Alumni News

Healing Dragons: The Ministry of Chaplain (Major) Priest James Parnell

Fr James baptizes a soldier in the Gulf of Aden
Fr James Parnell baptizes a soldier in the Gulf of Aden June 28, 2021.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Amanda Stock)

The Rev. James Parnell graduated cum laude from St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program in 2013. The title of his M.Div. thesis could serve as an abstract of the story of his life and ministry before and after seminary: Growing from Dragon to Man: A Parish Resource for Reintegrating Orthodox Soldiers and Veterans Returning from War.

Today, Fr. James is rector of All Saints Orthodox Church, Hartford, CT, where he was assigned shortly after graduation. He is also a chaplain in the Connecticut Army National Guard, assigned to the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment (Mountain) headquartered in New Haven, CT, and chief of chaplains for the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, focusing on the spiritual care of those suffering from Moral Injury, Post-Traumatic Stress, Substance Abuse, Acute/Chronic Pain, and Long-term Mental Illness.

Father James was born and raised in Little Rock, AR, in a devout Southern Baptist home. He joined the Army shortly after the attacks on September 11, 2001 and began training as an Arabic linguist. He met his wife, Holly (also an Army veteran), while studying at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA. Father James and Mat. Holly were married in 2007 and have five children: Samuel, Ariane, Eleanor, Sean, and Ingrid.

In June of 2021, inspiring U.S. Army photos made the rounds on social media showing Fr. James baptizing a soldier in the Gulf of Aden, between Yemen and the Horn of Africa. We caught up with Fr. James to ask him about the story behind the images and his devotion to serving those who serve.

Father, what took you to the Horn of Africa?

The soldier smiles as Fr James continues the baptism in the Gulf of Aden

I am assigned to the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment (Mountain), part of the Connecticut Army National Guard and New England's 86th Infantry Brigade (Mountain)—the only mountain infantry brigade in the US military. My unit is currently deployed overseas to the Horn of Africa as part of a larger task force made up primarily of the 1-102nd Infantry from Connecticut along with attachments from every other unit in the 86th Brigade; all told, about 1,000 soldiers from five different states (Connecticut, along with Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont). In this configuration, I am currently working not just as my unit's chaplain, but as the "Task Force Chaplain," providing religious support for all assigned individuals and their families; they are from over thirty distinct religious traditions and—oh by the way!—half of them I'd never met until the month before we left for Africa.

Fr James Parnell, Mat. Holly, and their five children

Though I am on extended military leave in both cases, I remain assigned as the pastor of All Saints Orthodox Church in Hartford, CT and a supervisory chaplain for the Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System. While I'm obviously enjoying my work here with the military, I am looking forward to coming home in a few months. It will be good to be home with my wife and five children, and I am also looking forward to getting back to work at the parish and VA hospital.


Take us through a typical day or week (if there is such a thing!) in your chaplaincy.

In many ways, being a chaplain is just like any other priestly ministry—or at least, it's been much like my experience of being a parish priest or a hospital chaplain: I make a plan for the day or the week, and then reality happens—and it changes. We have a basic mission: to nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. What that looks like can change dramatically on any given day, but overall I work as part of a two-person team with an enlisted Religious Affairs Non-commissioned Officer (NCO), and we are in charge of what the Army calls "religious support."

Fr James (right) works with an NCO (Non-Comissioned Officer) to provide religious support.

That includes either performing or providing. I perform those services which only I, as an Orthodox priest, can do—I celebrate weekly Divine Liturgy and holiday services; I provide the sacraments for Orthodox Christians in the region; I hear confessions; bring communion to those who can't come to Liturgy; I teach catechumen classes and baptize/chrismate those who want to join the Orthodox Church; I sing pannikhidas and moliebens; I preach and teach and bless things and often answer questions about fasting and icons and all that. In this regard, much of what I do is similar to my work as a parish priest or hospital chaplain, except most of what I do is in shared space (be it a chapel, an office, outside, or on the hood of a truck), in miniature (short stole, mini-gospel, small communion kit, tiny hand cross and icons, etc.), and without the same support/help/resources as in a parish (often there's no choir, server, reader, etc.).

For those things I can't do (or perform), I work to provide opportunities, resources, and/or coordination in order to help ensure free exercise of religion for all our soldiers. That can take many forms: it may mean coordinating to get chaplain support from other units (e.g., a Protestant chaplain from the Army, a Catholic priest from the Navy, or rabbi from the Air Force) out to a location for services; assisting a Church of Latter Day Saints soldier with getting in touch with a local lay leader to have a meeting; helping facilitate a different work schedule and special dietary needs for a Muslim soldier during Ramadan. 

