Janet Horton

Retired Army Chaplain

By Staff Writer

Categories: Military, Religion

Janet Horton is a retired chaplain who served in the Army for 28 years. She was at the Pentagon on 9/11, and her prayer, helped many people. As one of the first women chaplains for the Army, she met serious resistance. But she persevered, and her love healed hateful situations. Throughout her years of service, she counseled, taught ethics, and wrote and delivered a briefing to Pentagon officials. What she shared during her interview is divided into three parts:

Janet's experience as a chaplain helping and healing casualties on 9/11 at the Pentagon

How did you decide to become a chaplain?
I was a "Polyanna" from Iowa. I had never flown. I had no concept of much of anything beyond Iowa. But it seemed that people thought I'd do well with the chaplaincy and that God was telling me to do it. I need to back up, though. When I was young, I was so small and shy that I couldn't look another human being in the eye. I had a healing when I was 12 years old. Isaiah 50:4 helped me: "The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned." I had been very self-conscious because my school mates would make fun of me because I was very intelligent. After reading this, I realized that I didn't need to be ashamed of the wonderful intelligence that God had given me and that I could use this intelligence to comfort people -- to "speak a word in season to him that is weary." So at 12, I just had a complete turn-around. I was able to speak. I trusted that God would tell me what I needed to know because He was the true source of intelligence.

As a chaplain, you must have comforted many throughout the years and particularly on 9/11. You were at the Pentagon on 9/11 when the terrorist plane hit. What was your involvement?
Although I was working at the Pentagon at a supervisory level, on 9/11 I was acting more as an individual chaplain. After the plane hit the Pentagon, the people were evacuated. Only firemen and the medical teams were going to be allowed to go back in. I happened to be where they formed the medical groups, and I convinced the security guards that they had to have chaplains go back into the Pentagon and pray for the casualties.

How did you convince the security guards?
In my previous tour at the Pentagon 8 years earlier, I had baked pies, cookies, and cakes for the guards who had to work on Christmas and other holidays. So they all knew me by name. I had been praying with the two other chaplains who were with me: "I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it" (Rev. 3:8). It kept coming to me that our right place was to be in there, even though they told us chaplains couldn't go in. It also came to me to speak with authority. So I pointed my finger toward one of the head guards whom I knew and told him that they were going to need people to pray with the casualties inside. He let the three of us in.

What did you do once you got through to the casualties?
Well the courtyard in the middle of the Pentagon is grass. They were laying the wounded down on that grass. In the military, we cannot trespass on others' rights and beliefs; as chaplains, we must ask people if they want to pray. So as the three of us ran in there, we began to kneel down by them and ask if they wanted to pray. There wasn't one person who didn't want to pray. The other chaplains who were out front when they brought out the casualties found the same desire to pray. The second thing we must do is ask them their traditions so that we can pray in a way that is meaningful to them. The ones I happened to talk to were of different Christian traditions. So when I talked with a Catholic, I said, "Let's do the 'Our Father'" rather than calling it the Lord's Prayer because that's how Catholics refer to it. I also found that many of them were comforted by the 23rd Psalm. It was particularly moving when we would come to "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures" (23:2) because here we were praying together on the green grass.

It sounds like your prayerful responses were well-received. Did you feel prepared?
On the 10th of September, I was going home on the metro and praying for the world community. That's the time I reserve to pray for the world. There was all this rolling thunder, and my thought kept getting pulled to it. Finally, it was so urgent and striking that I just cried out to God, "Help me understand what you're pointing my thought to." Very clearly the response came: "Pray about the gathering of malice." Of course I didn't know what was going to happen the next day, but this directive was so urgent to me that I stayed up and prayed until about two in the morning. I really prayed to know that God could disperse any destructive energy that could hurt people. I knew that God's power and moral courage had superiority over animal or bestial behavior.

