Chaplain (Capt.) Gabriel Rios, 325th Fighter Wing senior faith Protestant chaplain (second from right), says farewell to a fellow chaplain while serving at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. (Courtesy photo)
by Staff Sgt. Kirsten Wicker
325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
12/6/2012 - TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Maybe the first few things that come to mind when the word 'chapel' is spoken are topics like religion or God or spirituality. And perhaps most would be right, however, there is more than meets the word when an individual steps into the world of Tyndall's chaplains and chaplain's assistants.
So if it's not just 'church', what is it?
According to Chaplain Rios, it could be a chaplain's guide to navigating the ups and downs of simply being a member of the Air Force, no matter if a person is an Airman, spouse, civilian or any other role.
"Some people just want to know how to survive," said Chaplain (Capt.) Gabriel Rios, 325th Fighter Wing senior faith Protestant chaplain. "We aren't here to give them the answers, but to help them find the answers."
And finding the answers may not involve religion at all.
"The first thing we do when someone comes in here is make them feel as comfortable as possible and ask if everything is okay and if they ask to speak to a chaplain, we find out which ones are available at that moment," said Staff Sgt. Kasey Crews, 325th Fighter Wing chaplain assistant. "As chaplain's assistants, we can listen, but aren't able to provide council or advice - that is reserved only for chaplains. We remind people there is also 100 percent confidentiality when speaking to a chaplain."
"Our chaplain's assistants take care of so much for us administratively and in other ways so that we are able to do the business of ministering without worrying about all these other things," Chaplain Rios said. "I give them all the credit for such hard work."
Tyndall's chapel corps has three active duty Protestant chaplains, three Reserve Protestant chaplains, and one civilian Catholic priest.
"Chaplains aren't here to push their faith on anybody and they are very skilled at speaking to individuals without any religious overtones at all," said Master Sgt. Andrew Hiserodt, 325th FW chapel operations superintendent. "If someone has specific religious questions and we can't provide that here, we refer them to one of our contacts off base.
"If someone comes in with a different faith background and we don't have a chaplain from that faith background, they [chaplains] are 100 percent comfortable speaking to those of other faiths, but if a person really wants to speak to someone of their own faith, we are more than happy to provide a list of contacts off base they can talk to."
According to the Air Force Chaplain Corps, chaplains may be part of a religious faith group, but they are also highly skilled counselors who have a mission to provide spiritual care with 100 percent confidentiality.
"We do get the question a lot, 'Am I going to get in trouble if I talk to a chaplain about my problem?', and the answer is always no because there is 100 percent confidentiality with a chaplain, even if a crime was committed," Sergeant Crews said. "The chaplain can only encourage a person to go in the right direction and give them helpful advice."
"Even if the person is saying they may want to end their life, the chaplain will continue to guide them to seek help," said Sergeant Hiserodt.
And they just want to make sure a person isn't going to go home and do something harmful to themselves or someone else. The chaplain's goal is to do whatever he or she can to prevent that without divulging the information someone has told them to anyone, Sergeant Crews added.
Tyndall has a chaplain on-call for emergencies at all times and can be reached by calling the Command Post at 283-2155. During a crisis situation or widespread emergency, the chapel provides a traumatic stress response team to help people who may be struggling with a traumatic event.
So what are the differences between going to the chapel to seek counseling or going to mental health for the same thing?
Confidentiality for one thing, said Sergeant Crews.
"Mental health is obligated to report certain things and generally when someone needs medical help, that's where they need to go, but when people just have something they want to talk about or maybe they are dealing with an ethical or moral issue, they can certainly come to a chaplain. There is no documentation and it's 100 percent confidential," Sergeant Crews said.
"We take walk-ins, you don't even need an appointment," Sergeant Hiserodt added.
A 27-year veteran of the ministry and 13-year veteran of the military which began in the U.S. Army, Chaplain Rios has learned through experience that people experience suffering at all different levels.
"I worked for one year at Wilford Hall at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where I saw a lot of suffering. If people are going to come to someone thinking they will receive help, they can come here," he said. "As chaplains, one of our mottos is that we are to be a visible reminder of the Holy. I try to do that, I've seen a lot and I know what pain is so we do our best to provide an oasis in the desert for people to find refreshment."
But, he says, most people who come to the chapel are simply looking for a connection.
"Often, I counsel for support of some issue whether it's moral, ethical, work-related, value-related or marriage or relationship-related," he said. "But we also provide opportunity for the free exercise of religion."
Some people come in for information, some for connection, for support, for coping skills, for stress management and to find resources. That is why we offer different kinds of worship services here too, he added.
The chapel does host worship services on base such as a Catholic Mass and Protestant worship services. The chapel also has organized study groups like Protestant Men or Women of the Chapel and Catholic Men or Women of the Chapel who get together and discuss topics within their faith background and anyone is welcome to attend those.
"There is a flightline Bible study for swing shift workers and those who work primarily on the flightline side and can't make it over here," said Sergeant Hiserodt. "There are also Bible study lunches and dinners, and usually a dinner on Wednesday nights."
"Once a year, the chapel organizes a parish picnic or potluck for people to attend outside the traditional setting of the chapel," Sergeant Crews said. "And a sunrise Easter service and the Holiday tree lighting ceremony, so there are lots of ways to be involved."
For the kids, chapel volunteers organize Awana meetings. Awana is a children's spiritual group which helps churches and parents work together to develop spiritually strong children and youth.
"There is a lot of satisfaction being a chaplain that you don't see in the pay check," said Chaplain Rios. "Even if I had Bill Gates' money, I would still do this job and I would pay the Air Force to let me do it.
"I get e-mails all the time from people I was able to help and that means more to me than anything, knowing that I made a difference in someone's life."