Chaplain Claude Newby: Faith Is His Field Gear


Lieutenant Colonel Claude Dean Newby believes a chaplain should share the hardship and dangers of the field and combat with the soldiers he serves. Practicing what he preaches has nearly cost him his life several times. It has also led to his becoming one of the most decorated chaplains in United States history.

But Brother Newby would prefer not to dwell on the decorations. The opportunities he has had to be of service as a chaplain are far more important to him.

Brother and Sister Newby

Brother and Sister Newby today. (Photo by Jim Bates.)

Claude was raised in a strong Christian home in the hills of east Tennessee, but he left his parents’ evangelistic church as a youth. A strong believer in the Bible, he was treated contemptuously by the pastor when he asked publicly why people today did not receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, as promised to the baptized on the day of Pentecost. He concluded that his parents’ church must not be the church of Jesus Christ, but he never forgot their example of faith in Christ and the Bible.

Claude’s early schooling was unpromising. He spent two years in the second grade and struggled through three years in the fourth grade at Goat Knob and Eastdale schools, then finally dropped out of the seventh grade at sixteen to join the United States Army. He felt a duty to fight for his country in the Korean War. But the Army ordered him to Berlin, Germany, instead.

It was there that he met and married Helga Martha Anna Raasch.

In Germany, Claude served as a military policeman in the last of the Army’s official horse units. He was reassigned to the United States in 1956 and mustered out of the Army at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York, in 1958.

“My goal at the time was to join the California Highway Patrol, and I had acquired a high school diploma to that end,” he says. Vacancies in the CHP were not immediately available, so Claude found himself working as a guard at Alcatraz, the forbidding federal prison on a rocky island in San Francisco Bay. During shifts in the gun gallery above the cell blocks, he would read the Bible and pray, still hoping to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and learn which church to join.

The Sunday before he left the Army, the young soldier from Tennessee had been introduced to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by a friend whose life-style impressed him. That single contact with the Church left Claude wanting to learn more, but because he knew it only by the name “Mormon,” he could not find it identified in the telephone directory or on any church buildings.

The same week Claude was introduced to the Church, Helga Newby had received a Book of Mormon from her mother. Martha Raasch had bought the book from two missionaries in Berlin. She sent it to her daughter, explaining that she thought Helga would find the book interesting. (At the time, Sister Newby’s mother had no interest in the Church for herself. But, through the efforts of her daughter and son-in-law, she later became a member and served a temple mission at the Swiss Temple.)

In the summer of 1959, the Church finally found the Newbys. Two elders tracting door-to-door met Helga and returned to teach her and her husband. The Newbys accepted the gospel immediately; they were baptized 8 August 1959. “My prayers for the gift of the Holy Ghost were finally answered,” Claude says.

Helga also felt a profound change in her life. She had been struggling to learn English, for example, since she had moved to the United States. “After I was confirmed and received the Holy Ghost, I really received a lot of help.”

“After we joined the Church, we wanted to get closer to its headquarters,” Brother Newby recalls. They moved to Utah in 1960, where he became a police officer for Ogden City. He enrolled in Weber State College and graduated with its first four-year class in 1964. (He has since gone on to complete two master’s degrees.)

The fall he graduated, he quit the police department to teach LDS seminary classes. He had made plans to accept a teaching position later among the Eskimos in Alaska, but he canceled those plans when he learned his application to serve as an Army chaplain had been accepted.

“I grew up in the Army, and I think I understand soldiers,” Brother Newby reflects. Although chaplains cannot actively proselyte for their own faith, they inevitably reflect their religious training. “I thought I could represent the Church well, help many men to live Christian principles better—and perhaps some on their own would seek to know more.”

In July of 1965, eleven men selected by the Church reported to Salt Lake City for orientation. Elder Boyd K. Packer, then an Assistant to the Twelve, told them that they had not been selected merely because they best met the Church’s qualifications, but “because the Lord wanted it.” The opportunity for more Latter-day Saints to serve as chaplains had become available, he said, because “the chaplaincy needs the priesthood.”

Brother Newby would need that reassurance; there were a number of obstacles yet to be overcome. He was told more than once during the subsequent screening process that he had been disqualified, but each time somehow the way was reopened.

At each setback, his wife buoyed him up, assuring him that his goal would be realized if the Lord wanted it to happen. Helga, he says, is a woman of great faith, and it was frequently her surety that pulled him through his low points.

When Brother Newby’s appointment finally came, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley bore his witness that the Lord had played a major role in Chaplain Newby’s selection.

Brother Newby served two tours of duty in Vietnam, from September 1966 to September 1967, and from March 1969 to March 1970. He holds the view that “a chaplain’s place is where he’s most needed.” He served his duty the hard way—in the jungles and rice paddies with ordinary soldiers, living with the same danger, fear, and risks they faced.

There were indeed risks. One morning he discovered he had taken cover during the previous night’s sporadic fighting next to a bush that had been mined by North Vietnamese soldiers; a shrapnel fragment had clipped one of the circuit trip wires leading from the mine to an enemy position, preventing the mine from being detonated.

Moments after finding the mine, while awaiting orders for an assault on North Vietnamese positions, he was talking with four scared soldiers sent out as replacements. Suddenly he felt hungry—something soldiers almost never experience when battle seems imminent. He walked away to get some chow and had just stepped around the corner of a small plantation building when there was an explosion. A sniper bullet had touched off the hand grenades one of the replacements wore on his belt. The young man next to where Brother Newby had been standing was killed instantly; the others were seriously wounded.

