Editor's note: Story and photos republished with the permission of the Deseret News (www.deseret.com) and the author Trent Toone.
HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- If you serve them, they will come.
Last July, the Hill Air Force Base chapel team converted a trailer into what the team calls a “ministry cart.” It’s equipped with a small kitchen prepared to serve espresso, coffee or hot chocolate, along with a few other things.
When possible the staff pulls the ministry cart around to buildings, maintenance bays or other areas where airmen work, then begin taking orders — steaming cups of goodness on cold days and chilled beverages on the hot ones.
But there’s a deeper purpose for sharing drinks. It’s an opportunity for the staff to shake hands and interact with people, according to Capt. Gabe Lawson, a Protestant parish chaplain.
“It’s a great way to build relationships with airmen and help them out, especially when it’s chilly,” Chaplain Lawson said. “Building relationships is a big part of what we do.”
Chaplain and Capt. J. Ammon Larsen, also a licensed mental health therapist, said the ministry cart allows the team to meet people who don’t often come to the base chapel to worship in the sanctuary.
“We go to them and engage with them in a way that hopefully will help not only remind them that we’re here, but also remind them of who they really want to be as people,” Chaplain Larsen said.
The ministry cart is one of several ways the chaplains and chapel staff are serving and making a difference at Hill Air Force Base. Military chaplains play an important role as spiritual mentors and counselors to servicemen and women who often work under stressful circumstances, keeping everything confidential. The chaplains do this while quietly facing their own challenges.
Retired Col. Kenneth L. Alford, a BYU professor who served almost 30 years in the U.S. Army and is an author of several books on military history, said chaplains fill a unique and vital role in military organizations.
“They have the responsibility to be confidants, counselors, teachers, examples, advisers, mentors and friends — often at the same time,” Alford said. “Chaplains have the opportunity and responsibility to sustain the hearts, spirits and souls of the service members placed in their care and that charge often extends to military family members as well.”
Meet Chaplain Beck
Lt. Col. Zebulon Beck, wing chaplain, will be retiring from Hill’s 75th Air Base Wing in March.
Highlights from his 25-year career include being the chaplain of the Air Force Academy football team (the walls and shelves in his office are adorned with multiple helmets, autographed Falcon footballs, jerseys and framed photos), a deployed ministry in Iraq, as well as opportunities to travel the world and come home with “experiences I will never forget,” he said.
He does more administrative work these days, but typically chaplains spend four or five hours a day walking around, visiting with airmen to assess their needs and concerns before advising commanders of what they learn.
To illustrate, take a 19-year-old airman who is working on an F-35 jet worth $94 million and you can imagine the high pressure involved with getting things right, Chaplain Beck said.
Chaplains have access to airmen in ways that commanders and other leaders don’t, he said.
“Chaplains serve as both spiritual and ethical advisers and counselors,” he said. “When large military units are armed and trained they become unstoppable by police or any form of law enforcement, they can do untold amounts of good or evil. Thus, keeping a large military force rooted in good, ethical morals and guided by righteous principals is critical. Chaplains working with commanders play a key role in doing this.”
Chaplains perform weddings. They also notify families when there’s a death and help with funeral arrangements and services. While deployed to Iraq, Chaplain Beck recalls nights of intense combat when there were as many as 40 deaths.
“Those are painful days for a chaplain but also a tremendous honor to be able to drape an airman’s coffin in the American flag and say a prayer over it, then put it on an airplane and send it home to their loved ones,” the chaplain said. “That’s a privilege you can never really explain adequately in words.”
Most of a chaplain’s time is devoted to counseling, especially with married couples, Chaplain Beck said.
One of his biggest failures as a chaplain came early in his career when an airman would share their story and he believed every word.
“When I was younger I was pretty naive, but learned there’s always two sides to every story,” he said. “Over the years I’ve learned to be wiser, more cautious in my approach to help solve problems.”
At a time when lawmakers debate requiring clergy to report child abuse confessions, he said anything admitted to a chaplain must remain confidential, no exceptions.
