Faith in the Total Force: Reserve chaplains answering the call for help throughout the Air Force
By Tyler Grimes
/ Published May 23, 2018
The Air Force Reserve is completely integrated into the total force, supporting the active-duty Air Force on a daily basis throughout the world. One area where Reservists are heavily involved is providing chaplains and religious affairs personnel to the major commands throughout the Air Force. And that support is growing.
In fiscal 2017, the number of military personnel appropriation days performed by Reserve Chaplain Corps members was an all-time high of 22,229 days, according to Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Mark Bowditch, chief of the Personnel and Readiness Division within the Air Force Reserve Command’s Chaplains Office at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.
“This is more than 60 man-years of support given, which is huge for a small career field like ours,” Bowditch said. “Especially with MPA tours, serving as a Reserve chaplain allows the minister the opportunity to continue ministering to the spiritual needs of people while in between civilian ministries in a full-time capacity.”
One of the many units the Reserve provides chaplains to is the 502nd Air Base Wing at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
Lt. Col. Peter Fischer, 502nd ABW wing chaplain, said Reserve Citizen Airmen, both individual mobilization augmentees and traditional Reservists, are needed for the wing to accomplish its critical mission.
“They are invaluable members who have seamlessly folded into the team to fill in gaps left by both deployments as well as growth of mission requirements,” Fischer said. “The units we serve cannot tell the difference between the Reserve members and the active-duty members that we send to provide spiritual care, advise leaders and offer worship services, liturgies and rites.”
Currently, the Reserve Chaplain Corps is comprised of about 320 chaplains and 170 religious affairs specialists. Religious affairs specialist is the new name for chaplain assistants. The new name was rolled out May 1. Two-thirds of the Reserve Chaplain Corps are IMAs.
The active-duty wings have a growing need for these Reservists to serve MPA backfill tours, Bowditch said. In fact, the demand has grown for the past five years between 3,000 and 4,000 MPA days each year.
Another way the Reserve Chaplain Corps has been asked to support active-duty units in a large way is through the newly created Task Force True North initiative. This three-year beta test program, directed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, is designed to effectively enhance Airmen well-being and resilience and decrease negative outcomes, like interpersonal and self-directed violence.
The task force is comprised of 12 teams made up of one chaplain and one religious affairs NCO who serve together on teams with specially trained civilian mental health counselors and medical support personnel.
The 12 teams are currently embedded at four locations during this test phase – Whiteman AFB, Missouri; Minot AFB, South Dakota; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; and Beale AFB, California.
These teams act as a supplement to the active-duty chapel teams already stationed at each location. Reserve members are either backfilling for active-duty chaplain corps members who have been assigned to TFTN locations or they have gone forward in direct support of TFTN.
Task force members maintain support and liaison relationships with local wing or installation religious support teams, but are not tasked to support wing or installation chapel programs.
The TFTN teams do provide unit engagement; pastoral care; pastoral and spiritual counseling; crisis and intervention counseling; privileged communication; informed referrals; religious support; resilient Airmen, marriage and family programs; and leadership advice and assistance.
Bowditch said one of the reasons the Reserve chaplain program is so successful is the opportunity it provides to Reserve Citizen Airmen to follow their religious convictions while serving God, country and their fellow Airmen.
“Chaplains are endorsed by their ecclesiastical body to conduct ministry within the context of the military in accordance with the doctrine and practice of their religious endorsing body,” he said. “This allows the chaplain to lead worship services; preach; pray; counsel, conduct funerals, weddings, baptisms and the like to provide for the spiritual needs of Airmen. Finally, the diverse nature of the chaplain corps allows the opportunity to work in an environment that builds respect for the faith of others while potentially strengthening one’s own faith.”
As the need from the various major commands for more Reserve chaplains increases, the opportunity for ministers of different faiths to join the ranks is ever present.
“The Reserve is always looking for highly motivated and qualified faithful ministers to serve the spiritual needs of war fighters and their families,” Bowditch said.
The Air Force chaplaincy allows the minister to step outside the bubble of a church on a routine basis and provide spiritual care in a demanding and different context.
One way the Reserve recruits new chaplains is through the Air Force Reserve Chaplain Candidate Program. The program gives students of seminaries and other professional religious schools the chance to commission into the Air Force chaplaincy. Chaplain candidates enter the program as second lieutenants and complete a number of tours and internships to prepare them for a career as an Air Force Reserve chaplain.
“A Reserve chaplain has the wonderful opportunity to provide spiritual care for Airmen and their families to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion,” Bowditch said. “This is achieved through religious observances and providing pastoral care.”
For information about the Reserve Chaplain Candidate Program or Reserve Chaplaincy Program, call 1-800-223-1784, extension 497-1475 or send an email to AFRC.HCX@us.af.mil.