By Tova Fruchtman: CNJ staff writer
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Lt. Col. Richard Hall, wing chaplain at Cannon Air Force Base, did a memorial service for a young soldier from Wisconsin during his 2004 deployment in Iraq.
The man was serving in Air Force security forces and had only been in Iraq 12 days before he was killed. His brother stood beside Hall on the back of a plane during the memorial. When Hall asked if he would be returning home for his brother’s burial, he was inspired and somewhat shocked at the response.
“He said ‘We believe in why we came. I’m going to stay here and finish what we set out to do,’” Hall recalled.
That was a particularly inspirational moment for Hall, a military chaplain who did over 160 memorial services during the four months he spent in Iraq. Hall said seeing the young men and women lose their lives was one of the biggest challenges of his career, but the pride the military personnel showed was more inspiring than the memorial services were difficult.
“I really think that a major thing is that we are an ever-present help in a time of need,” Hall said. “A civilian pastor is not going to get in a plane and go to Baghdad, Iraq, where I just got back from.”
Now, as many Cannon personnel prepare for deployment, chaplains are also getting ready. People turn to chaplains often during a time of deployment, Hall said.
“I think in our world, when we are in America we feel relatively safe, up until 9/11 we felt really safe. When we are thrown into a situation of uncertainty … you never know what’s waiting around the corner,” Hall said, adding that airmen on the verge of deployment to combat zones often reexamine their priorities, including their faith.
“I think it’s just an awakening that comes about,” Hall said.
It’s not just those being deployed, he added, but those left at home who experience this awakening.
“Anytime you have someone that you love or are concerned with in a very special way (who is) in harms way your priorities change dramatically,” he said.
During times of deployment, Hall said people come to him with a wide range of requests.
“It can be something as simple as, ‘Could you have a word of prayer with our family before they leave?’” Hall said.
Paula Thomas lives on base with her husband, Lt. Col. William Thomas, a physician at Cannon. Thomas has been involved with the base chapel since her husband joined the Air Force in 1991.
“They’re right on top of everything, kind of rallying the community together,” Thomas said.
She said she recommends airmen and their families see a chaplain in times of need or confusion.
“I’ve never known of any incidents where I felt that the chaplain wasn’t there for them,” she said. “One thing I have noticed is they really value the people.”
When chaplains hear someone is going through a rough time, Thomas said they usually go to the enlisted’s workplace and offer help, rather than waiting.
But many chaplains go beyond counseling, Thomas said.
They also give seminars on marriage and budgeting; conduct religious education classes; help with a flat tires or groceries; and prepare a families for deployment.
Moreover, Hall said chaplains have a responsibility to minister to the entire community, regardless of religion.
“(A chaplain) is a servant to the people he would minister to in every way, shape and form,” Hall said.