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Interview with Harold D. Roller, December 11, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Harold D. Roller, December 11, 2003
December 11, 2003
Interview with retired U.S. Army Colonel and Chaplain Harold Roller.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Roller, Harold D. Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul and Brinsfield, John Date of Interview:  12/11/2003 Series:  Military Length  44 minutes


Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock. I’m a staff person assigned to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Randall Library. This is another interview in the category of military chaplains. We’re at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and today’s date is the 11 of December, in the year 2003. My associate in this matter is Dr. John Brinsfield. John is a retired chaplain and also a retired colonel in the US Army.

Zarbock: Good morning John and who is our interviewee today?

BRINSFIELD: We’re delighted to have the opportunity to interview Chaplain Colonel Harold D. Roller. He’s the 34th Commandant of the US Army Chaplain Center and School currently located at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Chaplain Roller is a graduate of the US Army War College and has his Doctorate Minister’s degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you sir for taking the time to contribute to this historical program.

Roller: It’s my honor.

Zarbock: Good morning sir. I’ll start off by asking what event or series of events or individuals or series of individuals contributed to your selection of the ministry as a profession?

Roller: In order to answer that question I would have to begin when I received a letter right out of college from the President of the United States inviting me to join his Armed Forces. At that time the draft was going on and like literally hundreds of thousands of young American males I was invited into the Army.

Zarbock: What year was that sir?

Roller: That was 1968. I chose rather to go volunteer through the recruiter so that I could go to the officer candidate school and ended up going to the officer candidate school and actually entered the Army in February of 1969 and received a commission through OCS. During that time in the Army, my first time in the Army I went to Vietnam as a platoon leader, infantry platoon leader serving there and felt during that time a call from God into the ministry.

When I came out of the Army after serving my obligatory time, I went to the seminary, later pastored and felt as a pastor a call back into the Army, this time as a military chaplain .

Zarbock: What outfit were you in in Vietnam?

Roller: I was a platoon leader 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st of the 61st Infantry which was part of the 5th Division and it was located right along the demilitarized zone in Quam Tre province. The northern boundary for our area of operation most of the time I was over there was the demilitarized zone there in Vietnam right below the Ben Hai River.

Zarbock: I see that you also have the jump status emblem of the paratroopers. When did you take that training?

Roller: I took airborne training while I was in the first time as a lieutenant right out of Officer Candidate School. It was much easier on the body than now I can tell you, but I did my parachute training. I did my five jumps and did not jump again until 18 years later when as a chaplain I was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. So my sixth jump in the Army was a 9th mask tactical jump with the 82nd Airborne Division 18 years after I completed jump school.

Zarbock: And I assume you landed successfully.

Roller: I did land successfully and I’m here to talk about it.

Zarbock: You have another emblem under the paratrooper emblem, what is that?

Roller: That’s the Air Assault badge. This signifies a course that you go through for about 14 days and it’s assigned with the unit that has helicopters and the idea is to learn to use the helicopter and get very familiar with it as a means of transportation, entrance, exit, whether that exit may be down a rope for example, to get very familiar with using a helicopter.

Zarbock: That’s what I understand. The training included departure of the aircraft being a rope descent.

Roller: It does and in fact it also includes from about 12 feet above they throw out a net on the top of a tree and you jump from the helicopter into the net into the tree and then throw down a rope that you have yourself to repel all the way down to the ground. So it’s good training, very intensive good training.

Zarbock: I’m going to add for the record, again this videotape will remain in the archives and be in good shape as long as the planet earth is capable of manufacturing and generating electricity. So one of the things I’d like to point out for the record, when you left the helicopter you were also carrying a pack, is that correct?

Roller: Well that’s not entirely true. We are at least trained smart enough to throw out the pack first and then you jump down after the pack.

Zarbock: What about a weapon?

Roller: Well for chaplains of course we’re not carrying a weapon. The other members would actually have to jump with their weapon. They throw down their pack and then carry their weapon as they jump down. For chaplains we would jump with our chaplain kit, throw down our pack which carries all our goods in it and everything and then have our chaplains kit with us and jump with it.

Zarbock: You’re a commandant here at the school, is that correct?

Roller: That’s correct.

Zarbock: What is the span of your duties and obligations?

Roller: Well basically the organization is such that it involves training and then combat development. It can be divided basically in half. The combat development side would look at the doctrine that would be produced for Army chaplains to use under combat conditions, futures – what is it we’re going to do and how are we going to be organized to do religious support for soldiers, six, twelve years from now.