Your thought was certainly ready for the next day. And even though the terrorists hit, I can't believe that your prayers were futile.
What I've always said is that the terrorists thought that 9/11 was the defining event of hatred. But when you look at the response of the American people, it was just the reverse: it was the defining event of love! People were selfless; they expressed moral courage. One man who had jumped from a 2nd-story window couldn't move his legs or his spine, but he was there, breaking the fall for other people who were being pushed out of the window when they saw a fire ball coming toward them. The raw animal courage of the terrorists was so inferior to the moral courage of the people. I also need to tell you that I was not supposed to be where I ended up that morning. My birthday is August 11, and all those in the military have to have their teeth checked on their birthday to make sure they're deployable. Well, I never got a call on my birthday. So on September 11, I was surprised to get that call. The call pulled me away from my office across the Pentagon to the opposite side at about 9 a.m., just before the plane hit. My office was on the side where the plane crashed. As I got up to leave, I went back and got my Bible Lesson, which had verses from the Bible on a specific subject. I was the only chaplain who had Bible passages to share with the casualties and with others. The passages met the need perfectly:

  • … ye sons of Jacob are not consumed. (Mal. 3:6)
  • … the Sun of righteousness [shall] arise with healing in his wings. (Mal. 4:2)
  • Therefore fear thou not … neither be dismayed, O Israel; for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity and … [you] shall be in rest, and be quiet, and none shall make him [you] afraid…. For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the Lord. (Jer. 30:10, 17)

In addition, there were passages about reducing inflammation, which is heat, fire, hatred. I was praying to know that God could reduce inflammation in the building and in people, both literally and figuratively. The Pentagon historian was so struck by the fact that these passages, which were so appropriate to the situation, had been selected about a year previously for this Bible Lesson. He took those passages and is putting them in the memorial. I was even asked to fax the passages to the White House liaison.

Are there any moments or inspiration that stand out to you from that day?
Two things. When we went in, there were the first medical crew, 2 star generals, civilians, young specialists -- people of every possible rank who were all working together. Rank didn't matter. Sometimes they had to move all the medical supplies somewhere; or take water bottles to firemen; or shoot locks off of pop machines to get into the snack bars so people could have food, water, or the hamburger rolls. If those firemen needed anything, someone would get it. It was like the day of Pentacost: we "were all with one accord in one place" (Acts 2:1). And there was no fear. I've always thought of fear as a selfish emotion. Everyone's thought and focus was on what we could do for the casualties: if I have to get down on the floor and scrape ice into a bucket, I will; I'll do whatever I can to help these people who are burning. And by about noon, the one guy who had a cell phone started passing it around so we could call our families, which none of us had done because we were so busy tending to casualties. That was the atmosphere -- one of unity and love.

The second experience was with the man I mentioned who had jumped from the 2nd story. The medics had begun to cut his socks and pants off of him. He was so distraught because he could see what they were doing, but he couldn't feel anything. I had taken the name off of his badge because we had to do an accountability check (know where everyone was). I asked him if he wanted to pray. Although he said yes, I couldn't get his attention. With every other person, asking them if they wanted to pray had an immediate impact of bringing a sense of calm and peace. This was not happening because this man was so distracted by not having feeling in his legs. I turned to God and asked Him what I needed to do. The thought came to me, "You speak to him with more authority." So I turned to him and called his name again. He looked at me. I affirmed, "Nothing can 'separate' you 'from the love of God.'" We went through the passage together: "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38, 39). For the first time, he became completely calm. The passage was so perfect because he had jumped from a 2nd-story window. They had to evacuate people because we didn't know where the other plane was. As they started moving him over the dry leaves, they began to poke him, and he started saying, "Ouch." Everyone realized he was feeling his legs. An overwhelming sense of joy came over all of us. It was powerful to see that sense of calm and healing when he really listened to that Bible passage.

You mentioned you were at a supervisory level at the Pentagon. What were you doing?

At the Pentagon, you're at the policy level. The first time I was there, I helped to digitize a database (we were just getting computers) to get accurate information in order to bring equity and treat the chaplains fairly for promotion and educational selection. The second time, I worked at the Department of Defense. There are times when the flag rank officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines who run the whole chaplaincy want to join and work together on certain issues. I was the Executive Director for all of those issues. I was advising the Office of the Secretary of Defense on strategic level policy issues regarding religious issues. For instance, because I was there during the 9/11 experience, I advised what to do if we came across remains of the Muslim terrorists. Also, one of the things they were wondering was if they needed an American military Muslim to respond to Osama Bin Laden. I told them not to because it would be comparable to a first year pastor getting up and going against the Pope. Such an individual, or even a regular Imam (a person who leads prayer at a mosque or with a group of Muslims), would've had no credibility with Al Queda. I had also developed a briefing on the terrorist mindset in February of 2001.

