Chaplain, I feel like committing suicide.” The soldier pulled up a chair across the table, looking every bit the wreck he was. His wife had just walked out on him, his finances were a mess and his children seemed cross with him. “I had a packed day,” recalls Chaplain Pratima Dharm. But she dropped everything and for the next one month, that soldier was her main task.
Dharm met the soldier again recently. He hugged her and said, “You saved my life chaplain.” He had married again, reconciled with his children, and got his finances in order.
Dharm is the US military’s first Hindu chaplain.
Born in Bihar, raised in Mumbai, Dharm had not prepared for life as a chaplain. She was reading psychology and theology in Michigan, when she got the call. The US military needed a Hindu chaplain for their Hindu troops, said to be close to 1,000 now. Dharm was surprised by the offer. She asked for time to knock it around with her family, essentially husband Dharmendra Rajdenran, who, she said, was a “simple south Indian.” With the family on board, Dharm donned the uniform. A Rajput girl from India was now a US army chaplain.
She has served all over the US and the world — yes, in Afghanistan and Iraq too. But she wouldn’t tell where she is posted now, possibly Walter Reed military medical center.
Dharm loves her job. And it’s not easy. While she performs pujas, ministers Hindu staffers in the army, counsels patients, veterans and the injured, she actually seeks her role as that of an acharya, a teacher-mentor. She walks in one morning on a hospital bed with a young soldier who is just regaining consciousness, fighting through the woozy aftereffects of surgical anesthesia. “He doesn’t know yet he has no legs.”
The family knows, but is struggling to accept it. The soldier will come to, and find chaplain Dharm by his side. His life will change, with Dharm helping him through it. “I have to be there, walk with him.” It’s difficult to find a Hindu soldier in the US army who is willing to speak. Most of them cite service conditions to get out of it. Dharm won’t give out too many details either. Does she ever get a call from the battlefront — somewhere in Kandahar or Mosul — from a conflicted Hindu soldier who is not sure why he should be shooting?
“I do,” Dharm said. And she talks to them.
“To give them a sense of balance,” Dharm said, adding, “When one goes into an environment like a battle or a war zone, one can begin to think of things that can un-focus a person.” That’s where she steps in. Has she had an Arjun-Krishna conversation with a soldier? That it’s ok to kill? “Not my lane,” she said.