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455 AEW Chaplain Corps provides religious support throughout AOR

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

A Religious Support Team comprised of Airmen assigned to the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Chaplain Corps made the pilgrimage to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and Forward Operating Base Oqab to provide spiritual care and religious accommodation to Airmen deployed in austere conditions, Feb. 14 – 16.

One of three RSTs operating out of Bagram, Maj. William Braswell, 455 AEW chaplain deployed from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Tech. Sgt. Aleric Hebert, 455 AEW chaplain assistant deployed from Yokota Air Base, Japan, travel throughout the U.S. Air Force Central Command area of responsibility facilitating worship opportunities, conducting unit visitation and offering confidential counseling to those in need.

“The United States Air Force Chaplain Corps Strategic Plan calls for RSTs to deliver ministry through core competencies of advising leadership and spiritual care,” said Lt. Col. Glenndon Page, 455 AEW senior chaplain. “Most commonly, spiritual care takes the form of unit engagement, worship opportunities, religious education, and counseling.”

Though bolstering the spiritual wellness of Airmen in the AOR has been the primary focus of the Chaplain Corps since the United States first came to Afghanistan more than a decade ago, the transition from Operation Enduring Freedom to Freedom Sentinel called for a smaller Air Force footprint in the region and by extension, a revamped pastoral outreach plan for the wing’s chapel team. Through an open flow of cross-service communication, Page and his team have been successful in their efforts to ensure Airmen throughout Afghanistan remain spiritually fit to fight.

“When we deployed to Bagram, we learned that some of our manning was reduced and that we have the responsibility to provide and coordinate spiritual care for all deployed Airmen in our AOR,” Page said. “This is a huge task to accomplish and we have done well in such a dynamic environment. One example is having a dedicated RST travel to HKIA twice a month to visit our deployed Airmen.  While there, the RST provides worship services and counsels those who need to see a chaplain.”

Kabul was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month when The Pentagon confirmed the deaths of three Department of Defense contractors who were shot by a man in an Afghan uniform at the Kabul airport. The shooting was preceded by a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device attack which took place just days prior, but yielded no casualties.

We went to HKIA immediately after the active shooter incident which was only a few days after the VBIED and people were understandably on edge,” Braswell said. “I think it’s even more important that we were able to go down and be a presence and be available for folks who might need to talk to someone. During our most recent trip, which was nearly two weeks later, the Airmen going out into the work centers were still uncertain about the environment they’re working in. I think the chaplain and the chaplain’s assistant are there to remind them that God is with them, but also that they have someone outside the situation they can share their fears with or vent to.”

In addition to providing crisis counseling, the RST spends a significant amount of time getting to know those whom they intend to help during battlefield circulation. Over the course of their biweekly visits, Braswell and Hebert get beyond the body armor to the heart of the mother, father, son or daughter underneath.

It’s a lot easier for folks to talk to people when they know them,” Hebert said. “It takes either a whole lot of bravery or a really critical situation for a person to ask a stranger for help. That’s why we, in the Chaplain Corps, have come to realize it’s important for us to build those bonds and nurture those relationships.”

“When we talk to folks and we know when they’re coming in and rolling out of theater, how many people are on the ground, what the demographics are, what the religious needs are, what the religious minorities and majorities are, that’s how we know how to supply assets in theater,” Hebert continued. “It helps us manage our resources so we can best accommodate the Airmen and meet their needs; visitation is much more than just going out and saying hello.”

For Braswell, on his third deployment, and Hebert, now approaching the conclusion of his eighth, the 40 percent reduction in manning that accompanied the inception of the Air Force’s train, advise and assist mission acted as a catalyst for travel and on-the-go ministry, which neither Airman had previously experienced.

“Since the retrograde our team has been tasked with providing chapel support to the entire AOR which is why we travel,” Braswell said. “In my previous deployments to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, not only was the threat level less intense, but travel was not a factor. Airmen at Oqab and HKIA do not have a permanently assigned chaplain. We have to provide that support. We’re meeting a religious need that can’t be met any other way.”

Hebert echoed the chaplain’s sentiments.

“The biggest difference between this and my other deployments is the fact that we travel so much,” he said. “It brings a new element to the table. It can take a lot out of you, but it’s about taking care of our people. That’s what keeps us moving forward. You have to have the heart of a servant and truly want to care for those around you.”

Having journeyed to HKAI and FOB Oqab so frequently in recent months, the RST has become a staple to Airmen of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing and the concerted effort made by Braswell and Hebert to provide respite in a climate of volatility is met with appreciation and an attitude of fraternity.

Just because we deploy to another country, we don't forfeit the need for religious support,” said Chief Master Sgt. Alexander Del Valle, 438 AEW command chief. “Whether it's a church service, small group interaction or one-on-one interaction with a chaplain, we have a large number of folks who want and need that support. Although spiritual doesn't always mean religious our RSTs are a mainstay of the spiritual pillar of Comprehensive Airman Fitness and the RSTs tie into the mental and social pillars as well.  I can't think of another organization better equipped to meet more CAF pillars than our RSTs.  If our Airmen aren't fit in all pillars, then the mission will fail; it is simply a core requirement for our Air Force family.”

The 455 AEW Chaplain Corps will continue to provide the services that facilitate spiritual wellness and integrity throughout AFCENT until the last pair of boots have left the ground, ensuring no man or woman is left behind in the spiritual battlespace and the U.S. Air Force remains the best in the world.