Also material, what is it chaplains and chaplains assistants will need in order to do religious support in the future. Do we need to redesign the chaplain kit, is there a particular type of equipment that we would need that would be different from the rest of the Armed Forces in order to accomplish the mission which we have which is ministry to soldiers and their families. So that’s combat developments.

The other piece of that of course is training. In that training we run all the courses from the time the chaplain enters the Army right out of civilian parishes or church or synagogue, train them immediately and then have another training course for them about the three to five years after they come in, they come back for additional training.

Then periodically there are specific courses that they have that teach the specific skills such as managing resources. For our chaplain assistants, it involves training them from basic training, they come to us from basic training and we teach them those skills to be chaplain assistants while they’re only about two months in the Army or so. We keep them for about eight weeks and train them in those chaplain assistant skills that they will need before they go off to battalion chaplains.

They come back also as non-commissioned officers for the basic non-commissioned officer course and then later for the advanced non-commissioned officer course.

Zarbock: We haven’t touched on this before in previous interviews and I wondered since this is such a specific and unique site, are the chaplain assistants, do they volunteer or are they selected. If its through volunteering, how do they go about that? If selected, how is that arranged?

Roller: The chaplain assistants are volunteers. They all have volunteered to go first into the Army, come into the Army and then second they have a choice of what military occupational specialty they want to come into the Army to be a part of. So our chaplain assistants have chosen to be in the military occupation specialty chaplain assistant. That’s what they are trained in specifically.

How they choose that is an interesting process. While they’re at the recruiters before they come into the Army, they’re shown a series of videos on military specialties that interest them. They can pick and choose from those videos which one they would like to apply for. Now of course there are limits to that so if the system has already had its fill for say that quarter and someone wants to become a chaplain assistant, but its filled then they’ll have to choose another occupational specialty in the Army, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Zarbock: Back to your role as commandant, you know the second line of the poetic remark, “The best laid plans of mice and men”. Well what are some of the things that go array in your life as a commandant?

Roller: Robert Burns is one of my favorite authors and I think you’re correct in quoting him on that one. There’s always the human dynamic, isn’t there and so even though the process is out there and the plans are out there, there’s always the equation that someone will unknowingly not carry through maybe because it wasn’t rehearsed well enough or wasn’t common knowledge.

Communication is always a problem even in the Army Chaplain Corps. Communication isn’t just put out the word and everybody gets it and that’s the end of that. It’s a constant process where you always have to make sure that everyone has gotten the word and there’s no end to it. Then once folks have gotten the word, occasionally you’ll have some who will not carry through with the word, just not do it. Then that of course becomes a leadership challenge.

I think also one of the challenges for me as commandant and probably true for most everyone in such a position as I’m in is getting in my head a mental map of the organization we have here so that I can put faces with those who have particular positions and particular jobs and be able to understand what they do and how that fits into the whole.

Zarbock: I’m going to ask you to assign a number to that remark that you made, what is the population of the staff, what’s the number of people?

Roller: Right now we have a total of 187 and that of course we have chaplains, chaplain assistants as well as civilian employees here.

Zarbock: All of whom have their individual ideas and certainly their own personalities.

Roller: Well that’s true, that’s true. I would say in that regard it’s not much different from a church or any human organization in that you cannot ever fail to take into account that we all bring our uniquenesses and the things that we have to offer as well as our own personal concepts of life and how that should be lived out and how things are best accomplished.

Zarbock: In my personal experience as a program developer, occasionally I’ve run into a situation in which I was convinced in my own mind I was pushing an 18 foot piece of rope up a hill, pushing it. I assume that once in a while it must be a 10 foot rope around here.

Roller: It is. Our current Army chaplaincy vision is religious leadership for the Army. That’s really what religious leadership is all about – being able to push that rope uphill in some instances and some ropes are easier to push than others. Some are stiffer than others and therefore easier to push, but that is leadership, religious leadership. I think in the Army chaplaincy you find even more so than perhaps in the civilian parish or synagogue or church, the understanding of leadership and the role that it plays.

We always as clergy envision ourselves perhaps as the one standing up before the congregation delivering a sermon or the one counseling the young couple, but the reality is that leadership is also, religious leadership is also very much comprised of an administrative and a management phase to it. That’s true in the parish. It’s also true very much in the Army chaplaincy. One of the things that we emphasize is the role of the staff officer in that the military chaplain has to perform as a staff officer for the commander and what that entails.

