Answering the call (twice)

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • Tinker Public Affairs
They say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. That was true for new 72nd Air Base Wing Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Dave Terrinoni and his calling to minister in the military.

With his twin daughters sleeping upstairs, the self-employed businessman sat at the table filling out bills late one night when, out of nowhere, he stopped, sat up straight and said, "I need to be a minister."

"When I shared it with my wife, I told her I thought something was wrong in my head. This kind of thing happens in the Bible, not in real life," he said.

He had always been a man of faith, but more like the apostle Peter than Paul, he said. There was no blinding light or loud voice from heaven.

"In my experience, that is when the Lord speaks to us. It's the quiet times," Chaplain Terrinoni said.

After meeting with his pastor and visiting the McCormick Theological Seminary at the University of Chicago, where he would eventually graduate, Chaplain Terrinoni said he decided to leave his sales and marketing business behind to pursue his newfound calling.

"I felt comfortable. I knew it was where God wanted me to be," Chaplain Terrinoni said. A year into school, he met an Air Force chaplain and felt another call. He joined the Chaplain Candidate Program, which allows potential chaplains to be commissioned into the military, to test their compatibility, with "no strings attached."

Serving the military came with its own challenges. Before being ordained a Presbyterian minister, a church well-known for its peacemaking stance, he faced a tough question from a reviewer: "How can you justify being a chaplain for an organization with the sole purpose of killing people?"

Chaplain Terrinoni's answer was a simple paraphrase of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. "The Soldier has to be the strongest proponent of peace because it is the Soldier who bears the sins and scars of war," he said.

This perceived paradox is a challenging part of any chaplain's life and points to the larger issue of responsibility -- first to the church body and then to the Air Force. It's a "tightrope walk" Chaplain Terrinoni has performed for 22 years.

Technically, chaplains are on loan from their ordaining church body to the Air Force. For all chaplains, there has to be a marriage of mindsets or things can become unbalanced, Chaplain Terrinoni said.

"I am a military officer. I am also a clergy member. There are times when I need to lean one way or another. But, if you lean too far one way, you can lose credibility in the other area," he said. "As long as a chaplain is struggling between the two, then I think they are keeping those roles balanced."

Chaplains cannot do anything that would violate their own religious beliefs or the standards of their ordaining bodies, but it is their responsibility to provide for the free exercise of religion -- sometimes a challenge in a highly-deployable career field. A good example is Tinker's Muslim community. While there isn't a Muslim chaplain on staff, there is a Muslim lay leader the chaplains coordinate with and they provide space for Muslim services.

"Within any church body there are going to be differences. I don't have to agree with someone to respect their beliefs," said Chaplain Terrinoni. "As a staff we will be there as best we can, along with our Navy and Reserve partners, to meet the spiritual needs of Team Tinker."

Personal belief and spiritual anchors are important things for many military members, said Chaplain Terrinoni, especially when they are deployed.

"The Bible talks a lot about the wilderness, the desert. The distractions we have at home are gone. Scripture comes to life. ... For a lot of people God becomes more than a word."

A veteran of seven deployments, sometimes in harm's way with Special Forces members, he has seen how important spirituality becomes when troops are under fire.

"At moments of crisis, people are looking for something or someone. It may be God, or it may be the guy in the hole next to them," he said. "I have seen many people come to faith. I have seen people pushed close to the edge of faith and others pushed close to the edge, their limit."

The idea of being a part of something larger than themselves is what draws many people to the military and what he enjoys most about serving alongside other Airmen, said Chaplain Terrinoni.

"I love serving with people of character. People who will be there for each other if they're ever in trouble," he said.

The chaplain speaks from experience. When his wife broke her foot in 1997, she had an extensive recovery ahead, one that required her to stay off her feet for nearly a month. She would not be able to perform the daily tasks of a mom raising two pre-teen daughters. To make matters worse, Chaplain Terrinoni was deployed to Malaysia two days after the injury. For the next 30 days, people from the chapel, squadron and military housing neighborhood cooked and cared for his family.

"That is something I'll never forget," he said.

This connection between Airmen in close-knit military communities is something Chaplain Terrinoni is proud to foster through the Chaplain Corps, and after 22 years of answering two callings, he said he is excited to carry on here at Tinker.