Religious support in the Army also includes a lot of counseling, be it for work stress, family/relationship issues, religious accommodations, crisis intervention, pastoral counseling, grief counseling, and more. We are the only folks in the Army who have 100% confidentiality—no exceptions. That's a big deal for folks coming to see us. 

In addition to providing this one-on-one counseling, we can also help connect our soldiers and family members with resources as needed—everything from mental health referrals and financial counselors to veteran benefits and non-profits that can help out in times of crisis. We try to circulate as much as possible, going around different areas and ministering to our soldiers by being present. We also keep daily office hours to take care of administrative work and to be available for walk-ins. 

Finally, amidst all of this work providing care and counseling, I also work as a staff officer and advisor for the commander. I advise leaders on issues of morale, ethics, morals, and religion, both internal (i.e., relating to our soldiers and internal operations) and external (i.e., relating to the local population, external operations, etc.). We help units and individuals work through ethical dilemmas, make sound moral decisions, and we gauge and maintain morale of the soldiers and their families. We help other sections and leaders understand how religion and culture impact what we do in the region, and vice versa. In our current area of operations, spanning the Horn of Africa, that can get pretty complicated!

What inspired you to go into military chaplaincy?

I was nearly killed by a rocket that landed a few feet from me during my second deployment to Iraq—but that's a story for another day. 

Fr James at his ordination to the priesthood

Essentially, being in the military for many years as an enlisted soldier—on combat deployments for months without a chaplain or someone I felt I could turn to for guidance or spiritual encouragement—was what inspired me to go into military chaplaincy. 

I wanted to ensure soldiers had the opportunity to freely exercise their religion; to provide Holy Communion or hear a confession for a soldier in need; to provide counsel and encouragement to those who are suffering; to serve those who serve. Military chaplaincy has given me that opportunity time and time again. 

Do you have a particular story or memory from your chaplaincy that sticks out to you more than others? Maybe one that moved you or gave you encouragement as you continue your work? 

There are loads of stories—some heart-warming and others heart-breaking—and tons of people over my last decade or so of ministry in this area. 

Honestly, a lot of chaplaincy is just carrying—or, helping others to carry—those stories; being present to help people celebrate or give thanks, to grieve, or to ask for guidance. 

One recent event was the Feast of Saint Maurice, who is the patron saint of the Infantry, and was himself an African soldier who was deployed overseas. Being able to talk about the life of one of our Orthodox saints, to share his inspiring story, and ask for his intercessions as I stood with my infantrymen serving in Africa—that was a real blessing! 

It has also been really encouraging during counseling to see soldiers and their families get to a place of healing and wholeness that they didn't previously think was possible. 

I also recently got to wear all my hats—as an Army chaplain, a VA chaplain, and a parish priest—in order to help honor a WWII veteran who we found out was buried nearby in an unmarked grave for the past sixty years. My parish and I helped coordinate with the family to raise the funds and complete the paperwork necessary to reestablish rights to the plot here in Africa; I worked with the VA to ensure delivery of a VA tombstone here to our base; I coordinated local Army engineers and other units to get the stone emplaced at the grave site and spend a day cleaning up the cemetery. It took many months of coordination, but we'll be having a memorial service with the unveiling of the headstone later this month. So that's pretty cool!

A lot of people were inspired by a photo of you baptizing a soldier that was shared on social media. Are there unique blessings, challenges, and/or considerations when you minister to seekers in a military setting? 

As I mentioned earlier, chaplains in the Army are tasked to perform or provide—that is, we either do it ourselves or we try and get help from others to make it happen. In this case, I had the blessing to walk alongside this soldier as he united himself to Christ.  And, I have to admit, the opportunity to baptize soldiers in the Red Sea (or at least the gulf touching it) has been pretty cool!

Fr James raises the cross before a soldier being baptized in the Gulf of Aden

I have baptized two soldiers and have two more scheduled for later this year. Each case is a little different, and I want to be respectful of their privacy and their journey, but I can say that deploying overseas gives many people—especially young people—a new perspective on their life; the direction they're heading, their priorities, their values, their mortality. 