How did the terrorist mindset briefing come about?
Earlier, when I was in Europe and was the V Corps Chaplain, we would figure out how to respond to a given threat and practice. The threat was always Saddam Hussein and an Iraq scenario. General Franks's Staff, in conjunction with the Joint Staff, had asked me to take a look at Osama Bin Laden in February '01. I saw that they didn't understand how qualitatively different Bin Laden's mindset was, which is based on Divine Command Morality. There have been both Christian and Muslim extremists who have used DCM as a basis for terrorist activities -- the Branch Davidians in Waco, Jonestown, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Uganda where cult leaders burned 500 of the devotees, 9/11, and other Islamic extremist activities. It is very different than the mindset of most Americans and Europeans whose ethical systems use reason. Although the news initially reported that Muslim terrorists were probably responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, I was the only one who said it was not done by Muslims. One of the reasons why I knew this was that I had been studying the articles "The Christian Science Monitor" had been publishing on the Unabomber. The Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski) believed that the American government had no right to restrict in any way the individual conscience. That's what drove him and others like him, such as Timothy McVeigh, the OK City bomber. Neither was driven by the thought, "God tells me to wage a jihad against you." We think in terms of reason and internal consistency. Reason doesn't constrain certain other extremist mentalities, nor does internal consistency. Rather, Divine Command Morality devotees will not question whether what they're told is reasonable or practical. They simply hear and obey. If they believe God has told them to do something, it may not necessarily be the reasonable thing.

So was your briefing primarily on religion or ethics?
As chaplains, we are supposed to advise the commander on how religion will impact the operations in our area of concern. I was showing them how important it was to be aware of the religious views of the area. We've been seeing how much religion has an impact on this whole terrorist issue. The ethics of a mindset is a smaller, easier amount of information pertinent to understanding and predicting the actors in that specific group or subset. We didn't need to know about moderate Muslims; we needed to know the ethics of this very radical mindset -- how they define right and wrong -- because that's what drives their actions. Commanders can't go through 1200 pages of theology. So what I did was tell the commanders what the people think and what is having an impact on their actions. I weeded out what we didn't need to know and got it down to what was essential. The intelligence community was fascinated with the briefing. It was also very helpful for them when I pointed out that my information didn't come from classified sources, but from open sources.

How has your work on the terrorist mindset and your experience on 9/11 impacted your life?
I find that I have been very diligent about praying for the world community, and I think that I've prayed to know that this tiny percentage of people really don't represent true persons of faith. I think it's made me pray more about not wanting to contribute to a world sense of hatred or malice. Right now I'm trying to write a book based on my briefing on the terrorist mentality. Hopefully it will be productive in helping us get through all this and understand each other. I'd like to contribute something that will help bring such differences to a harmonious rather than a hateful conclusion. I don't want to spread fear.

But the terrorist mentality certainly has to be destroyed.
Yes! But that doesn't mean the destruction of the people who are confused by that mentality. By that I mean the followers. In Yemen, they took Imams into the places where they had incarcerated the people who had been following terrorists. The Imams began to talk these people through the Koran. What they showed them was the continuity of Mohammed's teachings, which do not promote radical extremism and terrorist behavior. Extremists have taken the concept of jihad, the great struggle within oneself, to the extreme. They were able to help most of the followers. It's been 2 years since they've had problems, whereas before, Yemen had been a hotbed of problems. Our world is coming to a significant place -- defining moments of choice, decision. The intense hatred that our world is facing is never right, and it doesn't matter what type of religious symbols you attach to it. As a religious person, I believe strongly that God is love. Given the premise that "God is love" (I John 4:8), the concept of hate cannot be associated with a right concept of God.

You also worked in Kosovo. What were your responsibilities there?
I was at a high supervisory level by then, putting together the team of chaplains that would provide the ministry. I provided leadership and counseling to the chaplains who were there on a daily basis. By that time, I was a Colonel. I was also advising 1, 2, and 3 Star Generals on what to do when religion became an issue. We had Muslims in the NATO Coalition for the first time and set up the first Muslim place of worship, a mosque, which we dedicated. I had to advise the commander that our Muslims couldn't worship in the same building with people who worshipped a God other than the God of Abraham. Allah cannot be worshipped or have an altar where other Gods are worshipped. We have many major faith groups represented in the military. The Muslims from the United Arab Emirates were thrilled that someone understood their religious precepts and why they needed a dedicated place.

It sounds like you were in very influential positions later in your career. But I can imagine that as the very first woman assigned as a Division or Corps Chaplain in the Army, you might have had challenges earlier on. What was your early experience like?

