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Deployed chaplains: Faith on front lines

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- About 75 airmen and soldiers gather at Tallil Air Base, Iraq, for an Easter sunrise service on the flightline April 20.  Deployed chaplains offer spiritual and religious services and help increase the morale of warfighters.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Charlie Lespier)

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM -- About 75 airmen and soldiers gather at Tallil Air Base, Iraq, for an Easter sunrise service on the flightline April 20. Deployed chaplains offer spiritual and religious services and help increase the morale of warfighters. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Charlie Lespier)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (AFPN) -- Since the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Air Mobility Command chaplains have deployed alongside thousands of Air Force people.

They offer spiritual and religious services and help increase the morale of these deployed warfighters, according to Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Gerald McManus, AMC's chaplain service chief of readiness and evaluations.

"At their home stations, Air Force servicemembers have access to a variety of religious services and programs, both on and off base. In a deployed location, we're the only game in town," said McManus.

Being "the only game in town" could cause some chapel-related activities to become stagnant. But the services offered by deployed Air Force chaplains are far from standing still, said McManus, who recently returned from a three-month tour in Southwest Asia.

The chaplain said the religious needs of deployed Air Force people are a top priority. He said AMC alone has more than two dozen chaplains and chaplain assistants fulfilling the spiritual and religious needs of deployed servicemembers.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Bobby Page, an AMC chaplain deployed to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, said during the past few weeks he has noticed not only a rapid increase in the number of people on base, but also an increase in extended operations.

"Like everyone else, we've had to respond quickly to our changing environment," Page said. "Because people are working longer hours and getting little time off, we've found it necessary to take our ministry to them, providing brief field services and greatly increasing our ministry of presence, particularly through the night when the flightline comes alive."

McManus and Page both agreed that current operations have created a significant need for increased chaplain services.

"Deployed hardships, such as family separation and elements of danger, tend to bring people back to their religion and reliance on their faith," said McManus.

Despite the increased operations tempo, AMC chaplains supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom say the morale of deployed Air Force people is "surprisingly good."

"Religious services in deployed locations are well attended, and the camaraderie among the troops is great," McManus said. "There are certainly hardships, but our servicemembers are facing these challenges and getting the job done."

Chaplains know about morale. Besides traditional spiritual services, McManus said deployed chaplains play a significant role in the social well-being of deployed servicemembers.

"Deployed environments tend to build stronger working and social relationships," McManus said. "As chaplains, our focus is on the troops. In deployed locations, chaplains play a substantial role in building and maintaining troop morale. (The chaplains) know this, and they respond to that responsibility very well."

Deployed people are responding well to the chaplains, too, according to one deployed chaplain assistant.

"The chaplain is a good person to talk to," said Staff Sgt. Franklin Castro, a chaplain assistant with the 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing's chaplain services team. "Because (deployed people) aren't often able to talk to their family members or friends, the chaplain is someone who will listen. People in tent city and all across the base enjoy seeing the chaplains. I am convinced that without the chaplains shaking hands and seeing how people are doing, morale would be lower. The deployed chaplains are critical to the high morale we have here."

Page placed an equal amount of praise on the chaplain assistants. He said they are the key to the chaplains' successes and a big force multiplier.

"Our chaplain assistants have been a huge help on this team," said Page. "Our team of four chaplain assistants are supporting 24 worship services each week and providing 24-hour coverage at the chapel facility. They've been there with us doing the tough work and working the long hours, and they never complain."

The chaplain said getting the equipment and supplies they need to run an extremely busy and robust chapel program is tough in a war zone, thousands of miles from suppliers. He said they must anticipate their needs three to six months ahead of time.

"I had to smile when our palm (trees) arrived for Palm Sunday several weeks early. A small thing, perhaps, but that kind of attention to detail with all that's going on is impressive. Our folks make it look easy," Page said.

Chaplain services is what McManus called a "low-density, high-demand" career field, meaning relatively few chaplains providing religious services for thousands of people. Because the chaplains are in such high demand, he said they often must visit other deployed sites within their area of operations.

Page said another AMC chaplain, Chaplain (Maj.) Dennis Hanley, recently returned from a forward-deployed location where he ministered to a special forces unit engaging in combat missions supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"(Chaplain Hanley) provided Mass for these brave troops, and they packed the (chapel) tent seven times within a 26-hour period," said Page. "To say his ministry there was appreciated would be an understatement."

Col. Donald Chew, 379th Expeditionary Maintenance Group commander at a forward-deployed location, said the chaplains there are deeply involved in all aspects of base life.

"(The chaplain's) daily basewide e-mail, 'Words for the Warrior,' is the first e-mail I open when I turn on my computer," said Chew. "Every morning, his inspirational words and insightful use of historic motivational quotes provides me with a spiritual uplift that helps carry me through a demanding 15-hour work day."

During a recent "aggressive" six-day combat sortie surge, Chew remembers a chaplain visiting the flightline to hand out cold drinks to the maintenance troops.

"It sure is great to see the chaplain out taking care of our people," said the colonel. "Chaplain Darlington and his team are key players here and are making a very big difference for the troops, my group and our wing."

Maj. Tony Brown of the 190th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron also touted the support his unit recently received from a deployed chaplain.

"We were in the arming area near the runway, and (the chaplain) was out there with the arming crews in a safety vest proudly adorned with a large cross, blessing us and the airplanes before we flew our missions," said Brown. "It was motivating and reassuring."

Page said the work the chaplains are performing in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom is similar to the support they have provided during past operations. He compared his current deployment to his experiences in Southwest Asia three years ago.

"Except for the heightened intensity of war, this deployment is very similar (to my past deployment). The spiritual needs of the people are the same, there are just more of them now," Page said. "I'm impressed with the professionalism, patriotism and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others I'm seeing in our airmen." (Courtesy of AMC News Service)

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