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Relatable and Reliable: 55th Wing Chaplains

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Tucked beside General's Row and the Parade Field and clouded by trees, the Strategic Air Command Memorial Chapel sits as a quiet sanctuary on a bustling military installation. That's not to say the chapel isn't busy, but there is a sense of calm in the building. 

Built in 1956, the chapel has always had a special significance to Offutt. Almost immediately after its construction, the chapel was outfitted with a unique piece of history--decorative Air Force-themed stained glass windows initiated by Gen. Thomas S. Power, the then commander in chief of Strategic Air Command. The windows memorialize those killed while flying the SAC mission. While the half-century old chapel is a unique facility, its staff is just as distinctive. The chaplains that conduct business from the SAC Memorial Chapel offer a unique service to Team Offutt. 

"We're like (the Army and Air Force Exchange Service)--'We go where you go'" said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Oledia Bell, deputy wing chaplain, cracking a thin smile and then bursting into laughter. While blatantly "borrowed," many would consider Chaplain Bell's choice motto to describe Air Force chaplains a perfect fit. 

"The majority of the people on our staff have had the opportunity to deploy to either Iraq or Afghanistan," said the chaplain, whose latest deployment took her to the country of Djibouti in East Africa. Accompanying a joint task force there for a humanitarian peace-keeping mission, she described the deployment as both a great ministry and a great opportunity. 

Chaplain Bell is an African Methodist Episcopal minister who arrived at Offutt with her husband about two years ago from Eielson AFB, Alaska. 

Chaplain Bell is one of the many individuals working at the SAC Memorial Chapel here. The chapel staff functions on a variety of levels. From conducting religious services and rites, to providing counsel to military members, 55th Wing chaplains support a multitude of missions while building the morale and wellness of Team Offutt members. 

Chaplain (Maj.) Jerry Sather, the senior Protestant chaplain, got his start in the military by joining the Army band in 1979. When he left the Army, he became a Protestant pastor and preached for 11 years in the civilian community as an Army Reserve chaplain before joining the Air Force in 1990. 

"All military chaplains are endorsed by their specific religious denomination. But even though we have that specific endorsement, we are a part of the military, a force that defends religious freedom," said Chaplain Sather. 

There are two parts that make up a military ministry--the parish ministry and the unit-based ministry, explained Chaplain Sather. The parish ministry has to do with things done inside the chapel walls such as services and chapel-based activities.
The unit-based ministry consists of counseling, seminars and day-to-day work targeted at the group level. 

"Ministry means service," said Chaplain Sather, "Our job is to do just that and provide opportunities for worship. We exist to accommodate religious needs, offer spiritual care and programs to build people up, and provide a ministerial presence for deployments."
All of the chaplains agree that one of the necessities for them to accomplish their mission is reliability and being able to relate with Airmen. 

"We're in a unique position where we can engage with everyone from an Airman to a four-star general," said Chaplain (Capt.) John Boulware, the 55th Maintenance Group chaplain. 

"Our uniqueness as chaplains comes from wearing rank," he said, "It makes us relatable. We are both military members as well as chaplains and our jobs have been original positions in the American military since George Washington appointed the first military chaplain." 

"Today, the minimum requirement in order for a clergy person to become an Air Force chaplain is to have a minimum of two years pastoral experience and be endorsed by their denomination before entering active duty," said Chaplain Boulware, who made the transition himself two years ago. 

"I've always wanted to be a military chaplain, but joining was a matter of timing," he said.
Like Chaplain Sather, Chaplain Boulware spent 11 years preaching before joining the Air Force. He now works at the SAC Memorial Chapel and presides over the traditional service at 11 a.m. on Sundays. 

While services are offered at prescheduled times, the chapel staff at Offutt is available 24/7 for counseling and emergencies. 

"The chapel also offers a wide range of religious programs, including providing a chaplain presence at U.S. Strategic Command and other tenant units," said Chaplain (Col.) Jeff Swanson, the 55th Wing senior chaplain. 

"I've served in our military for over 28 years as a warrior and a chaplain for our Airmen," said Chaplain Swanson, "I'm honored to lead our assistants and chaplains. They deliver the best ministry I've ever seen." 


For information on specific chapel service times click here.