The first 5 years were challenging, as the idea of women in the chaplaincy was very new, volatile, and emotional. It was really what I call the birth of a new idea. I was spit on three times. I had my tropical fish poisoned. I was run off the road in my car. And at one point, the police determined that there was a contract out on me. But I wasn't ever afraid. When I was assigned to a unit, and the commanders would find out I was a woman, they refused to have me there, sight unseen. Trying to get the first assignment turned me to the passage, "But he is in one mind, and who can turn him? and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth" (Job 23:13). It occurred to me that there was a place for me that God had in mind. After being turned away from 4 units, the 5th one was perfect. They were kind of tricked into having me. The chaplain and commander for the next level up told me to go up at 5:00 a.m. when they were planning to do a 6 ½-mile run, to stand on the field, and to tell them that I was their new chaplain. At that time, you ran in Army boots and a white t-shirt; you didn't have the blouse to your fatigues, so there was no rank, no name, or anything distinguishing. They were kind of looking at me like, "What are you doing here?" When I told them, they were rolling around on the ground laughing because women weren't assigned to Infantry. So, the commander told me to go to the back and fall in and that he'd sort everything out later. Since I prayed, "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint" (Isa. 40:31), during the run, I was able to do the 6 ½ miles without any previous conditioning and without falling out. The commander had been running in front, and at about mile 5 he came to the back and asked me to run with him up front; so I did. He was very upset, but I didn't know why until after the run when he started yelling at the men. Everyday he'd lose 60-80 men on that run; they'd complain that it was too hot or they were too tired. But because I, a woman, didn't fall out, none of the men fell out. The commander told me he was going to run me everyday so none of the men would fall out. I never felt that I was taking wrong steps but that God was leading those steps.

So how did the men treat you once they met you?
I think because right off they couldn't make the argument that I wasn't physically capable, it diffused the argument that women can't be in the Infantry. The most demanding thing they did was the first thing I did. Then we did a forced 12-mile road march that I did with the commander. There was nothing to argue with. But that was on the soldier level. There was also the chaplain level. See, the soldiers accepted me more because I did what they did, and they couldn't tell me, "God told me you can't be here." Soldiers were professional enough to realize it was one human opinion and to work with me. Some chaplains, on the other hand, told me, "God personally told me that you are defying the role of a woman."

Was the resistance from the chaplains denominational?
No, the resistance was individual. There were deeply devout, spiritual individuals who listened to God and conducted themselves beautifully. I found that the chaplains who were sincere and lived their faith didn't have problems. But the ones who weren't as sincere, who didn't live their faith, had problems with others. But you can't write off any entire tradition on one action or individual. One of the other things that engenders envy or divisions among chaplains is the awards you got for the work you did. In order to become a chaplain, you take your Basic Course. Then you get field assignments and learn a lot with your individual units. Then you go back for the Advanced Course that teaches you some of the more advanced principles. I had gotten two very high ranking medals from my two assignments. So people in the Advanced Course were looking at the awards and being very competitive. There was one chaplain who didn't know me at all, as he wasn't in my year group. He was so incensed at my medals that he spit on me.

How did you respond to the chaplain spitting on you?
The first thought that came to me was that I needed to pray to God, because humanly I was feeling like a gas grill lighting up. I felt degraded. I was so white-hot angry, I knew I had to handle this right away or else it would handle me. So I really tried to listen for God's voice. The thought that came to me very clearly was so humbling and moving: "When you said you wanted to follow me, did you think I meant just in My easy footsteps?" It was as if someone had put a fire out. Then I thought, "What must a person have been through to bring himself to spit on another human being?!" I think that helped me put myself in his place. Instead of feeling angry at him, I felt a deep sense of pity for him. It was so pronounced that my response was to put my arms around him and say, "What you must have been through to bring yourself to spit on another human being!" I think it hit him like a load of bricks. I think prior to that, his response was entirely emotional. But at my words and actions, he fell to his knees sobbing and praying that I would forgive him. What could have been an ultimately ugly situation was really transformed by understanding Jesus' teachings: "follow me" (Matt 16:24); "Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you" (Luke 6:27, 28). We say we want to follow, but if we really do, then we have to follow in the harder footsteps. I've shared this experience with others because it's powerful. Inevitably, people would ask me who the guy was (as people would know each other). Part of the completeness of the healing is that I couldn't tell you today who it was. Love neutralized the hate so completely and wiped away any taint so that I could see that such hatred really wasn't him. Love depersonalized it, detached it from a person. I can picture the situation, feel the gravity, but the face was wiped from my consciousness, wiped away. I see no face in my mind.