Much like my experience with ministering during the recent pandemic, not having a church building and normal parish life—from elaborate services, beautiful choirs, and big icons to coffee hour, church school, and serving together in the community—is really challenging, in both senses of the word. It is a challenge because much of our life as Orthodox Christians is connected to these beautiful and amazing parts of our tradition and are embedded into community life, so not having that during COVID-19 (or during a deployment to Africa) can make it difficult to fully experience what we usually think of as "normal." Yet it is also a challenge in the positive sense: it challenges folks to dig into Scripture and to take responsibility for their faith formation, to be more present and attentive in the services we are able to celebrate together, to develop and maintain spiritual disciplines as an individual and as a family, and to perhaps focus on the fundamentals of our Faith. 

And of course, the discipline, maturity, values, commitment, and lived experience that many service members bring to the table as seekers is also a real blessing. 

Did studying at St. Vladimir's help prepare you for this particular ministry in any concrete way? Did your thesis regarding pastoral care to Orthodox veterans contribute to that as well, and have you learned things "in the field" since you wrote your thesis you would add now?

Most definitely. 

I've talked before about how important Clinical Pastoral Education [CPE] was for me. I had the unique opportunity of doing my CPE unit at the VA Hospital in Manhattan, and that was a huge help. It really helped me cement my focus on serving soldiers and veterans and their families going forward. 

Fr James at graduation with Met. Tihon

I also had the opportunity to serve concurrently as a chaplain candidate in the New York National Guard while at St. Vladimir's. At one point during my first or second year, I almost missed the first week of class because of being called up to provide disaster response for Superstorm Sandy. The administration and professors were always very supportive and flexible during those times I had conflicting duties between the seminary and the military. 

We also had a sizable group of military veterans at St. Vladimir's at the time—be they students, faculty/staff, family members, or in the chapel community. That was a real blessing for me as I was coming off of years of active duty and two deployments to Iraq. They definitely helped me in having a more healthy transition as a Veteran into the community, something that was a big part of my thesis and my work since. 

I've been blessed to be able to put a lot of my research work into practice. Some of this has been on my own in my parish, where we have a very active partnership with a local non-profit serving at-risk veterans in central Connecticut, or at the VA Hospital where I get to work with veterans from WWII and Vietnam as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. I've also been able to help support other priests who have reached out to me as they try to better serve their veteran parishioners and their families.

The Church needs servants in so many vocations, including military chaplaincy. What would you say to someone who is discerning this particular ministry, or to someone considering ministry who may not have even thought about military chaplaincy before?

Honestly? It's the same thing I'd say to anyone considering ministry in the Church: if there's anything else you'd rather do, anything else you feel called to or are interested in—do that instead.  

That is not meant to dissuade people from pursuing the priesthood or military chaplaincy—but to perhaps help people really think about why they're considering entering that ministry. 

At the same time, if you have been feeling that urge to consider military chaplaincy; if you really want to meet them where they are and are committed to serving them—do it! 

First word of advice is call a chaplain and talk to them about it! 

We have a whole directory of current and retired military and VA chaplains on the OCA website. We can help you work through the process and can perhaps open your eyes to the various ways you might be able to serve, whether full-time or part-time; Army, Navy, Air Force, or Veterans Affairs. 

Depending on where you want to serve, it may take a lot of work and time and effort; lots of hoops to jump through and paperwork to do (as well as perhaps some physical training, if you're not in fighting shape!), but I can promise that it'll be worth it.  

You won't often have the comforts of a well-appointed temple or a beautiful choir—you'll often be left doing services by yourself or with only one or two people, maybe on the hood of a truck under a tarp to stay out of the rain, or perhaps in a tin shack with no water or electricity, with everything you need either in a bag (or in your pockets!).  

But you'll be serving be serving Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Guardians, Coast Guardsmen, Veterans, and their families—often in times of great need—and that is a wonderful blessing. 

At least, it has been for me. 

  • U.S. Army Photos by Sgt. Amanda Stock
  • Photo (third from top): Fr. James, Mat. Holly, and their children Samuel, Ariane, Eleanor, Sean, and Ingrid 
  • Photo (fourth from top): Fr. James' two-person religious support team with an enlisted Religious Affairs Non-commissioned Officer (NCO)
  • Photo (third from bottom): Fr. James' priestly ordination in December 2012 at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in New Britain, CT, by the hands of Archbishop Nikon+ (photo by P. Salina)
  • Photo (bottom): Metropolitan Tikhon presents Fr. James' diploma to him at St. Vladimir's Seminary's commencement ceremony in May 2013