Story Magazine

Third Quarter, 2003

Herb Cleveland: Serving the Nation’s Vets

by Nancy Giguere, special correspondent

When Herb Cleveland talks to teens preparing for confirmation, he sometimes issues a gentle challenge: "I'm not going to be doing this forever. And I don't have anyone to give my stoles to--but I think they would fit you."

Cleveland, '59, is passionate about helping people identify their gifts for ministry. Soft-spoken but persuasive, he has inspired seven individuals to enroll at Luther. "He wants the church to grow and be sustained, and he encourages people to serve at all levels," says Dwight Stensgaard, senior pastor at Calvary Lutheran in Rapid City, South Dakota, where Cleveland now serves as supply pastor.

Ministering to the Wounded

An army veteran who served in Korea, Cleveland had always considered becoming a military chaplain. "The chaplain seemed to me to be a real point of comfort and sanity, someone who could give people a real sense of direction and hope," he says.

After graduating from Luther, Cleveland was called to Bethel Lutheran in Lead, S.D., only 30 miles from the veterans hospital at Fort Meade. During visits to hospitalized parishioners, he saw a great need for chaplains with battlefield experience. Patients at that time included veterans of both world wars and the Korean conflict. Many suffered from "battle fatigue" or post-traumatic stress disorder.

"In that setting,you need the background of military experience," Cleveland says. "You need to understand the loss of life, the blood, the bullets flying overhead, the explosions, the artillery, and the armor. I was able to talk with patients and understand what they were going through."

Serving Everyone

Cleveland soon became full-time chaplain at the hospital, a post he held during the 1960s and '70s. His daughter Elizabeth remembers: "There wasn't much that would move the patients to a smile, but Chaplain Cleveland was able to do that. Even today, when he shows up at the VA hospital, many of the vets still remember him and maneuver themselves over to see and touch him."

Because many veterans at the hospital were Native American, Cleveland arranged for powwows where they could be honored as warriors. He also had a sweat lodge built so that they could benefit from their traditional healing ceremonies. "The government puts us in the hospital to serve everyone. If we can't help someone ourselves, we have to find someone who can," he says.

During the Vietnam War, Fort Meade became a center for research and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and the alcohol and drug abuse that often resulted. Cleveland traveled frequently to Washington, D.C., where he served on task forces and commissions that considered ways to make treatment more effective.

Directing the Chaplain Service

In 1982, Cleveland was named Deputy Chief of Chaplain Service. Six years later, President Ronald Reagan appointed him Director of Chaplain Service. In that position, he supervised over 1,200 chaplains throughout the United States. One of his first acts was to authorize a task force on clinical pastoral education (CPE). CPE eventually became a requirement for VA chaplaincy, and the service established its own school for chaplains in Hampton, VA.

During Cleveland's tenure, the service appointed its first Buddhist and Muslim chaplains. Cleveland also supported the creation of the National Black Chaplains Association and appointed the first women to the VA chaplaincy. The appointment of women proved controversial, and some chaplains resigned rather than work with women. But Cleveland was undeterred. "If women could serve as enlisted or officers in active combat roles, there was no reason they couldn't be chaplains," he says.

The Cold War Concludes

In 1987 as the cold war was coming to an end, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to Washington. It was an "electrifying visit," Cleveland says. When Gorbachev allowed the armed forces to re-establish chaplaincy services, Cleveland made several trips to Moscow to consult with the Soviets. Russian Orthodox clergy also trained with VA chaplains in Virginia.

Other highlights of Cleveland's years as director include participating with foreign dignitaries in wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, representing the United States at a special reception for the Patriarch of Moscow, and meeting with the Dalai Lama during a conference in New Delhi.

A Wonderful Adventure

Cleveland attributes his successful ministry to God's grace: "He can use anyone--his grace is so great." He also praises his family--wife Constance and children Laurie, Elizabeth, Robert and Timothy--for supporting his work.

Looking back over his long service to America's veterans, Cleveland says, "I would not change my calling for anything. It's been a wonderful adventure."