BRINSFIELD: Sir, you’ve had a incredible career, 35 years if I count properly in the military. A number of the assignments you had dealt with training. You have the unique position at the moment in the chaplaincy of being able to reflect as training as a line officer from Vietnam as well as a chaplain who attended Army War College. You have also served here and at Fort Levenworth before you became commandant, so the question is do you feel that our Chaplain Corps is better trained than when you came in and if so, could you point to some highlights that you feel have been particularly helpful in raising our training base.

Roller: Well if I can quote here, “No man puts his foot in the same river twice”. Change has obviously taken place. There has been significant change within how we train in the Army chaplaincy as well as how we do things in the Army chaplaincy. We are much more intentional now about how we train and we train in echelons much better. That is to say we train at the battalion chaplain level to be battalion chaplains and then at the brigade level to be more of a supervisory role and at the division level.

So we’re training at different echelons much better than we did previously. We’re also seeing a broader role of the chaplain as both the physical and the staff work that the chaplain has to do. We require much more physical activities now than we did. We’re not only in the field far more but we also require every morning physical training. Our chaplains who come here brand new to the Army, we have to first get them in uniforms. We have to teach them that one uses the right hand when rendering the hand salute. One steps off with the left foot when one begins marching.

We have to start at the very basics, but they also have their first formation at 4:50 in the morning because at 5:00 a.m. they start running and they do their physical training at 5:00 a.m. and it’s from 5:00 to 6:00. So there’s more physical training now than there was then. This reflects what’s happening within the Army.

When I first came in the Army there wasn’t nearly the emphasis on physical training as there is now. Basically it was assumed you were physically conditioned and you just went to the field with your unit or you went with your unit into combat, whatever the requirement was. Now we know that physical condition is extremely important particularly in today’s environment.

A chaplain can find him or herself being in Iraq and having to carry their own gear which could weigh as much as 120 pounds and having to carry their own gear for a significant distance just like all the other soldiers they’re with. It’s not that the chaplain is singled out for that. It’s that what the unit is doing and therefore that’s what the chaplain has to do. So chaplains have to be in good physical condition in order to do that.

I think that’s a big change, the physical condition, as well as somewhat of the role of the chaplain. The role of the chaplain has significantly been enhanced in terms of the Army in the last or I would say in the time I’ve been within the military. Chaplains now are very highly regarded by commanders. Chaplains previously were understood perhaps by commanders and certainly the role of the chaplain was not necessarily negated, but the commander today leans on the chaplain far more than the commander did say 20 to 30 years ago.

Zarbock: Leans on the chaplain for what?

Roller: Leans on the chaplain for taking care of the soldiers, letting him know, letting the commander know the morale of the soldiers, any particular difficulty that the soldiers are undergoing, also with ethical issues within the command. The chaplain can come up to the commander, is expected to come up to the commander and give him the bad news. Maybe he doesn’t want to hear it, but the expectation is that the chaplain is not only allowed to do it but encouraged to do it. I think that’s a large difference.

Zarbock: Am I correct in assuming that previously this communication conduit did not exist or was it up to the individual commander?

Roller: I would say it existed within some commands but it certainly was prevalent throughout our Army. Much of this came about or started at the end of the Vietnam era when the Army did some self searching and began to ask itself how ethical is our Army based upon events in Vietnam. One of the interesting results of that was that chaplains were put in each of the branch schools of the Army to teach ethics. When that happened more and more the role of the chaplain, even the battalion chaplain, would be an ethical advisor to the commander and was enhanced and took on a broader meaning and gave the chaplain more latitude in being able to advise the commander in that regard.

Zarbock: My two questions really were subsets of your analysis of how things have changed. Could we go back to the analysis, how the chaplaincy has changed?

Roller: The chaplaincy I think has changed in that we are more of a battalion field oriented chaplaincy.

Zarbock: As opposed to what?

Roller: As opposed to a chaplaincy which stayed in the rear and went out only when it was safe to do so. There were some benefits to that because it was this way…when you went out when it was safe to do so, you certainly didn't interfere with operations, you certainly were not there to have to be watched out over and such.

However what we’ve discovered in the Army chaplaincy because our doctrine changed with what’s called forward thrust in the mid-80’s, putting chaplains down into the battalions because previously they were upheld higher than that, they were up at the brigade level. Putting chaplains has meant now that the chaplain is right there for the soldier and is involved in the maneuver, directly involved in the maneuver of the units.

That’s been a tremendous change. The chaplains are there with the soldiers and indeed any discomfort, any lack of creature comforts, any hardship is going to be endured by the chaplain as well. The result of that is that the soldiers respect their chaplains even more because the chaplain is right there with them.

