Chaplain to all, pastor to some

  • Published
  • By Maj Andrea Morris
  • 931 ARW

In these times of recognizing and appreciating people’s diversity, one area that often gets overlooked is people’s diverse religions. Just as important as a person’s race or ethnicity are their religious beliefs.

It is Air Force policy to place a high value on the rights of Air Force members to observe the tenets of their respective religions.

According to Lt. Col. Roland Reitz, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Chaplain, “Religion is frequently a source of values, beliefs, and morals that help individuals find their place in the world, help people as they face difficult life decisions, and provides resiliency for people when their world-view is challenged.”

Capt. Michael Schmidt, 931st Air Refueling Wing Chaplain categorizes it as spiritual fitness. “While our mental, physical, and social fitness gives us a measure of capacity of resilience, the pursuit of spiritual fitness is what fuels the propensity to increase resilience. Regardless of where our level of resilience is, everybody has room to grow.”

Capt. Jacob Wilde, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Chaplain touches on the importance of diversity in amongst our Airmen. “I believe in the need for diversity because you can ultimately see how we are more alike than different. As a chaplain I have been able to talk to multiple people of other faiths. I recall with one member in the wing, we started talking about the tenants of her faith, one of those tenants was, ‘harm no one, do as you will.’ She likened it to the Christian tenant of ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ When we take the time to sit down and listen to one another we can learn and grow as a community, which is one of the foundations that this country was built upon.”

Although all religions are accepted in the armed forces, not all units have a chaplain specific to that religion. The role of a military chaplain is to minister to military personnel and in most cases, their families as well as civilians working for the military. Military chaplains normally represent a specific religion or faith but work with military personnel of all faiths and none. One way to look at it is, chaplain to all, pastor to some.

The chaplain team usually includes religious affairs airmen, formerly referred to as chaplain assistants, of which are enlisted personnel. The team’s duties consist of, conducting worship and administering sacraments, performing other religious ceremonies and services, visiting with service members, developing religious education programs and religious youth activities, conducting seminars and retreats, accompanying service members into combat, providing combat stress support, and advising commanders on religious and moral matters.

Chaplain Reitz highlighted an important function of a military chaplain. “Chaplains provide privileged communication; we offer a safe, non-anxious presence, free of judgement, to listen. Airmen and their families can share their struggles, their hopes, their frustrations with a chaplain and know that what they share is completely confidential. This can be especially important down range when there are few others to talk to, and where there are different stressors than they face back home.”

Chaplain Schmidt seconded that notion, having just returned from a six-month deployment, Schmidt saw firsthand the benefits of faith downrange. “A chaplain’s presence in a deployed environment is a much-needed reminder that, even deployed, there is more to life than just existing. Then, when tragedy strikes as it inevitably will, Airmen go to the chaplain to help them put life back together.”

Chaplains are also a unique resource to commander.

“As a chaplain, my role to the commander is to advise on matters of religion, faith, morale and morals. Commanders hold the impossible task of making hard decisions that affect the well-being of Airmen,” explained Schmidt. “The morality of those decisions, at times, can be a difficult thing to navigate.”

Chaplain Reitz touched on his role with all commanders in the wing. “Since chaplains maintain 100 percent privileged communication, that means we hear the struggles the Airmen are facing, the issues that are surfacing in the unit, and the concerns that Airmen have. Sometimes we have the commander’s ear and can share with the commander issues in their squadrons.” These issues can range from working with a commander so a member can participate in a worship service, or advocating in advance for members who will wear ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday. It can be bigger things that affect lots of people, like knowing members and family are anxious about an upcoming deployment and providing a family with a pre-deployment event where they are briefed on practical steps for a less stressful deployment. These kinds of issues are usually already on the leaders’ radar. Chaplains are able to then work with leaders to offer ways to address these issues including unit engagement, resiliency events, and various family programs.