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Tinker’s chaplains: helping servicemembers with grace

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Chaplains are an integral part of Team Tinker. But, while they are frequently seen delivering an invocation before a luncheon or change of command ceremony, their day-to-day responsibilities are a mystery to much of the Tinker community.

Many don't know there are only six active-duty chaplains, one part-time chaplain candidate and four active-duty chaplain assistants across base whose sole duty is provide, facilitate, care and advise Tinker's military, dependents, retirees and civilians. In addition to their daily responsibilities, they must also cope with the Air Force's demands and their personal church's orders.

"We care more about the people around here than they probably realize," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David Terrinoni of the 72nd Air Base Wing. "We continue a very long tradition that dates all the way back to George Washington when he said every unit has to have a spiritual leader there with them. The spiritual strength is the strength that gets people through the good times and the bad times."

Chaplains by definition are commissioned military officers who have four-year college degrees, plus Masters' in Divinity or equivalent degrees. They are ordained ministers, priests, rabbis and immans who have at least two years of ministry service, ecclesiastical endorsements from their respective church bodies and are endorsed by a Department of Defense recognized agency.

When chaplains arrives at an installation for duty, they are actually "on loan" from their church. Meaning, should their home church need them back, they are required to return.

"I think it was one of the chaplains who taught my introductory course that said, 'When you go through Commissioned Officer Training you're told you're an officer 24/7,'" said Chaplain (Capt.) Mark Juchter (pronounced Yook-ter) of the 72nd ABW. "We are still officers 24/7, but first we belong to God, then we belong to our church and then the Air Force. We can't leave those other two pieces out."

Chaplains who don't communicate enough with their church body can lose their endorsement and be forced to leave the military.

"Being a chaplain means that I can go places that the church cannot go," said Chaplain (Navy Cmdr.) Ray Hunt of Strategic Communications Wing ONE. "I train with my Sailors and Marines. I deploy with them. I face many of the same issues they face every day. It also means that I have to provide for people with vastly different theological views than my own. It means I have to work within the rules of the institution I serve."

Tinker's Air Force chaplains also have to meet the demands of the base and its commanders, while still abiding by headquarters requirements. Recently, the Air Force introduced a mandate to cut the number of chaplains.

Chaplain Terrinoni said there are currently 547 active-duty chaplains Air Force wide, but the number will soon drop to 480 through force-shaping boards. At Tinker, the available active duty U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps is further reduced by two members currently deployed and two more deploying by the end of the year.

"They've reduced the number of chaplains at a time when we're historically busier because of our war situations," Chaplain Terrinoni said. "My personal guilt is that I'm human and I can only do so much and there's so much more out there that needs to be done."

They do try to do their best and perform an average of 400 to 600 invocations each year, counsel and offer privileged conversation, deploy, conduct worship services, advise commanders, visit units and do rites and sacraments.

"I walked in the other day, having a good day, just be-bopping along and there was a guy in the front office who wanted to talk about a funeral," said Chaplain (Capt.) Kraig Smith of the 72nd ABW. "Just that quickly, I went from everything was sunshiny to a helping plan a funeral. There's that quick, rapid, emotional switch."

But, they do have help. Chaplain assistants prove to be invaluable.

"We are the 'eyes and ears' for the chaplains," said Staff Sgt. Kirt Dicen, noncommissioned officer-in-charge of Chapel Operations for the 72nd ABW. "We hear about issues from personal to work and mission that could have dire consequences if not addressed."

Chaplain assistants are enlisted personnel who do not have the same educational background, are not entitled to privileged communication, are not obligated to follow the rules of a church body and are not endorsed by a church. But, they are trained for crisis intervention, facilitation of religious expression and to handle weapons, as opposed to the non-combatant chaplains.

Much like a chaplain, Sergeant Dicen said his days are busy.

"Day by day will bring me anything from a person who is excited about a new worship study to a member who is contemplating suicide," he said. "I have to be on my toes and able to respond compassionately and still have time for administration things that are always needing attention."

The busyness, officials said, is worth it.

"Where else can you work with cops one day, civil engineers another day, flyers another day and the comptroller squadron? We get to do it all and not have to study for it," Chaplain Terrinoni said.