By Jillian Coleman, 72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
/ Published February 09, 2018
Chaplain (Capt.) Okechukwu Nwaneri serves as the group chaplain for the 72nd Mission Support Group and 552nd Maintenance Group. (Air Force photo by Jillian Coleman)
Have you ever had a dream that seemed so far-fetched that you rule it out of the realm of possibility? Chaplain (Capt.) Okechukwu Nwaneri used to view chaplaincy from the same perspective.
“I never saw myself as a chaplain. I would see chaplains and always thought that would be a cool job to have, but never considered that as a legitimate option,” Nwaneri said. “It was like watching Michael Jordan play basketball and having a dream of playing in the NBA.”
Instead wanting to pursue a career as a civilian news anchor, Nwaneri found himself as a senior in college finishing up an internship. It was December 2002 and Nwaneri was told he lacked the experience, and at the time he didn’t want to stay the course as it would have meant moving back home to build up his capabilities. Prior enlisted, Nwaneri took a shot at the same hoop but this time on the military side of things.
“I tried again, this time for American Forces Network. Again, I didn’t qualify. I did qualify for engineering and so that’s where I landed,” he said.
Engineering is where he started, but it wouldn’t be where he would end up. Admitting that he wasn’t a fan of either his new career field or supervisor, Nwaneri decided after his four year term was up, that was it. So, he moved onto a career in civil service where he stayed for a couple years until he was laid off in 2009.
“I was in my house thinking about what was next, trying to find a new job and it just came to me,” Nwaneri said. “I just thought, ‘remember when you entertained the idea of being a chaplain?’ and the wheels started turning. I didn’t know how I would pay for seminary, but with the post-9/11 GI Bill I was able to apply. It took eight months and with my not so squeaky enlisted career, I didn’t think I’d get picked up.”
In May 2010, Nwaneri commissioned as a chaplain candidate. He graduated from seminary school in October 2013, promoted and is now a full-fledged chaplain with the 72nd Air Base Wing. As the group chaplain for the 72nd Mission Support Group and the 552nd Maintenance Group, Nwaneri is a resource, encourager, friend and counselor. His favorite part of the job? The people.
“Every day that I put on this uniform, it’s a representation of not only myself, but my profession and representation of God,” he said. “Being able to be a beacon of hope to someone, to be that positive light in someone’s life, that’s really special. And it’s so much greater than myself.”
Taking pride in his every stride, Nwaneri makes it a priority to engage with his Airmen regularly. One of the best ways he finds, is through his Monday Morning Motivation emails.
“Each Monday is different, the messaging varies. But I center it around things that happen during that week. I find that everything resonates with people in a different way, but some things really hit home. That in itself motivates me. I want to encourage them to take care of themselves and take care of their fellow wingmen.”
Nwaneri, though he never pegged himself as the chaplain-to-be, grew up as the “preacher’s kid.” His late father was a bishop for many years and despite his desire to not follow in his footsteps, Nwaneri now has his own identity within the same profession. He attributes his love for the chaplaincy to characteristics he adopted from his father: his love for people.
“I love my job so much, largely because of him,” Nwaneri said. “He loved people. No matter their race, gender, ethnicity, background, belief system, he loved all people.”
Crediting his father as one of his biggest influences, Nwaneri added that his wish was for his son to go further and higher than he ever did. Nwaneri will meet that mark come May of this year, receiving his doctorate degree in ministry.
“I owe it to myself and to everyone that has believed, and continues to believe, in me,” the chaplain said. “Wearing this uniform reminds me daily of the representation of my family – my wife and one-year-old son. I want to prepare him and make life better for him. I thrive off challenges and defying odds and I want to set that bar high, and be the example to my son.”
The chaplain has come a long way since his plan to become a news anchor. He’s found his niche through his determination to focus on his goals and dreams, no matter the reach. Forgetting the naysayers, remaining consistent and patient, Nwaneri has overcome adversity and been successful throughout his life, and, the best is yet to come.