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Caring for the caregivers

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joseph Raatz
  • Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs
Since its inception, the Air Force Chaplain Corps has been a source of comfort and relief for servicemembers both on and off the battlefield.

Chaplains and chaplain assistants have provided religious, spiritual, emotional and physical support to untold numbers of Airmen and their families around the world. With responsibilities ranging from leading worship services and performing marriage ceremonies to caring for those who have recently lost their loved ones and performing last rites, they often see both the best and the worst sides of the human experience. This unique aspect of the chaplain's job can be quite taxing.

"Being with people can be emotionally draining as I hear people's stories, empathize with their situations and tap into my own emotions," said Capt. Jayme Kendall, 5th Bomb Wing chaplain at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. "For example, if I sit with someone who is grieving and I have had a recent loss myself, afterwards I may be more drained because it stirs up my own emotions regarding my situation."

To combat this emotional drain and promote professional development, the Air Force Global Strike Command Chaplain hosts annual development days for the purpose of "caring for the caregivers."

"Caring for caregivers means understanding the stress a caregiver has and providing time for them to detox from career stressors," said Master Sgt. Tamesia Noble-JeanLouis, superintendent of chapel operations with the 341 Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana. "These development days are designed to be fun, interactive and usually occur away from the job site.  A schedule is created by the facilitator to cover key areas such as personality traits, teambuilding, group dysfunction and strategic planning."

During one teambuilding activity participants were paired up into teams. One person held a pen tightly in their hand while the other attempted to get the pen away from them within 15 seconds.

"The clock began and I thought, 'I wonder what would happen if I just asked them to open their hands,'" said Capt. Thomas Fussell, 90th Missile Squadron chaplain at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. "They did so and we successfully completed the task.  Most people would try to pry the pen out of the person's hands. The lesson here was 'communication is key if you want something.' Sometimes we have to be humble and creative."

Col. David Nordstrand, an Air Force Reserve chaplain who serves as the individual mobilization assistant to the AFGSC command chaplain, was largely responsible for the development and institution of the development day program. This year, he travelled to each AFGSC base to personally lead the day's events.

"The [development] days and caring for the caregivers provide an opportunity for each individual to assess and develop resilience in order for the caregiver to be able to listen to people in their pain and journey," Nordstrand said. "In other words, if you don't know yourself and are not comfortable with yourself and your teammates, you will never be able to be effective in caring for other people. This program aims to promote that comfort and familiarity."

While the development days have been well-received, some feel they are too few and far between.

"I wish we could afford to take a day away more often to regroup and refocus," Fussell said. "I think it would help us to be more efficient. In the future I'd like to see different ways of doing these days, and to see more of them."

A portion of each development day was focused on encouraging chaplains and chaplain assistants to take time to care for themselves. This important step helps ensure caregivers remain able to provide for their Airmen.

"'Caring for the caregiver' reminds me of the airplane safety instructions that direct people to put their own oxygen mask on first before assisting others," Kendall said. "I have to practice good self-care and be healthy myself if I'm going to have anything to give to others."