Chaplain assistants play vital role in religious accommodation

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Sonny Cohrs
  • 8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
On any given Sunday, you can find chaplain assistants setting up the base chapel for service; however, the enlisted force of the chaplain corps does much more on a daily basis.

"We partner with chaplains for religious program planning," said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Teets, the NCO in charge of Kunsan Air Base's chapel. "We partner with them to help build, manage and resource religious programs, and to evaluate its effectiveness."

Teets, a former F-16 avionics technician, cross trained into the 5R0X1 career field in 2006 because he liked the idea of helping people on a spiritual basis.

"The nature of the job seemed to be more of a natural fit for my personality," he said. "I consider myself a religious person. I consider myself very spiritual and I like being in an environment where people can practice their faith."

In 2008, he found himself on an "in lieu of" tasking for an Army deployment. His six-month ILO experience is one he won't soon forget, noting that he found a forward-deployed environment much more rewarding than stateside assignments.

"We lived with the Army, worked with the Army, we ate with the Army and everything was Army," he said. "It gives me a lot of respect for what those guys go through when [they're] deployed for 12 to 15 months."

At Kunsan, Teets is responsible for all enlisted matters and ensuring his two fellow chaplain assistants meet the needs of the three assigned chaplains: two Protestant, one Catholic.

"We want to make sure people have the ability to practice their faith, or if they choose not to practice a faith, that they're not put in a position where they're being discriminated against," he said. "Because, this is like a deployed location, it's important for the chaplain assistants to be seen. It's important for us to interact with the people who come here."

In addition to their own faith, chaplain assistants are trained on religious pluralism -- a basic understanding of the world's major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. They also perform "spiritual triage" by talking to individuals who want to talk to a chaplain. In a wartime setting, the chaplain assistants have the duty to protect their noncombatant chaplains. Teets is qualified with the M-9 sidearm, and fired expert with the M-16 rifle.

Chaplain (Maj.) Christine Blice-Baum, the wing's head chaplain, says chaplain assistants help relate the enlisted force to her and her fellow chaplains.

"Because they're enlisted, other enlisted folks tend to feel more comfortable coming to them. They're a vital link for connecting us to our Airmen," she said. "They're very, very good at being accepting of people spiritual quest and don't pass judgment on paths that people choose; but rather they help to provide resources to help people on their quest."

Being accepting of others and learning to identify those who are in need of assistance is very important, Teets said. He and his fellow chaplain assistants are trained in crisis intervention.

"Chaplain assistants are trained to respond in that way - to screen, evaluate and refer if necessary to make sure that person is taken care of," he said. "Somebody could come walking in the door right now and be coming apart, and maybe there's not a chaplain available. Am I going to turn that person away and say 'come back tomorrow?' Maybe they're suicidal."

Chaplain Blice-Baum agreed, noting that the chaplain assistants are "essential to the mission of the chaplain corps" because they support every aspect of the ministry by working in religious support teams.

"While the chaplain takes the leadership role in the team, we depend on the chaplain assistants to pave the way for ministry for us," she said. "You have to depend on your NCOs - especially the NCOIC. I depend on Tech. Sergeant Teets to advise me on issues of religious accommodation [and] his expertise as an NCO. We've developed a relation that's grounded in trust, respect and professionalism."

Teets, a Colorado Springs, Colo. native, has been married for eight years and admits his wife back at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., is probably doing better without him than he is without her. They talk weekly via online video programs.

"We're apart, but the contact is really close," he said.

Mrs. Teets will join her husband at his follow-on assignment at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

"I like beer, wine and World War II history - I couldn't ask to go to a better place," he joked.