He was similarly protected a number of times, but he did not always escape unscathed. He received three purple hearts for wounds in Vietnam and an Army Commendation Medal and three Bronze Stars for valor. (He has received two more Bronze Stars for service.)

His deeds of valor were motivated by concern for other men. He has one Bronze Star, for example, for rescuing a wounded soldier; Brother Newby suffered shrapnel wounds in the back and hand in the process.

His feelings about the need for chaplains in the field are strong. “Chaplains must go wherever troops are sent,” he emphasizes. Without the spirituality that chaplains represent, Brother Newby feels that soldiers would degenerate more and more into the bloodthirsty type of individuals who fought in the struggles that ended Nephite civilizations.

“Both times he left for Vietnam,” Sister Newby recalls, “we felt that it was his mission and that the Lord would protect him. If he were meant to come back, he would.” That faith buoyed Chaplain Newby and his family through those dangerous years.

While he was away, he kept close to his family by sending letters and tapes frequently. Some of the tapes explained gospel principles for his growing children. “We still have the tapes, and we still use them,” Helga Newby says, though teenage Daniel is the only one of their seven children at home now. (James, Jeannie, John, and Laura are married. Lynnette is currently on a mission, and Suzanne Marie, their daughter who was born before Daniel, passed away as an infant.)

Jeannie Newby Buckley, of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, recalls that her father used to write each individual in the family, even “from the foxholes,” while he was in Vietnam. For her, those letters have become a legacy. “None of my friends has anything like this. I can look back and see how much he loves me. It’s nice now to have in writing the things most parents say to their children.”

John Newby says his father understands “the teenage mind. You could always confide in him.” He was a strong leader in the family, “firm, but compassionate,” and thoughtful about his children’s needs. When his assignment was changed and the family had to move again, Brother Newby would take his thirty days of annual leave. Then the family would spend part of that time visiting old friends, to ease the pain of being uprooted, John says.

Many times, the way has been opened for Brother Newby to receive new opportunities for service. Often, non-Latter-day Saints have been the instruments in helping him receive these added blessings.

In 1979, he was selected for further civilian schooling, despite the fact that he ostensibly had too much time in the service to qualify. Following that schooling, his next assignment was changed; he was given an opportunity that would affect how chaplains will relate to soldiers for decades to come.

In the early 1980s, the chaplaincy faced severe obstacles in several areas, Brother Newby explains. Some tacticians believed chaplains would be unable to function on the fast-moving, devastating battlefield of tomorrow. The Army was in the midst of a reevaluation of all its functions, and the chaplaincy faced challenges to its legality under the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of separation of church and state. Against that background, Brother Newby was assigned to analyze for the Army how chaplains should operate in the combat of the future.

In carrying out the task, he spent long periods in training with troops on the Army’s “electronic” battlefield in California, where computerized simulation techniques help test how soldiers perform under a wide variety of conditions.

Colonel Gordon Schweitzer, retired director of Combat Developments at the United States Army Chaplain Center and School, Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, recalls that Claude Newby took a “bulldog approach” to the assignment. He wouldn’t let go. He would return from California late on Friday and be at work at 2:00 A.M. Monday writing his reports. “I couldn’t slow him down. I’d say, ‘Claude, take some time off.’” But Brother Newby wouldn’t do it.

For years, the chaplaincy had been oriented toward a peacetime, garrison-style ministry. Instead, Brother Newby believes, the chaplaincy should follow the Army motto, “Organize for war, modify for peace.” That way, spiritual needs of service personnel can be served under both conditions.

His credentials and combat experience gave his recommendations added weight. He was able to help shift the Army’s focus to the ministry in combat and was asked to write the manual—Army “doctrine,” he explains—on how a chaplain should function in the field. When the job was done, he was commended by his superiors.

Being able to use his talents and abilities as a military chaplain has been a blessing tailored just for him, Claude Newby believes. His career has been rich in opportunities to teach and to serve others. There was, for example, the captain who thought of himself as an atheist and tried to thwart the chaplain’s efforts. After one particularly nasty bit of combat when all his men escaped unscathed, the captain confided to Brother Newby that he was beginning to doubt his atheism.

There was the recently married soldier suspended face down from a hospital rack in Vietnam, dying. Brother Newby lay on the floor and looked up into his eyes to offer what comfort he could.

Latter-day Saints in his position must understand “that ‘chaplain’ is an institutional title, not an ecclesiastical title,” Brother Newby says. “You’re the chaplain to everyone.” Regardless of one’s own religious affiliation, he must be able to offer comfort to individuals of every religion—or no religion.

But an LDS chaplain has an advantage in meeting the needs of service personnel, he comments. “A Latter-day Saint, with his unequivocal testimony of Christ’s atonement, can give others a sense of faith and hope when their philosophical-based supports do not suffice.”

A Latter-day Saint can have access to the gift of the Spirit that Claude Newby’s search led him to find many years ago—and the certainty of everlasting truths that it brings.

[photo] Chaplain Newby in Vietnam in 1969.

[photos] Below: Elder and Sister David B. Haight, flanked by Chaplains Robert Cordner, left, and Claude Newby, at the Servicemen’s Conference in Berchtesgaden, Germany, in 1970. Right: The Newby Family in 1959, shortly after Claude and Helga were baptized: (from left) Helga, John, James, Claude, and Jeannie.

[photos] Top: Chaplain Newby counsels a Vietnam-bound Army trainee at Ft. Ord, California, 1966. Above: Claude Newby (left) with other members of the Army horse platoon in Berlin, Germany, 1954. Right: Claude Newby in 1956, when he was a military policeman at Ft. Hamilton, New York.