That has been a significant change over the last 20 years I would say so much so that systemically within the Army the branches which determine how their own battalions will be organized, the branches more and more are willing to give up a captain’s position to have that captain now changed to a chaplain because you cannot increase the number in the battalion. If you want a chaplain in the battalion, you’re going to have to give up a captain’s position.

We find battalions after battalions after battalions doing that. What that says is that the role of the chaplain, what the chaplain gives to that unit for religious support to those soldiers is tremendously valuable. Just to give a little anecdote here to the difference – when I was in the 1st Armor Division in the early 1980’s in Germany, one of the issues was over whether or not the cavalry squadron should get a chaplain.

There was no position, at that time this was before forward thrust, there was no position in the squadron for a chaplain. So it was an additional duty of another chaplain to cover that particular unit. The squadron commander was asked if he would like a chaplain assigned. The squadron replied no, “I don’t need one”.

Today, just the opposite is true. We have commanders who they not only have the position, but they are very much demanding that they have a chaplain in that position, that they be provided with their chaplain. Tremendous change has taken place in regard to that.

Zarbock: That’s the iron ruler measurement of change. I mean acceptance, when the commander says I want a chaplain rather than I’ll endure it. John…

BRINSFIELD: Sir when you came to the chaplain school there is a certain configuration of classes in that the chaplain career course was a permanent change of station class. They would come here for a specific period of time. There may be a change to that in the future. The question is what are the advantages and disadvantages of going from PCS or permanent change of station course to distance education in your view?

Roller: Being a permanent change of station right now allows the training to be much better because the persons are on site and they can concentrate completely on the training. Distance education means they will be with their unit and will have to do the training as they can work it in between their unit duties. So obviously the better way to train would be to take the chaplains apart, bring them here and let them change.

By the way it’s beginning to look daily like we’re not going to go to the distance learning and it’s going to be primarily for the reason I think that I just said and it’s considered more enhancing, it’s considered better to bring chaplains apart, have them be here as well as other officers for their training to be able to be concentrated on.

One of the changes that looks like it is going to happen which I think will be very significant is to move one of our major course. You mentioned our PCS course, our chaplain career course, to move it earlier in the chaplain’s career. That will be a significant enhancement.

One of the things we have in training right now, one of the issues we have in training right now is there’s not enough time to train the chaplain fully to be a battalion chaplain when the chaplain enters into or is a part of the chaplain’s basic course. The Navy and the Air Force experienced this as well. Within the Army the chaplain basic course which is 12 weeks takes a civilian pastor, civilian rabbi, a priest right out of the parish and puts them into a battalion as a battalion chaplain and they have 12 weeks to prepare for it.

It just simply isn’t enough time not just in terms of training those skills which have to be known, which have to be learned. Basically the skills, the life-saving skills, being able to survive on the battlefield skills is about all we have time to train. That of course has to be done. It’s just not enough time to train them the way we need.

The result is it looks like we’re going to drive the chaplain career course earlier so that they’ll be in the basic course, be in a unit for maybe one assignment and then come back again for more training at the chaplain center and school. I think that will be a tremendous help for our chaplains out in the field, to be able to get those skills that they need.

It’s more than just getting skills which includes not only the military skills but the pastoral skills as well because we teach those here. It’s also being able to assimilate and become a part of the Army culture, being able to do ministry within an environment which is – when the chaplain arrives here, completely foreign. It’s not unlike a missionary who goes to another country that has to learn the culture of the country and the language of the country. So chaplains have to learn the culture of the Army and the acronyms of the Army.

Zarbock: And without it, you’re lost. Well without it, you’re not a military chaplain.

Roller: That is correct. It certainly becomes more difficult to do the mission of religious support yet alone to be able to survive on the battlefield.

BRINSFIELD: Sir, with the exception of this particular position, would you just discuss one or two positions you’ve held before that you found particularly enjoyable or efficacious with regard to your ability to carry out your ministry?

Roller: Without a doubt the position that I’ve enjoyed the most was as a brigade chaplain the 82nd Airborne Division, the 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment with its tremendous history from World War II. The camaraderie within the unit, the esprit de corps within the unit, the physical training was certainly very difficult. It challenged you every day. At some point you were either sore or hurt or something was broken, but that’s just a part of being in the 82nd.

It was just terrific ministry to be with those paratroopers and to be able to work day in and day out with them and provide religious support to them and to their families and also the chaplains that were there. The chaplains, the chaplain assistants I was working with, those that I supervised as the brigade chaplain, were just fantastic folks. Of course they’re all volunteers and they have to be there and we’re all putting up with the same hardships, but we also had some great times in ministry.