That's true forgiveness and healing.
I treasure that experience not only because it happened really early in my career, but also because it then became a standard -- a good and high standard -- that was valuable for me to have.

Do you think forgiveness is crucial to healing the world situation?
I think the only way ahead will inevitably have to include forms of forgiveness.

Looking back at your life and experience as a chaplain, what do you see?
God is good. And if you want to be an instrument for God's work, and if you ask God, you'll find that His work will be worked out. You just have to have the attitude, "I'll go where you send me; help me use my hands to do Your work."

Thank you, Janet, for using your hands and your heart to help so many in need

Read poetic prayers Janet wrote for women and men who are serving humanity:

Learn More About Janet Horton

Janet Yarlott Horton Chaplain, (Colonel) Retired, 1 August 2004 Native of Greenville, Michigan. Grew up in Iowa. Married to Jeffrey Harvey of Swanton, VT.

Entered the U. S. Army in June 1976 as a Chaplain

  • First woman assigned as a Division or Corps Chaplain
  • First woman promoted to Colonel in the Army Chaplain Corps
  • Supervised the Religious support for Joint Task Forces in Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo
  • Had two tours at the Pentagon: Executive Director, Armed Forces Chaplain Board; and Career Management Officer, Army Chief of Chaplains Office
  • Gave briefing on the terrorist mindset and Divine Command Morality to Joint Staff country specialists for Middle East and Southwest Asia, EUCOM and CENTCOM Staffs, Office of Secretary of Defense, General Counsel among others

Civilian Education
Stanford University (School of Religion) -- M.A. Religious Studies (Aug. 1984 – Aug. 1985)
Boston University -- Masters of Divinity Theology / Ethics (Sept. 1974 – Jun. 1976)
University of Iowa -- Studied Ethics / World Religions (Sept. 1973 – May 1974)
Graceland College, Lamoni, Iowa -- B.A. Religion (Sept. 1971 – May 1973)
Grand View College, Des Moines, Iowa -- A.A (Aug. 1969 – May 1971)

Military Education
Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA (1995)
Command and General Staff Course (1993)
Chaplains' Officer Advanced Course, Ft. Monmouth, NJ (1980)
Chaplains' Officer Basic Course, Ft. Wadsworth, NY (1976)

Previous Assignments (excluding Military Education)

  • Command, Chaplain Intelligence and Security Command, Ft. Belvoir, VA (2003 – 2004)
  • Executive Director, Armed Forces Chaplains Board, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Pentagon (2000 – 2003)
  • Corps Chaplain, Fifth Corps, Heidelberg, Germany (Jun. 1997 – May 2000)
  • Director of Training Chief, Officer Training Division, U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School (Jun. 1995 – May 1997)
  • Division Chaplain, First Armored Division (Jun. 1993 – May 1994)
  • Professional Development Officer, Personnel Directorate, DA Chief of Chaplains Office, Pentagon, (May 1989 – May 1993)
  • Chief of Leadership Division, Combined Arms Department, Soldier Support Institute, Ft. Ben Harrison (Sept. 1985 – Apr. 1989)
  • Staff Chaplain, Defense Language Institute, Presidio, CA (Mar. 1983 – Jul. 1984)
  • Brigade Chaplain, Support Command, Ft. Ord, CA (1981-1983)
  • Brigade Chaplain, Division Support Command, 2D Infantry Division, Korea (Jul. 1979 – Jul. 1980)
  • Battalion Chaplain, 4/31st Infantry Battalion (Mech); 2/2 FA BN and 2nd Cannon Training BN, Ft. Sill, OK (Sept. 1976 – Jun. 1979)

Promotions Commissioned
Captain -- June 1976 Major -- June 1984
Lieutenant Colonel -- January 1992
Colonel -- June 1997

Responsibilities as a chaplain
You start out by providing individual ministry as you deploy with a unit, which includes counseling and worship services. You put together the religious program for your unit, and because there are so many religious traditions, you make sure everyone's religious needs are met. As I progressed, I taught at the chaplain school and then came back for a later assignment as the Director of Training. I also taught ethics to a lot of different branches within the Army.

Women in the Military Chaplaincy
The Navy had the first female chaplain in 1974. The Air Force followed with the 2nd female chaplain in 1975. In 1976, Janet Horton and a classmate were the 5th and 6th women chaplains in the military, the 3rd and 4th in the Army.

Topics