Written by Gary Sheftick
Defense Media Activity – Army
Fort Meade, MD – As the only woman to serve as an Army Special Forces chaplain, Capt. Delana Small said the key to success was just being herself.
“I never tried to act like a guy,” she said, explaining that Soldiers look for authenticity. “So I never tried to be anything other than myself.”
Between May 2015 and December 2017, she deployed with the 5th Special Forces Group to Turkey and Jordan.
The operations tempo was high and she admits that she worked hard to stay in shape like the green berets and keep competent in basic soldiering skills in order to maintain credibility, but said the operators always accepted her.
Earlier this month, she was inducted into the Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame for being the first female chaplain to serve in a combat-arms battalion at the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
That historic first occurred in June 2012, when she reported to the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 101st at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as chaplain for the 4th Battalion, 320th Field Artillery.
The Women in Service Review had recommended an exception to policy to allow certain battalion staff positions to be filled by women in what had been all-male combat-arms units. These were positions such as battalion S-1 personnel officers, S-2 intelligence officers, S-4 logistics officers and others, including chaplains.
Small just happened to be the first chaplain to report for duty, she said, adding that about 10 other women soon followed in combat units across the Army.
The biggest challenges did not come from Soldiers on the gun line, she said, but from a few staff members. At that time, the division’s female personnel were “shuffled” as women were integrated into combat-arms battalions, she said.
“It was an interesting dynamic to navigate,” she said. A handful of staff officers who had been working hard for years with little recognition were not all that happy with the attention and publicity the women were getting.
“I don’t want to use the word sexist — that’s too strong — but they definitely had their opinions,” she said of those few officers. “But I would say that number was very small compared to the population, and over time through deployments … I think we were able to come to understandings.”
It didn’t faze her at first, she said, because she didn’t quite realize the significance.
“I probably couldn’t articulate what a combat-arms unit was at that time, versus a support unit or anything else,” she said. In addition, she was accustomed to serving mostly with men, she said, as the seminary had been primarily male.
The next spring, she went with the battalion to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and then deployed with them and the brigade to Afghanistan.
The 4th BCT took over Regional Command East in Khost and Paktika provinces. She visited nine different sites to serve Soldiers.
“I was there to be a chaplain,” she said. “Knowing how to counsel and do those things well would enhance my credibility.”
On Combat Outpost Wilderness, a mortar hit the fire direction center, killing three Soldiers and injuring others, taking out their ability to operate for a short period. When she arrived at the COP, she counseled Soldiers for 20 hours straight without rest.
“It was hard, and I was exhausted, and emotionally drained. But that was why I was there… that’s why I became a chaplain… to be there when people are in crisis; be that support to people who have given so much.”
Sometimes the most challenging situations are also the most rewarding, she said.
Following her tour with the 4-320th Field Artillery, she served with the Combat Aviation Brigade on Fort Campbell. Then she attended Airborne School.
With airborne training under her belt, she was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group. “That’s actually the assignment that was most surprising to me,” she said, “because I was the first female chaplain integrated into a Special Forces unit.”
She often met with coalition troops from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries who practiced Islam.
At one point, the Turkish translator shared that the Turkish Soldiers did not know her appropriate title, so jokingly called her the “pope.” But the translator told her the Turkish troops appreciated her services, because she didn’t treat them any differently than Americans.
“We take their care very seriously,” she said of the coalition forces.
She was able to advise a Turkish commander on ethics and morale issues, she said. Over chai — a cup of tea — he was able to share situations with her as an outside source, she said.
Over the course of her deployments, she helped with about 25 memorial services and focused on counseling survivors.
Sometimes the toughest jobs are the most fulfilling, she said, and when Soldiers whom she counseled in crises came to her in happier times — such as preparing for their wedding — that’s when she knew her work was effective. That’s her measure of success.
Small attended the Chaplain Captain Career Course from January to June 2018. In July, she reported for duty at West Point, New York, as a regimental chaplain for the U.S. Military Academy. She said in some ways, the job is tougher than Special Forces.
“They’re very busy here,” she said. “It’s kind of like basic training meets Harvard.”
About 5 percent of the Army’s 3,178 chaplains are currently women. That’s 178 female chaplains in the total Army, including 71 on active duty, 40 in the Army National Guard and 67 in the Army Reserve.
Fourteen female chaplains currently serve in combat arms units, or Maneuver/Fires and Effects units. In the past five years, four Army women have served as BCT or division chaplains, although none currently are in those positions.