I walk with another journeying through a dark valley.”

A Leap of Faith

Now a colonel, Meeker’s nearly 30-year career has taken her around the world—from conflict zones in Afghanistan, to strategic sites in Korea and Kuwait, to military bases around the U.S. and Europe. In the process, she’s earned a raft of commendations including the Legion of Merit, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the National Defense Expeditionary Medal, and many others. One that she’s particularly proud of is the Master Parachutist Badge; Meeker not only jumps out of airplanes, she leads others, ensuring a safe and successful airborne operation.

“It’s definitely a leap of faith,” she jokes. “I'll never forget the first time. I was the number one jumper for our class. I went out the door first and got in a nice, tight body position. I remember seeing the fuselage of the aircraft. I was like, ‘Wow.’ Then I think I closed my eyes. My first night jump,” she said with a laugh. 

Meeker’s time at HDS was a leap of faith too—even if it didn’t deliver quite the same adrenaline rush as a jump at 1,000 feet. A nonsectarian school with an academic focus and a student body that’s passionate about peace and justice might seem like an odd place to start a career as a military chaplain, but Meeker says HDS prepared her for the reality of religious life in today’s armed forces.

“The military reflects the American society,” she explains. “The demographic is increasingly diverse and so is the religious makeup: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and many others. Having that call to the military, I came to HDS for the opportunity to broaden my horizons and to have experience with many other people coming from a variety of very different perspectives than mine.”

At HDS, Meeker also found the intellectual rigor she was looking for. In the School’s classrooms, she developed her ability as a writer and thinker—skills that have served her well in dealing with issues of religious liberty, expression, and accommodation.

“I wanted to be challenged academically,” she says. “I've been able to do some research in the military and do some writing and do some policy work for which my preparation at HDS was very, very helpful.”

While at HDS, Meeker also spent time with the famed Leon Levy Expedition in the ancient city of Ashkelon, Israel. During the excavations, sponsored by Harvard’s Semitic Museum, Meeker discovered a passion for archaeology.

“Ashkelon is one of the Philistine pentapolis cities,” she says. “We did some amazing work in the two seasons I was there. I personally came down on some really interesting stuff, including the destruction layer of King Nebuchadnezzar in 604 BCE and a dog burial site that was filmed by the BBC.”

From Field Ed to Battlefield

Meeker also took full advantage of the School’s field education program, participating in as many internships and practicums as she could to get experience in a variety of real-world settings: urban, Appalachia, prison, psychiatric hospital, and US military bases in Europe. Her time at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in particular had a lasting impact.

“I did a couple of units of clinical pastoral education with Reverend Shirley Herman, who was toward the end of about forty years in hospital ministry,” she says. “She was a pioneer for female chaplains in hospital, and she worked with (stages of grief author and pastoral clinician) Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in Chicago for many years. She was just phenomenal.”

Meeker’s field placement at MGH has served her well throughout her career, but particularly during times of conflict. She’s often had to work with soldiers and families who’ve lost a loved one or, worse, taken a life.

“We talk a lot about moral injury,” she says. “It’s a very heavy burden to bear arms. To take another human life... you've got blood on your hands. Every soldier has to deal with that. As a chaplain, I feel a responsibility to help prepare them for that possibility.”

Meeker’s time at HDS has enabled her to shoulder that heavy responsibility. She says that she’d recommend the School to anyone considering a career as a chaplain in the armed forces.

“The academic rigor, the opportunity to have that academic development in a community that's very diverse, to freely dialogue, that was invaluable for me. That's still true now, whether your politics are left or right or center, whether you're going in the military or you're going into work that’s pacifist or nonviolent. At HDS you come together as a community to study, engage, and learn from one another. And together, we make a difference for the world.”

-Paul Massari