I suppose in terms of other assignments I don’t know that they were all necessarily as enjoyable, but I recall an assignment that was particularly, I didn't realize it at the time, but was particularly developing to me and that was as the Plans and Operations chaplain for the US forces in Korea. My job there, I pretty well got in and started from scratch because they didn't have that job before I got there.

Zarbock: What year was that sir?

Roller: That was in 1989. When I came in there was no position and the US forces chaplain just said he needed somebody to do this and asked me if I’d come and do it. So I did and developed it into a position that did all the planning for religious support to support the chaplains in their ministries. I would arrange for a person or a group to come over to provide programs for them or I would arrange such things as I would pay for and bring in boxes where they would give out cards to send back to their families for their children on their birthdays. It would be a little envelope and then the child would open the envelope and it would include crayons and other things. Not only would it be a letter from daddy, it would also include a little something the child could do.

So I arranged for those kinds of things as part of the plans. Also started the Coin in the Covenant there which is a coin that would be given out and a covenant signed by the soldier that he would remain faithful to his spouse on that hardship tour. So there were a lot of things in terms of the plans. And the working with the operations, working with the operations that we had to do, I learned a great deal about how to do operational warfare, religious support at the operational warfare level.

Zarbock: What is the phrase that’s been used John about, that we use in conclusion…

BRINSFIELD: Well I’d like to modify that for just a moment. This is most fun that we have. We’d like you to reflect just a moment sir on the blessings, the privileges you’ve had as a chaplain serving and tell us what some of those were because it’s kind of the other way of asking why should a young minister consider serving in the chaplaincy? What would he reasonably get out of the service?

Roller: There are so many blessings that a minister, a priest, a rabbi, a clergy receives out of serving as a military chaplain. It’s probably wrapped up in our motto which is “For God and for Country”. But in terms of the actual ministry itself, the being able to talk with couples and to counsel with couples, I’m not going to try to recount the number of couples I’ve stopped from divorcing. I haven’t stopped them from divorcing, but certainly being able to counsel with them and to help them in reconciling and being able to see that there is a marriage there for them to build around and to work with and then see that couple stay together.

To conduct worship services for 800 persons in a chapel in Fort Levenworth, Kansas when the chapel is just packed and this is just an ordinary Sunday morning when the chapel is just packed. There’s nothing special going on.

To be able to talk to a commander who is struggling with a decision that’s going to literally affect people’s lives from that day forward and the commander has to make a decision on this and to be able to talk to the commander about that and to assist him or her in making that decision, making it ethically and then being satisfied with that decision. I think to minister in those regards is just tremendous.

BRINSFIELD: Is it important for a chaplain’s family to support that chaplain’s ministry, sir, maybe even more than a family does for a parish minister in the United States?

Roller: You have to understand of course that whether the family wants or doesn’t want, they’re still a part of it. If the chaplain is in Germany and stationed in Germany, the family’s there. The family is going along. The family is going to be there. Of course the important thing is as your insinuating is that the family is a part of this. And that they are a part of the army culture. And that what they are doing is significant. And that this is their way of life. That adds tremendously to their experience. How many children, while they’re teenagers are visiting the Eiffel Tower? How many children when they are in junior high school are buying goods n the streets of _____ Korea? And talking with children of Koreans down in _____ Island on the beach? The opportunities are tremendous and the lifestyle is a great one.

BRINSFIELD: It’s o.k. to mention the name of your wife and children on this archives tape. I just would assume that they have given you great support over your career.

Roller: Oh, absolutely. O.K. You’ve opened the door, so I’m going to walk through it. My wife Sherrie has been just tremendous. I mean you just can’t imagine. I am blessed. What Sherrie does, she is very much a part of the ministry that I do. In fact, it’s a team ministry, really. She’s extremely active in the chapels and other places everywhere we go, as well as the officers’ wives’ groups and such. And that adds so much to the experience of being a military chaplain. My children have enjoyed being with the army and still tell their friends that. Even though they’re both married and living the live of civilians.

Zarbock: I’ve asked this of all other chaplains and all other branches. Any time during your career was there a situation in which you were ordered, or which influence was placed upon you, subtly, or not so subtly, that you were, that it was suggested that you do something in violation of your personal ethic, your religious beliefs, or your spiritual calling? Were you ever influenced?

Roller: I can honestly say no. I have never had a commander even suggest that I do anything that was in direct opposite or in any way in conflict with my personal beliefs.

Zarbock: Gentlemen, thank you for making the time.

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