Spiritually committed: Chaplain assistants continue devotion to Airmen

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
In a unique E-9 quorum, the Air Force and three command functional chiefs for the service's chaplain assistant career field came together here in early November to discuss current issues of the day and the future mission of their career field.

Their visit to Fort Dix was mainly to observe and discuss pre-deployment training; however, as the Air Force chaplain assistant functional manager said, the "quorum" gave a unique opportunity for them to discuss the career field and its challenges for the future.

"People don't really understand our career field," Chief Johnson said. "They understand we're small in numbers, but I think the impact we have is huge. Our career field is here to resource and manage spiritual care and our Airmen are committed to that duty. The Chaplain Service is all about providing spiritual care to our Airmen - whether they're deployed or at home base."

Along with Chief Johnson, other functional chiefs for the chaplain assistant career field visiting were Chief Master Sgts. Russ Geyer from Air Mobility Command, Scott Turner from Air Education and Training Command, and Geoffrey Preudhomme of Air Combat Command.

Each chief was asked to give their own description of what a chaplain assistant is and their importance to the mission. Each had a unique response.

"As we say in our career field, we are the eyes and the ears of the chaplain," Chief Turner said. "We get out and help steer the chaplains where they need to go because a lot of times an (enlisted) Airman will approach another (enlisted) Airman a lot sooner than they'll approach an officer. There's an automatic connection made because we walked in the same boots they've walked in. We can help build that bridge to the chaplain and get them the help they need."

Chief Geyer related his definition to that of a quote from Army Gen. George C. Marshall of World War II fame who said, "Military power wins battles, but spiritual power wins wars."

"That's what we do," Chief Geyer said. "We're on that spiritual side advocating for our troops the importance of spiritual care because in the end, when the bullets are flying, it's that spiritual power that's really going to sustain us and get us through those tough times. In war, there's the physical aspect, the emotional aspect, and the spiritual aspect. All three of those have to be very strong for us to be successful."

Chief Preudhomme said the chaplain assistant is like a refueling tanker for the Chaplain Service because they "extend the reach" of chaplains everywhere.

"We give the chaplain depth and breadth as we provide for the spiritual needs of warfighters wherever they are," Chief Preudhomme said. "Chaplain assistants are able to network and build relationships with frontline supervisors so we are able to know the spiritual lay of the land. Through that, we can readily identify whether there are morale problems or there are concerns. We can also readily identify that to the chaplain who can relay that to the chain of command."

Chief Johnson said chaplain assistants are uniquely qualified.

"It's really simple," Chief Johnson said. "We're the only career field that is trained to take care of the spiritual needs of our Airmen. It's that expertise that we've cultivated over the years that is bearing fruit in the deployed environment right now and commanders are seeing the value of what we do."

Chaplain assistants are also some of the Airmen who deploy the most in the Air Force, Chief Johnson said. The high deployment rate, along with career field personnel cuts that are part of the overall Air Force drawdown, are creating leadership challenges, but chaplain assistants across the board are following their hearts and stay devoted to their work.

"One of the nice things is operations tempo has not seemed to affect our retention rate," Chief Johnson said. "We're a pretty stable force when you look at the numbers. So people aren't just running out because we're deploying. I think people have accepted that this is the way the Air Force is. They know this is why they put on the suit and they know it's part of the obligation.

"I'm very proud of the chaplain assistants and the chaplains out there who are going (on deployment) so regularly," Chief Johnson said. "We may not be like the operators who are gone on a different schedule, but we're a busy career field."

The career field's future shows authorized manning going from 458 currently assigned positions to 321 as the drawdown runs its course, Chief Johnson said. That's going to require changes and tough decisions, but he said they are working that leadership challenge feverishly.

"What we're doing, through a process we call global ministry, is focus on the highest priorities," Chief Johnson said. "We're making sure our chaplains and wing NCOs in charge out there are going through a needs assessment process that tells them what the highest priorities at their base for spiritual care. Then we focus our energies on those priorities."

Chief Johnson said most often those priorities will likely coincide with the commander's priorities. "We're walking a fine line - we're trying to take care of and prepare the Airmen we're deploying and at the same time we have to have the resources, especially overseas, left behind to take care of the families who are there."

Chief Turner said he believes a lot of the work chaplain assistants and chaplains completes goes unnoticed - mostly because there's no real way to measure it.

"Some say the Chaplain Service will make more saves than anyone will ever be able to measure," Chief Turner said. "Because when that chaplain or chaplain assistant is out visiting and a person asks, 'Do you have a minute?' Maybe the only thing that comes out of that conversation is a meeting at the office the next day. But now that person feels better because they concentrate on their job, and we'll never realize what kind of save was just made."

Whether it's defining the chaplain assistant Airman, preparing for deployments, or handling the leadership challenges in an even smaller career field, each chief wants all Airmen to know they have their needs and concerns in mind.

"We're kind of like an iceberg," Chief Geyer said. "For us, as chaplain assistants, it's about the Airmen out there and caring for their spiritual needs. The Airmen are what you see above the water. But our job, and our challenges are even bigger if you look at the part of the iceberg below the sea. When you look below, there you have the families and all the tributaries of those families that are far reaching."

Chief Johnson added, "Our job is difficult because as spiritual providers, the inherent responsibility we feel is we've got to take care of all Airmen and their families. We'll continue to make sure we do that to the best of our ability."