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Air Force chaplains ensure religious freedom

WASHINGTON -- One of the main reasons for the settlement of the 13 colonies that eventually grew into the United States of America was religious freedom. The challenge of religious diversity is the ultimate test of whether people believe in that right, according to the Air Force's top chaplain.

"This is why I'm a chaplain in the military," said Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Lorraine K. Potter, chief of the Air Force chaplain service. "The free exercise of religion to me is the most important freedom for all of us."

According to Potter, the chaplain service is one of the most diverse functional areas of the Air Force.

"The challenge of the chaplaincy in the last 10 years is the same as (in) our society," she said. "As we have become more and more diverse, we also have a population that is more interested in spiritual things, if not necessarily a denomination or religious label."

"If you feel like you're called to be (in the chaplaincy), you've got to learn some new things," she said. "You represent your faith, but serve the people of the Air Force in their faith.

"Our bottom line is the free exercise of religion for everyone, whether they believe as I do or not," she said. "A chaplain has to be able to understand and support that. Chaplains also must help commanders and supervisors understand this."

Potter, who became the Air Force's first woman chaplain in 1973, said the days are gone when being an Air Force chaplain had many similarities to being a civilian minister, she said.

"About a third of our chaplains and assistants will always be deployed if requirements remain as high as they are now," Potter said.

The chaplain service has evolved into an integral part of the EAF concept.

"We go with our people because ours is an anytime, anywhere type of ministry," she said. "The good news is that chaplains report that deployment is a very rewarding experience."

The freedom of religion is expressed much differently in other countries and their militaries, according to Potter. Many foreign military services have chaplains to take care of their countries' core religions, but leave minority religious groups to fend for themselves.

"In the United States, I'm here to take care of everyone," Potter said. "It's not about what my religion is. I'm here to help you accommodate yours."

According to Potter, that accommodation can only be limited by two factors: how it will affect mission accomplishment, and how it will affect the integrity of the institution.

"Taking care of individuals is an important part of the mission, but (people) must realize that the mission comes before individual rights," she said.

"It would be helpful if an airman that has a unique religious issue would go to his chaplain, supervisor or commander first to ask what kind of impact this is going to have and what (does he or she) need to do to live within the culture of the Air Force that (they have) volunteered to be a part of," she said.

"Our Constitution (guarantees) free exercise of religion for everyone. It's not our place to judge the content of that," she said.

Potter recalled a multi-cultural, multifaith prayer service at Yankee stadium after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"It was labeled a miracle that could only have happened in that time and place," Potter said. "But that miracle occurs everyday in our military chapels."

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