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An Arctic Ministry: IMA chaplain serves at northernmost military installation

Chaplain (1st Lt.) Matthew Lanham, shown in front of the Wolstenhome Fjord, is the Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the installation chaplain at Thule Air Base, Greenland. (Courtesy photo)

Chaplain (1st Lt.) Matthew Lanham, shown in front of the Wolstenhome Fjord, is the Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the installation chaplain at Thule Air Base, Greenland. (Courtesy photo)

Chaplain (1st Lt.) Matthew Lanham, shown here in front of the base chapel at Thule Air Base, Greenland, is the Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the installation chaplain at Thule. (Courtesy photo)

Chaplain (1st Lt.) Matthew Lanham, shown here in front of the base chapel at Thule Air Base, Greenland, is the Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the installation chaplain at Thule. (Courtesy photo)

Chaplain (1st Lt.) Matthew Lanham leads a bible study inside the Thule Air Base, Greenland, community center. (Courtesy photo)

Chaplain (1st Lt.) Matthew Lanham leads a bible study inside the Thule Air Base, Greenland, community center. (Courtesy photo)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --

When Chaplain (1st Lt.) Matthew Lanham completed the Air Force Reserve Chaplain Candidate Program in August, he anticipated his first assignment as an Individual Mobilization Augmentee chaplain would probably be close to the Washington, D.C. area where he lived and worked.

Turns out he was off by about 2,614 miles.

Nearing the end of his time as a chaplain candidate, Lanham began reviewing the list of available IMA assignments and was intrigued by one that said “IMA to the installation chaplain, 821st Air Base Group, Thule Air Base, Greenland.”

“It sounded like an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I took a few days to think about it,” Lanham, a Protestant chaplain, said. “I talked it over with my wife and then I volunteered to be the IMA chaplain for the 821st Air Base Group at Thule.”

Thule AB is the U.S. Space Force’s northernmost base, located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 947 miles from the North Pole on the northwest coast of Greenland. Home to the 21st Space Wing’s global network of sensors providing missile warning, space surveillance and space control to North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Space Force, it’s also the U.S. Armed Forces’ northernmost installation.

Lanham recently wrapped up his first three-week tour of duty at Thule, which included a week of quarantine due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He spent two weeks shadowing and working with the full-time active-duty chaplain and the enlisted religious affairs Airman assigned to the 821st ABG.

“Thule is a small base with only a couple hundred military people and a few hundred contractors assigned, but it’s a location that requires a strong chaplain program,” he said. “The weather and the fact that this part of Greenland experiences 24 hours of darkness a day from October through February makes it an extremely difficult place to live and serve. They lean heavily on the chaplain for counseling, spiritual resiliency and other services.”

To say the weather at Thule is extreme would be a massive understatement. For the year, the average high daily temperature is 18 and the average low is 6. During February, the average high is minus-5 and the average low is minus-19.

Lanham will be the IMA chaplain at Thule for three years. During that time, he’ll fill in when the full-time chaplain needs to get away for a week or two or has to be away on emergency leave.

“I’m super excited about this opportunity to serve,” Lanham, who works as a Department of Defense contractor in the F-35 Joint Program Office, serves as the associate pastor of the Mount Cavalry Community Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and is the community chaplain for Fairfax County, Virginia, as a civilian, said. “The rotator for Thule leaves out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, so I can hop on the rotator and be there in about six and a half hours.”

Lanham holds the distinction of being the only IMA assigned to Thule. “Everybody’s heard the joke that IMA stands for ‘I’m alone,’ but for me that really is the case,” he said.

Lanham is also one of the first IMA chaplains assigned in direct support of U.S. Space Force and one the few Reserve Citizen Airmen who have ever been assigned to the 821st ABG chaplain’s office.

“The IMA billet at Thule has proven difficult to fill over the years,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Wade Matuska, the chief of the AFRC Chaplain Directorate’s Personnel and Readiness Division. “It takes the right kind of person. Chaplain Lanham interviewed really well, he has a strong military background, he knows how to travel and he lives close to the rotator location. We’re excited to have him in this slot and are confident he is going to do great things at Thule.”

Lanham originally enlisted in the Air Force in 2011 and served as a radio frequency transmission systems specialist until receiving his commission in the Reserve as a chaplain candidate in 2015. He completed his Master of Divinity degree in 2019 and was reappointed as an IMA chaplain in August.

The Chaplain Candidate Program offers seminary and other professional religious school students an opportunity to evaluate their compatibility and potential for commissioning as an Air Force chaplain. The focus is on experiencing ministry in the Air Force during summer tours of active duty. For more information on the program, check out https:afrc.af.mil/about-us/chaplain/chaplain-candidate/. #ReserveResilient

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