Chaplain assistants celebrate 100th anniversary

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kali L. Gradishar
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Sixty years ago Chaplain Charles Carpenter, the first U.S. Air Force chief of chaplains, saw the need to designate a career field for chaplain assistants. He envisioned the assistants as more than clerk-typists, as they were known for the last few decades, and recommended a specialized duty title for enlisted Airmen working for the chapel. 

"Originally chaplain assistants were personnelists who didn't really fit in. It was sort of a special duty," said Staff Sgt. Douglas Witham, 52nd Fighter Wing chaplain assistant. "But it has changed at lot since then. " 

In 1949, the Air Force created the position of welfare specialists; and in 1951, when the Air Force created the Air Force specialty code, the welfare specialist became its own AFSC. 

As with any career field, things change. 

"There have been three names for our career field since I've been in - chapel management personnel, chaplain service support personnel and now the chaplain assistant," said Master Sgt. Jacquolyn Traeger, 52nd Fighter Wing superintendent of chapel operations, who has been in the career field for 19 years. 

Other than a change in names, the daily duties and training received has also been modified in the chaplain assistant career field to adapt to the modern Air Force mission. 

"The biggest change for us over the years, as with the entire Air Force, is deployments," said Chief Master Sgt. Al Clemmons, U.S. Air Forces in Europe chaplain assistant functional manager. "When I first came in, deployment wasn't even a word. We've become a more expeditionary force." 

To morph the more than 400 Air Force chaplain assistants into expeditionary Airmen ready to act as "eyes and ears of the chaplain, the combatant for the non-combatant," as Sergeant Traeger described, the training has become more extensive and intense. 

For initial training, they go over the concepts of religion, religious pluralism, communication, suicide crisis intervention, and management for appropriated and non-appropriated funds, Sergeant Witham explained. Then, they must endure readiness training to ensure they are able to help protect their chaplain. 

"Due to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, there was a ruling that chaplains would become non-combatants, but not in the sense that medics are non-combatants. Chaplains are not allowed to pick up a weapon. Period. Not for self defense. Nothing. That's why our training is so extensive because we are a force protection asset to the chaplain," Sergeant Witham said. "(Force protection training) consists of convoy training, hand-to-hand combat, shooting from a vehicle, survival and evasion techniques, plotting maps, troop movements, urban assault, qualification on the M-16 or the M-4 depending on the deployment, and qualification on the M-9, which is our regular service weapon. 

"The chaplain assistants are very unique in the sense that we're not Air Expeditionary Force enablers, but when the AEF comes up it's not a question of maybe or maybe not going. You are going." 

Duties while deployed include crisis intervention, visitation, and logistical and administrative support to the chaplain. Some chaplains assistants take their duties one step further, - to perform "Smoke Pit Ministry." 

"Our venues for ministry are not limited to inside the chapel walls," Chief Clemmons said. 

"I'm not a smoker, but I like to go out to the smoke pits to talk to people. People go out there to smoke and socialize, and mostly to relieve stress, especially in the deployed environment. That's 'Smoke Pit Ministry,'" Sergeant Witham added. 

The smoke pit can sometimes be the place people go to blow off steam. And if the steam is really heated, a smoke pit full of enlisted folks might seem like a better place to go than in an office with bars, oak leaves or birds on his collar. 

"Their role is very important because sometimes it's easier for people to talk to an enlisted person than an officer," said Chaplain (Capt.) Scott Kiser, 52nd FW Protestant chaplain. "They notice things we may not be picking up on." 

Sometimes, however, people aren't always willing to open up - to a chaplain or a chaplain assistant - worrying that what they might say could be used against them. 

"The one thing the chaplain's corps has always held highest is confidentiality. That is so powerful that in itself it sacred," Sergeant Witham noted. 

While there is 100 percent confidentiality with chaplains, the line of confidentiality with chaplain assistants is slightly blurred. 

"You can talk with a chaplain assistant and say anything you want until you say something that violates the (Uniform Code of Military Justice). At that point, I have to stop and let the person know that anything from that point forward is no longer confidential," Sergeant Witham said. "But we have a truly vested interest in how your morale is going and how your spiritual morale is going. 

"We are a visible reminder of the holy. The whole reason we exist is to protect Airmen's first amendment right to worship as you see fit." 

That's true even for people requesting worship services for a spiritual preference others might consider obscure. 

"We have to remain open to the beliefs and religions of everyone," said the chaplain assistant who's been in the career field six years and seen a number of uncommon spiritual preferences. "We remain and work in pluralistic environment." 

The world is an ever-changing place with open minds to the vast amount of spiritual possibilities. Have you ever considered being a Jedi a spiritual preference? It can be. Religious preference has no bearing on the services one can find at a military chapel. 

"We don't turn anyone away," Sergeant Witham said. "We don't have all the answers, and we're not able to solve every problem. But we will be on that journey with you until you find that end point that you need. We're there side by side." 

From typists to globally engaged guardians, from receptionists to expeditionary peer support, the chaplain assistant career field has developed from an awkward special duty to a booming occupation. 

"Especially since the events of 9/11, the scope of the chaplain assistant has been greatly magnified as we facilitate ministry to men and women (in the Air Force). Being a chaplain assistant has proven to be more than a simple nine-to-five job," Sergeant Witham explained. "It is, in fact, a critical military profession - and a particular calling for some - comprised of Airmen from all walks of life joining together for a single purpose: Glorifying God, Honoring Airmen and Pursuing Excellence. 

"This time of war has become a proving ground for many as they have found themselves serving alongside their brothers and sisters in arms and will continue to do so well into the 21st century." 

Editors Note: Information from "The United States Air Force Chaplain Assistant - A History" was used in this article.