Circuit-riding chaplains rack up frequent flyer miles

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Christian Jadot
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Two Air Force chaplains are constantly on the move to meet the spiritual needs of service members in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We call Chaplain (Lt. Col. Ceasar) Silva, (379th Air Expeditionary Wing deputy wing chaplain,) our 'circuit-riding' priest" said Chaplain (Col.) Frank A. Yerkes, the 379th AEW senior chaplain.

Chaplain Silva travels to different locations throughout the area of responsibility on a weekly basis.

"In the early days, as our country was moving westward, Americans were settling into some fairly remote territories," Chaplain Yerkes said. "Out along the frontier, clergy, like so many other professions, were in short supply.

"To maximize the coverage of their flock, the pastors and priests would ride horses from dawn to dusk, from settlement to settlement, to administer the sacraments, preach the word and encourage the faithful," he added. "Father Silva's job is much the same today - to visit the faithful in locations throughout the theater, go out to serve them so they can remain engaged in the fight, and to maximize the spiritual impact of our 'high-demand, low density' Roman Catholic priest resources."

Chaplain Silva is a Louisiana Air National Guard member who normally drills one weekend a month. In his civilian life he has his own parish.

"I was supposed to retire before coming here," Chaplain Silva said. "(The military) asked me to extend before I retired. Back home, I had my own community -- my own parish. Here I am able to meet a lot more people. It is easier to share my gifts with many people. In my parish, I have to worry about the administration, the financial aspect and where my food comes from. In the military, I can focus on my ministry."

"Father Silva works here during the week. On weekends, he packs his bags and heads out to one of four forward locations to offer Mass," Chaplain Yerkes said. "On a typical weekend, Father Silva will celebrate three to seven Masses for our frontline troops."

There are challenges that Chaplain Silva faces being on the road and not having a regular parish.

"The military is very metropolitan in a way; so many different people, so many different cultures. Here you meet new challenges, new people, and have to meet their needs," Chaplain Silva said. "Traveling, I am not able to see the effects my ministry has on people. The concern I have the most, is if the troops have a problem they have to wait two weeks for a chaplain."

Despite the weekly travels, Chaplain Silva said his mind is focused on the job and his spirits remain high.

"I enjoy ministering to the troops," Chaplain Silva said. "I need to like what I am doing. I need to be in a good spiritual mindset to minister to the people. When I see the people in the AOR, you can see the relief when they confess. I am doing as much as possible. That is what I am here for."

Chaplain Silva is not the only traveling chaplain on base. The 1st Expeditionary RED HORSE group on this desert air base has Chaplain (Capt.) Mark Nevius, and chaplain's assistant Staff Sgt. Todd Hankey, who deploys to the various RED HORSE locations in the AOR.

RED HORSE is a deployable self-sufficient unit specializing in civil engineer and airfield construction and repair.

"We travel to the different RED HORSE units and we provide ministry of the presence to the Airmen, provide counseling and religious studies as requested, ensure freedom of religion for all Airmen, and (advise) leaders on ethical, moral and religious issues," Chaplain Nevius said. "A normal chaplain deploys to one base working with the same people day in and day out. This deployment we have to work with others we don't see every day."

To help garner respect and camaraderie, the chaplain team lives and works among the deployed RED HORSE units.

"We want to build relationships as quickly as we can," Chaplain Nevius said. "In order to do that we must enter the world of RED HORSE. The benefit is to be able to reach and touch RED HORSE Airmen where they work and live. We are able to provide our core ministries to them (while) deployed."

"We work with the Airmen and integrate into the unit and provide ministry to them from within," Sergeant Hankey said. "At one location I was at previously, because of recognition, someone who would not talk to people normally opened up about their day-to-day problems at the job site."

After several deployments to the RED HORSE locations in the AOR, the chaplain team has gained experience and knowledge of the operations of the unit.

"My favorite part is spending time with the RED HORSE Airmen and understanding their difficulty so the mission can be enhanced and seeing the great work that RED HORSE does through the AOR," Chaplain Nevius said. "It is an honor to be part of this team."