Bagram chaplains there for Airmen anytime, anyplace

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Drew Nystrom
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
The Airman laces up her boots, dons her battle rattle and accomplishes an equipment check before heading out the door in the wee hours of the morning. Her destination is one of the many guard towers that ring Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, but this Airman isn't a security forces member.

Maj. Kristina Coppinger is an Air Force chaplain, and her mission is to provide for the religious and spiritual needs of Airmen, wherever they may be.

Five Air Force religious support teams, each made up of an ordained officer and an enlisted chaplain's assistant, ensure Airmen assigned to the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing are able to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of religion, even in a combat environment.

As many different faith traditions as there are, their main focus is the same, Chaplain (Capt.) Alex Jack said.

"Here, every RST's primary focus is being present and available to Airmen wherever they are, around-the-clock," Chaplain Jack said. "Being known and being seen, but not being in the way."

Because of the high operations tempo and non-stop duty day, getting out to the Airmen is important, he said.

"The Airmen are working every day," Chaplain Coppinger said. "Back home, you have more opportunities and choices. Even if they are able to get a day off, it might not coincide with a day a chapel worship service is offered. That's why it important we go to them," she said.

Field services are an important, but small part of what the RSTs do, Chaplain Jack said. Often, the idea of a compassionate ear enables Airmen to vent or talk through issues affecting them without venturing into religious ideology.

"Because of our confidentiality and privileged communication status, we are a source for people to come to," said Chaplain (Maj.) Kenneth Beale, a Catholic priest assigned to the Combined Joint Task Force-101. "We don't judge anyone who comes into our office in regard to whether or not they have the same belief as me or whether they have faith period."

"Airmen want to be able to share things they might be experiencing," he said. "It might be experiences outside the wire, types of armed conflict they've dealt with, relationship issues or just the stress of being on deployed, whether it's the first, third or seventh deployment.

"We will turn no one away who needs our help and assistance," Chaplain (Capt.) Randy Sellers said. "We reach out to anyone who needs us."

The chance to talk about some of the issues and stressors Airmen might be facing can be a sort of pressure release before it overwhelms a person, according to Chaplain Beale.

"With any person, cramped living conditions, not having all the freedoms you might want, or being able to find that corner on base that you can call your own, can create stress folks might not be used to," Chaplain Beale said.

"Having someone they can talk to might eliminate the possibility of them taking it a step further that could end their career or their life," he said.

Chaplain Coppinger was more to the point.

"If you're thinking suicide or homicide, I'm going to be your new best friend," Chaplain Coppinger said. "I can't share anything (due to privileged communication protection), but I'm going to be with you all the time."

Besides being good listeners and friendly faces, the chaplains are clergy foremost, and always remain representatives of their various faiths, Chaplain Sellers said.

"The thread that runs through it, no matter what area of the base you service, is (that) the presence you bring as a chaplain is a reminder of the holy," he said. "That's who we are as a chaplaincy. We remind people of the holy and the divine, whether on the flightline or in the hospital."

That reminder is essential for the spiritual fitness of some Airmen, Chaplain Jack said.

"We have guys going out all the time and accomplishing a demanding mission," said Capt. Gabriel Brown, an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter pilot with the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron. "The ability to have a moment of reflection and being able to talk to the chaplain about the things we see and do helps."

According to Senior Airman Heather Bennett, a 455th Security Forces Squadron member, a chaplain represents someone you can count on.

"I think it's a good morale boost and good for the Airmen to just be able to talk to someone outside of their chain-of-command," she said."It especially helps during the holidays. It always helps to know you're not the only one working or missing home. Plus, they've never tried to push the religious aspect. They've always just been someone you can rely on."

Being that reliable person keeps the mission on track, Chaplain Jack said.

"Sometimes, all an Airman wants to do is talk, and sometimes more formal counseling is requested," he said. "We'll do whatever it takes so their minds are in the game and they're ready to do what it is they are called here to do."

Often, especially at the hospital, the needs and responsibilities of the chaplains go beyond just providing a shoulder to lean on, Chaplain Sellers said.

"Sometimes, patients come in, and we are a calming presence for them," he said. "Many come in and are wounded extensively. They like to see a chaplain or an assistant talking with them, praying with them and being there with them. I think that we work alongside the medical staff to assist these patients in their critical time of need."

"It's in that spirit that we bring hope to the fight for these young men and women who, when they look down at themselves, might be missing limbs or are badly wounded," Chaplain Sellers said.

"Sometimes it's hard to look at that and still see hope, but that's exactly what we try and provide," he said. "As a chaplain that's your mission. Whether you speak it, or if it is just holding their hand, we let them know there is a spiritual leader who is there to be with them during that traumatic time in their lives."

Meanwhile, Chaplain Coppinger finishes another visit with the men and women charged with keeping Bagram Airfield safe.

"I like working with the security forces Airmen," he said. "I've gained a greater appreciation for what they do. They work some long, hard hours. Plus, I think they enjoy seeing me in my battle rattle."

A lone voice calls out from the darkness.

"Hey chaplain, can I talk to you for a second?"