BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Aug. 1, 2017 —
Thousands of feet above Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, two airmen ride in a helicopter wearing more than 75 pounds of gear, hovering around the city before landing. These airmen are not pararescuemen or tactical air control party -- they’re a chaplain and chaplain assistant.
After landing, they travel to the nearby chapel, where they deliver a religious service to coalition forces before packing up and doing it all over again at another base.
The chaplains and assistants of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing travel to six different locations in Afghanistan, providing spiritual support to service members and civilians of all backgrounds.
“The mission of the Chaplain Corps is the same here as it is at home station, advocating for the constitutional right of free exercise of religion for airmen and their families,” said Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Greg Jans, a 455th Air Expeditionary Wing chaplain. “This includes offering worship services, opportunities, trusted counsel and advising leadership on matters of morale and morals, spiritual and religious topics.”
Being in a combat environment brings new stressors, which can be hard to manage without family nearby, especially when there are problems at home.
“Airmen are away from their support systems back at home, so there is a heightened awareness and sensitivity -- the problems at home don’t go away even when we are half a world away,” Jans said. “Chaplains become even more important here since there are fewer options available. The numbers of caregivers are smaller at a deployed environment, so we give extra care.”
Chaplains and their assistants are embedded within different units throughout Bagram Airfield. They rotate each weekend to accommodate the spiritual needs of coalition forces in other forward operating bases in Afghanistan that are without a chaplain.
Some of the locations outside of Bagram Airfield include Kandahar Airfield, Headquarters Resolute Support and Hamid Karzai International Airport. To travel to some of these locations, the team needs to wear all of their protective equipment and the chaplain’s assistant must carry a rifle and an M-9 pistol for self-defense.
“Even though we are not trained bodyguards, we still need to have the awareness to know that we are with a noncombatant and need to be willing and able to accept those responsibilities,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Erica Neiser, the 455th AEW chapel operations superintendent. “In this type of environment, the chaplain assistants need to be aware that we are shooting for two.”
Every religious support team consists of two individuals, a chaplain and an assistant. The team members do not have to be of the same faith to serve together. While the chaplain is giving long-term care and leading religious services, the assistant takes care of the administrative part of the job and holds down the fort in the event a chaplain isn’t available to provide confidential counseling.
Jans and Neiser attribute their readiness to the training they received at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The two-week course, Fieldcraft Hostile, provides students the tools to handle certain situations in a combat environment and enables them to practice scenarios they might encounter on the battlefield.
“We were lucky enough to go to Fieldcraft Hostile together to practice the tactical scenarios,” Neiser said. “It helped us understand what our roles are and what we need to be thinking about in those situations. In this environment, I have to be aware of what could happen and that I am shooting for more than just myself.”
The religious support team travels with heavy deployment gear from forward operating base to forward operating base, but they know an even heavier weight is lifted from the shoulders of airmen by their presence and care.
“Every airman that is walking around is a success,” Neiser said. “To be able to practice their faith and have that spiritual pillar filled and stable is a testament to what we are doing.”
Chaplains are often seen as happy-go-lucky airmen who hand out popsicles on the flightline. Yet, what is not seen is when the team is with someone at the lowest point in their life, who is battling a crisis behind the scenes. Nor do many see the amount of traveling they do -- or the risks they assume -- for those who elected to put their lives on the line in the defense of their nation.