RAFB chaplain helps service members with spiritual fitness

Sun News correspondentApril 24, 2013 

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- The mission of the Robins Air Force Base chapel is in many ways like, and in many ways unlike, that of most Middle Georgia churches.

Part of the difference has to do with the military concept of readiness.

“Air Force readiness means we’re able to fight and win our nation’s wars,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth Harp, 78th Air Base Wing chaplain at Robins. “Every airman is part of that big picture. Our chapel’s mission is to help airmen be ready for combat and ready to meet any life crisis. We help them be spiritually fit. Spiritual fitness is needed throughout life when your world starts crashing and you need the strength to carry on and do what you have to do.”

Regarding spiritual fitness, Harp relates it to the story of a conquering general who overruns a city and, amidst the confusion, finds a monk kneeling in prayer. He draws his sword, has the monk stand, and asks him, “Sir, do you know who I am? I’m the man who can run you through with a sword and never bat an eye.”

Harp said the monk replies, “Sir, do you know who I am? I’m the man you can run through with a sword and never bat an eye.”

“One isn’t fit for battle until they can comfortably take the enemy’s life in battle or lay down their own life in battle,” Harp said. “Anyone who has to draw their weapon and fire and kill someone is forever changed. The warrior has to be comfortable with how to process such things.”

Harp said a chaplain’s task is to deal with these and other heavy issues.

“Can people of faith even serve in the military?” Harp asked. “I answer that it depends. Can a Christian serve in the military, kill an enemy? I would say, ‘probably.’ There is a difference between killing and murder. However, Christianity does prohibit you from hating your enemy. That perspective allows doing your duty in service to your country and fellow citizens, but it prevents atrocities. Even if you follow all the rules, the warrior will see and do things people shouldn’t have to see or do. That’s their call. But they can do the right thing for the right reason, and they can learn how to process what happens and not just compartmentalize it and not deal with it. It’s part of the life service members face.”

Not being able to deal with it, Harp said, endangers the mission and the lives of others.

“Say a member of a base security force shoots and kills a truck driver running the gate, and it turns out to be an unarmed, practice run,” he said. “They will go away knowing they killed someone. If they can’t properly deal with it, the next time, when there is an actual threat, they may not pull the trigger. Bombs get in, and a lot of people are killed. It’s all part of the life and the need to be spiritually fit.”

Harp said the chaplain’s role is to serve all military members despite their faith background.

“Though the chaplains here now are all Christian, one Catholic and three Protestant, we serve all despite religious background or lack of religious background,” he said. “Unlike area churches, our mission is to include all military people, regardless. Our mission is to help people where they’re at with whatever they bring to the table. Religious respect is an important term here. I’m proud to be a United Methodist minister, but my mission isn’t to see how many United Methodists I can create. My mission is to help the warrior be spiritually fit.”

Harp said he serves a religious community beyond Protestants and Catholic. He said there is a vibrant Jewish community on base with a Jewish lay leader, and on Fridays there is a Muslim prayer service in a chapel annex.

Harp said he has found media reports of pressure on chaplains to betray their personal faith to be no issue at all.

“The Air Force puts no pressure on any chaplain to compromise,” Harp said. “In fact, any chaplain who compromises their values or ethics becomes of little value to the Air Force. Chaplains should know what they believe and stand for. Once you know who you are, you’re better able to help people where they are. You know you can’t help in all situations, and your job then is to get someone who can. But chaplains should never compromise. The Air Force doesn’t want it or require it. Integrity is a core Air Force value. The core values are: integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.”

The base chapel’s broader picture includes a range of typical ministries oriented to meet the needs of active and retired Air Force personnel and their families. That includes charitable service to the non-base community around them.

Family ministry is a priority and includes families experiencing a spouse’s deployment or return from deployment. Reintegration, Harp said, is often the hardest part, and chaplains have much help and information to offer.

Harp said to help build strong families, the chapel sponsors three or four couples retreats a year, often at Callaway Gardens. On May 18, the chapel is presenting a free seminar, “The Marriage You’ve Always Wanted,” featuring speaker and relationship expert Gary Chapman, author of “The Five Love Languages.”

Harp said seating is limited, and registration must be made by May 10 by calling the chapel.

Harp, who served 10 years in church ministry before entering the military as a chaplain, said he has 35 total years in reserve and active-duty service. He said it was at Robins that he received the call to ministry as a young man in the 1970s. He will retire from the military this summer.

“I’ll continue to live in Bonaire, but I’ve talked with my (United Methodist) bishop about serving after I leave the Air Force,” Harp said. “I think I will be serving churches that are in crisis to help them get things turned around. It will be for shorter periods of time, a year or so, and it will be a lot like going on TDY (temporary duty assignment) in the military.”

Among his many duty posts, Harp has also served at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio; in Germany; at the Air Force Academy; at Mountain Home, Idaho; in Biloxi, Miss., after Katrina; and has had two deployments to Afghanistan and one to Kuwait.

“The best advice I could give someone thinking of becoming a chaplain is to simply ask, ‘Is this where God is leading me?’ If it is, it will be the best ministry you’ll ever know. If not, you’ll be miserable.”

Contact Michael W. Pannell at mwpannell@gmail.com.

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