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Chaplain candidates participate in internship

Capt. Kristen Parham (right), 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron nurse, addresses a group of Air Force chaplain candidates during their tour of the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, July 8, 2017. The candidates visited with several Air Force wings to get a better feel for how they support the Air Force mission and to meet with the Airmen that could interact with during their careers as chaplains. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Ryan Labadens)

Capt. Kristen Parham (right), a 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron nurse, addresses a group of Air Force chaplain candidates during their tour of the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., July 8, 2017. The candidates visited with several Air Force wings to get a better feel for how they support the Air Force mission and to meet with the Airmen that they could interact with during their careers as chaplains. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Ryan Labadens)

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) -- About 20 years ago, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor placed his hands on a 7-year-old boy’s forehead. After a moment of reflection, he prophesied the boy would be a man of God. Today, that boy is now 2nd Lt. William Hammond, an Air Force chaplain candidate completing his Master of Divinity.

The lieutenant is one of 27 candidates in a variety of religious faiths who are part of the Air Force Reserve Command Chaplain Candidate Intensive Internship June 24 to July 28, 2017.

By the end of the 35-day training tour the candidates will have visited Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi; Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas; Robins AFB, Georgia; Maxwell AFB, Alabama; as well as Hurlburt Field, Tyndall AFB, and Eglin AFB in Florida.

AFRC oversees the Total Force Air Force Chaplain Candidate program, which is an opportunity for seminary and professional religious school students to evaluate their compatibility and potential for commissioning as an Air Force chaplain, said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Carol Yeager, the officer in charge of the AFRC Chaplain Candidate Intensive Internship.

“This program exposes them to the breadth of the Air Force, the variety of missions, and provides them an opportunity to assess if they want to be Air Force chaplains as well as allows us to assess if they are suitable to serve as a chaplain in the Air Force,” said Yeager.

AFRC runs the Air Force Chaplain Candidate program, which is open to all faith groups that have an official, or recognized endorsing body. The intensive internship and 35-day training tour is part of that program.

“We are looking for diversity and a wide swath of representation,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Eusebia Rios, the program manager for the Air Force Chaplain Candidate program. She is one of three program managers in the Defense Department, with the other two working for the Navy and Army. “So the more candidates we can get, the stronger and more powerful the chaplain corps will be.”

In all, there are 104 chaplain candidates who are members of the Air Force Reserve. AFRC trains the candidates during their academic breaks, and the intensive internship program is one of those training and assessment tools.

The program can take anywhere from two to eight years, depending on where the candidate is in their seminary, education and endorsement process, said Rios.

The candidates, must have a bachelor's degree and be enrolled in an accredited theological seminary or professional school of religion working towards a Master of Divinity or its equivalent. Once they enter the program, they are commissioned as a second lieutenant and as a chaplain candidate. Upon graduation and their endorsement, they are reappointed as a chaplain in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard, promoted to first lieutenant, and wear the chaplain insignia on their uniform.

The first summer is usually the longest because they go through commissioned officer training and then attend the chaplain candidate intensive internship, which is about 300 hours of ministry training in areas such as spiritual care, religious observance, pastoral care and advising leadership, Rios said.

“This tour is the most rewarding part of my journey, and I love it,” said Hammond, who is pursuing his degree at Hartford Seminary in the Islamic chaplaincy program and is scheduled to complete the program this year. “It’s been insightful to see how the Air Force functions and to be able to familiarize myself with its culture and what Airmen go through on a daily basis.

“Speaking to the Airmen and hearing about their struggles, I can relate to them,” said Hammond, who explained that he and his family made many sacrifices on his educational journey to become a chaplain. After high school, he went to college and then enlisted in the Army for five years as a logistics specialist. “If I can at least touch the life of one person as a chaplain in the Air Force I would say I’ve had a rewarding career.”

According to Yeager, the program provides the candidates with insight about the role of a chaplain at home station and abroad. Chaplains offer worship services, group and event prayers, counseling and humanitarian programs for service members and their families.

They also advise leadership about what’s going on with their Airmen, said Yeager.

Additionally, chaplains, along with chaplain assistants, deploy in religious support teams that provide religious support and spiritual counsel to deployed service members.

“We are showing them a variety of environments and scenarios to accelerate their processing and induction into the chaplain corps as they continue on in the candidate program,” said Rios.

During their tenure in the program, candidates are encouraged to evaluate their suitability for military service and are not obligated to stay in the program.

“The candidates may feel they no longer fit in the program, it’s not what they thought, or the training has exposed that they may need more refinement or pastoral experience,” said Rios. “Or we, in looking at them, may discover they still have some maturing and growing, whether that’s spiritually, mentally, physically or emotionally.

“Everyone has a call, we just want to make sure they didn’t pick up the wrong phone,” said Rios.

For 2nd Lt. Brian Banks, a chaplain candidate, who attends courses online through the Asbury Theological Seminary and is endorsed by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, said the program has made him realize he is exactly where he needs to be.

Banks’ parents met while attending technical school at Keesler AFB. His father was a medic who cross trained into maintenance and worked on C-130 Hercules, and his mother worked in optometry.

“This is where I was born. One of my first memories here was being in one of the chapels at Keesler (AFB), and it was nice to see a C-130, which is what my dad worked on,” he said. “It’s been such a rewarding experience to see how the Air Force trains and develops Airmen and what experiences they go through.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing the various opportunities on how we can serve Airmen and promote spiritual resiliency,” said Banks who commissioned in August 2016, attended commissioned officer training in May and started this program in June. “It’s liberating to know that this is what I’m wired to do.”

Second Lt. Tyler Harris, a chaplain candidate training to become a Roman Catholic priest, first heard his call to serve God while attending basic training in 2001.

“I was a little confused, so I talked to the priest, and he told me about the chaplain assistant job,” he said.

He served as a chaplain assistant for four years on active duty and another 12 years as an individual mobilization augmentee in the Air Force Reserve as a master sergeant while pursuing his education. It takes nine years to become a Roman Catholic priest. As a chaplain assistant, he served as a chaplain candidate mentor for three years.

“Going through this as a chaplain candidate as opposed to helping run the program is a bit of a surreal experience,” said Harris, who is co-sponsored with the Archdiocese of Military Services and will reappoint as a chaplain in three years. “It’s a great adventure, and I need every day to prepare myself for the day I put on my chaplain’s cross and get out there to try to make a difference in people’s lives. I can’t take the days between now and then for granted because people are going to depend on me.”

Whether the candidates chose to serve in the active, reserve or ANG components, Rios and Yeager, both agree that running the chaplain candidate program has a profound impact.

“This program and intensive internship assures every candidate is tried and tested in our chaplain corps competencies assuring every Airman they encounter is spiritually fit to accomplish the mission day one … and (as chaplains) they are capable to engage their units with commander-driven, Airman-focused, creative engagement of the base, unit, and mission anywhere in the world,” said Rio. “We all reap the benefits of this program because at the end of the day, whether they become a chaplain or not, they have grown as a leader, they have grown as pastors and as religious leaders in their respective groups, and it allows us the opportunity to shape the chapel corps.”

“It’s rewarding to be able to help future Air Force chaplains, and to know we had a part in developing excellent chaplains who will give excellent care to excellent Airmen,” said Yeager.

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