An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Humans over hardware: Special Tactics Chaplains conduct joint training event

  • Published
  • By Lt. Alejandra Fontalvo
  • 24th Special Operations Wing

With the stress of combat, losing teammates in battle or training and spending long periods of time away from family and friends, Special Tactics operators rely heavily upon embedded Chaplains to guide them through their most difficult times. As well, Special Tactics Chaplains rely on each other to strengthen their abilities to address the spiritual needs of their formation.

With these complex challenges in mind, the 24th Special Operations Wing chaplain corps hosted a week-long training event at Hurlburt Field, Florida Jan. 25-29, 2021. The week’s activities consisted of time with senior leaders, professional development, working groups and an immersion with the Chaplain Corps of the Army’s 7th Special Force’s Group (Airborne).

"Special Tactics Chaplains are pioneers within the U.S. Air Force.  Traditionally, our Chaplains and Religious Affairs Airmen work as a staff in a base chapel.  Our teams are at the forefront of a tremendous shift, moving them out of the chapel and into the units,” said Maj. Jeffrey McMillen, the 24th SOW’s Wing Chaplain and lead for the training event. “Embedded in the squadrons, they work directly for their Commanders and very closely with their Airmen and families.  The close relationships they develop increase trust exponentially, making them more effective care-givers.  The challenge our teams face, however, is learning how to work well in this environment.  It can be a steep learning curve.  That’s why we must train.”

One core truth echoed throughout the training and on the walls of the auditorium hosting the event, “SOF Truth I: Humans are more important than hardware”. In accordance with Air Force Special Operations Command’s most recent strategic guidance, leadership and the Chaplain corps know how critical it is to develop our human capital.

“I appreciate the opportunity to come here and talk to the Chaplains because the Chaplain Corps is the pivotal part that touches our human capital, which is our number one priority,” said Chief Master Sgt. Chris Grove, 24th SOW command chief. “If our humans are broken we can’t do anything else, so confiding in the Chaplains and making sure that we’re doing the right things and affecting our humans is priority.”

In addition to U.S. Special Operations Command and AFSOC, the Air Force as a whole has continued to emphasize the four pillars of comprehensive fitness that helps our force continue to fly, fight and win, which are the physical, mental, social and spiritual pillars.

“With regard to the four pillars, the other three pillars we feel pretty comfortable with, the one we struggle with is the spiritual pillar,” said McMillen. “In the embedded model you’re providing spiritual care that’s adapted to the needs of the unit and often that may or may not include people who have religious backgrounds. You have to find a way to meet the spiritual needs of all people from all backgrounds regardless of their religious traditions or no religion at all.”

Through-out the training, Chaplains shared stories and anecdotes on how they were able to build spiritual resiliency within Airmen from all different backgrounds. One Chaplain in particular shared how he adapted from serving nearly three thousand Airmen to building close bonds within one Special Tactics squadron.

“The depth of the relationships is the most significant difference between being a wing Chaplain and embedded Chaplain, because you do really get to know people and know their families,” said Capt. Barry Kemp, 23rd STS Unit Chaplain. “It comes down to having a resource that’s easily accessible and works within your schedule. Very rarely do I set appointments I’m always making my schedule work with their schedule.”

This same flexibility also allows time for Chaplains to get a closer look and understanding of the struggles that their Airmen might face by actually working alongside them.

“The best part for me is getting to train alongside our Special Tactics Airmen, doing physical training with them, going on [temporary duty assignments] with them and watching them do what they do best,” said Capt. Joshua Flynn, the first ever embedded Chaplain at the 17th Special Tactics Squadron. “It’s really, the relationships I’ve built with them getting to know their spouses, getting to know their children, and just doing life with them has been my favorite thing being at the 17th.”

As a former enlisted Soldier in the Army National Guard, Flynn is no stranger to the reality that faces his squadron when going downrange and deploying with the 75th Ranger Regiment. His experience in the Army set him up for his current position and he continues to bring the lessons he learned from his first Army Chaplain mentor to his approach in the 17th STS.

McMillen believes that Air Force Chaplains can learn a lot from Army Chaplains because they have been embedded in their units since the very beginning. This sparked the idea to coordinate an immersion with Chaplains from the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).

“I think it’s the way of the future,” said Army Major Peter Hofman, a Chaplain with 7th SFG (A). “It’s paramount to show the rest of the force what right looks like and that’s interoperability and building relationships. We have that like perspective and we can appreciate each other’s ministry in a way that sometimes we can’t relate to as much with our conventional Army teammates. We have a much closer relationship because our Green Berets operate with Special Tactics operators closely downrange.”

Whether it’s with the Army, within the squadron or with Airmen’s families, the Chaplains all noted how the relationships built help keep the formation ready for anything they may face, whether it be combat or a pandemic.

“The Air Force has given us the opportunity as Chaplains and Religious Affairs Airmen the opportunity to go and do life with our Airmen,” said Flynn. “We have to lean on one another, we have to sharpen one another, we have to encourage one another and love one another.”