“We’re the only place in the Air Force where folks can go and share their innermost, darkest secrets,” Chaplain Beck said. “That information stays with us forever. We never share any of that with anybody.”
What about criminal confessions? Most chaplains have probably faced that situation, he said, and it’s hard, but if the person is admitting something, it’s most likely because he or she is seeking help.
“Confidentiality is absolutely vital,” he said. “Most of the time we’re able to walk down that journey with them and say, ‘Let’s work on getting out of that dark behavior.’ If we didn’t have that piece they might do something extreme, so it’s a blessing.”
One of the biggest problems Chaplain Beck counsels with airmen about at Hill Air Force Base is pornography, he said.
Trusting in God
While serving as everyone’s rock and spiritual adviser, where does the chaplain turn for strength and peace?
The answer, according to Chaplain Beck, is other chaplains who can relate, as well as a spouse.
“Because we have to keep what we hear bottled up, chaplains kind of share with each other, not specific details from what we’ve learned, but with each other and our spouses, the stressors we’ve been through.”
The demands of military service sometimes stretch into their personal lives.
Capt. Joseph Kim, another chaplain on the chapel team at Hill Air Force Base, is scheduled to be deployed on April 7. His wife is expecting to deliver a baby a few weeks later on April 26. There’s a small chance he could be granted permission to hold back for the birth, but no guarantees.
“It’s one of those situations,” Chaplain Beck said. “Just kind of how the military works sometimes. You just have to do those hard things.”
Chaplain Kim showed a brave face. He knows he’ll have great support from friends on base. His wife’s family is planning to fly to Utah from South Carolina for the birth. Ultimately, he knows God will watch over his family.
“I’m trusting that God will take care of them,” Chaplain Kim said.
Chaplain Larsen recalled being deployed in Iraq about two years ago when he learned that his wife of 17 years was going to lose a battle with cancer. He was granted leave to come home and grieve her passing with his loved ones.
“I was really grateful that the military mercifully sent me home so I could spend a few months with my family,” he said. “That was precious time.”
Chaplain Larsen remarried three months ago and said it’s been a “rough transition.” His new bride was also married for about 17 years before going through a divorce. The new couple is learning to “mesh” now, he said, and the experience has helped him in counseling as a chaplain.
“I’m a firm believer that the care we provide as chaplains has to be an extension of who we are. Going deep into our own pain, experiencing our own stuff, God meets us not only there but God can use those events to help us reach others in their pain,” he said. “Those experiences deepen us as human beings, if we let them. They can make any better or bitter, I choose better.”
An average of 1,300 parishioners attend weekend worship services on the base each month, Chaplain Beck said.
Among those are a variety of faiths, including Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims. Beck estimates the largest group is probably Evangelical Christian, but the fastest-growing is nondenominational or “other” — those who don’t identify with any faith.
“The vast majority of our young folks today do not identify as anything. They may identify as spiritual, they may even go to church, but they do not identify with any one religion,” Chaplain Beck said. “It’s pretty rare to find anybody below the age of 25 that identifies with a religion.
Tech. Sgt. Crystal McClellan, a noncommissioned officer in charge of religious affairs, works with others to make sure the sanctuary inside the base chapel is prepared for the different worship services held each Sunday. In a matter of minutes they can be ready for a Catholic or Protestant service.
The staff facilitates services for Jewish and Muslim airmen off base at local synagogues and mosques. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attend local congregations off base.
The chapel team operates with an annual budget from the government but also takes in between $180,000 and $195,000 a year in tithes and offerings from the different religious services. The funds have strict rules for use and are used to support ministries for the airmen. Charity Balce, the tithes and offerings account manager, counts every penny, Chaplain Beck said.
“It’s Charity’s job to keep me out of jail,” he said with a smile.
As he looks forward to retirement, Chaplain Beck is grateful for his quarter of a century in the military.
“The U.S. military is amazing,” he said. “Despite our weaknesses and challenges — we’re not perfect. But I can tell you the U.S. military does a tremendous job in trying to do right for the world. That is why we do what we do, and that truly is our mission.”