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March welcomes the Air Force Reserve's first full-time chaplain

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Zach Anderson
  • 4th Air Force Public Affairs
Standing in front of the wooden altar, leather-bound Bible in hand, Chaplain (Maj.) Craig Benson looks quite comfortable in the empty sanctuary of the chapel at March Air Reserve Base.

Of course, that's to be expected. After all, the base chapel, a place of worship and ministry, is considered to be the natural environment of a chaplain.

But Chaplain Benson doesn't consider this to be the place where his ministry really takes place...nor does he like to spend too much time here.

"If I'm in the office too much, I'm not doing my job," said Chaplain Benson.

And Chaplain Benson's job is a unique one to say the least.

He is part of a test program recently approved by Air Force Reserve Command Commander, Lt. Gen. Charles E. Stenner. For the first time ever, the Air Force Reserve is placing full-time chaplains at six of its busiest locations. Those locations are Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas; Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.; Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.; Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass., and here at March.

Chaplain Benson's arrival at March made him the first of the six Active Guard/Reserve (AGR) positions to be in place. In this new chaplain position with the 452nd Air Mobility Wing, he augments the five Reserve chaplains and provides full-time chaplain support to the base.

He's excited about serving as a trailblazer in this still-developing program.

"I feel like this is a great opportunity and something that is very rewarding. It's a new position and we are creating it as we go. We really don't know how it will change or what it will look like two years from now," said Chaplain Benson.

Serving in a full-time status isn't the traditional role of a Reserve chaplain, but then Chaplain Benson's path to his current position hasn't really been that traditional either.

For the first 13 years of his Air Force career, Chaplain Benson served as a navigator and electronic warfare officer in B-52 and B-1 bombers as well as C-130 cargo aircraft. And while he enjoyed his time as an aviator, he says he felt a pull to serve in another way.

"I really felt I had done all I wanted in the flying world and I wanted to do something a little different," he said. "I sensed that flying was a chapter in my life that I was eventually going to close and that I was going to do something in the ministry, or something working with people. Something that involved more dealing with people and less dealing with machinery."

Eventually, Chaplain Benson made the transition from the cockpit to the pulpit. It's a decision he feels has put him in the right place.

"We chaplains call it 'the call of God.' It's where you feel a peace about it. This is where God wants you; it's where he leads you. And you have that peace that you are being used."

Prior to his arrival to March, Chaplain Benson was attached to the U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, augmenting the active duty chaplains there, and served a three-month active duty backfill tour there as the Senior Protestant Chaplain.

Under the new Reserve chaplain program, Chaplain Benson will definitely be used here at March. According to Chaplain (Col.) Don Smith, AFRC command chaplain, March and the other locations for the program were chosen because of high deployment rates and operational tempos. The idea is that full-time chaplains will help individuals better deal with major stresses in their lives.

"These increased deployments can cause traumatic stress. We see things like increases in suicide attempts, increases in marital issues, anger, abuse, divorces, and we know we have to do something about this," said Chaplain Benson. "Congress implemented the Yellow Ribbon program a year and a half ago to reach out to spouses, families and military members and we've stepped up with that program, but we need that 24/7 presence for our people as well."

That 24/7 presence is the cornerstone of what Chaplain Benson is hoping to establish here at March. He said he will be participating in Yellow Ribbon programs for those being deployed and their families, as well as focusing on providing a stable source of support for the base population.

"At a Reserve base, people don't live on the base or close by. The chaplains are part-time, and they are here only during that one weekend a month. But stuff happens during the week, not just on the drill weekend. You need someone full-time to work those issues, get coordination going and be there for the Air Reserve Technicians (ART), the civilians here, the reservists who are on two or three-day tours, and we can provide that help," he said.

Chaplain Benson said that as he settles in at March, his first challenge is simply letting people know that he is available. And that means getting out of the office and out in the community.

"You have 4,000 military members here, all branches represented and different DoD entities. How do we minister to all of these groups? You have to build bridges. So we are out and about, trying to get our faces out there, trying to let people know there is a chaplain here so that people know they can come to us when they have issues and concerns."

Many assume that chaplains are available strictly for spiritual matters or issues dealing with religion. But Chaplain Benson said that's not what the chaplain ministry is about.

"We don't necessarily talk about God or religion, and we don't have to pray or bring God into the mix. We don't press our beliefs. We find out what the needs are; are they spiritual or non-spiritual? If it's non-spiritual, that's fine. We will provide support as best we can to meet those needs," he said.

One of the biggest roles of a chaplain, he said, is to simply serve as a sounding board.

"A lot of time, people just need someone to listen. Whether that be a pastor or a counselor, they need someone who isn't threatening, where they can just unload and vent. A lot of times, we bring out the Kleenexes and we just listen to them."

"We offer confidentiality when we meet with people," he continued. "They can come to us knowing that what they share just stays with us. That's a big help for military members or anyone who wants to talk about sensitive issues."

As a full-time chaplain at a Reserve base, Chaplain Benson said he has to find creative and non-traditional ways to conduct his ministry to those in need...and he'll take whatever steps are necessary to help the members of team March.

"Our people live in 37 different states and many of our members are deployed, so how do I connect with them? I won't always be able to provide the typical counseling session. I can't do it face-to-face, so it will be a phone call and e-mail ministry at times."

Chaplain Benson said that many times, chaplains serve as the front-line support system for individuals who need help. And while chaplains may not be the most qualified to deal with a particular issue, they can definitely help people, point them in the right direction and do their part to get those individuals connected with the help and services they need. At times, he said, those issues can range from anything from financial problems to legal needs. His job, he said, is to listen and help the individual.

"We are just one of many support agencies. We typically see the person first and then we can get them the help they need downrange. There are limits to what we do, and sometimes the issues are out of our realm. But I'm one more support person they can draw upon."

While he's only been at March for slightly more than a month, Chaplain Benson feels he is already making a difference. He's had the opportunity to help two families with deployment-related issues. Incidents like these, he said, are what make this assignment and his position as a chaplain so fulfilling.

"If I can impact a family or a military member in a positive way, if I can make them stronger, to me that is the greatest reward; just knowing that I've helped a family work through issues so they can bring closure to that chapter of their life and grow from it and be stronger."

Chaplain Benson said his mission at March is, in a nutshell, to help military members and their families complete their mission by helping them grow stronger, more resilient and spiritually fit. That, in turn, he said, helps make the Air Force successful as a whole.

Of course, to accomplish that mission means Chaplain Benson must be active on and around the base. And while he encourages members and their families to reach out for needed support, he also knows he has a role to play in being available as well.

"It all starts with me," he said. "I have to let people know I am here and stay engaged. It's about taking that extra step, not just waiting for the phone calls to come, but to get out and let people know I am here and I care for them."

For that reason, Chaplain Benson, in his new full-time role at March, said he will be making every effort to be visible and out among the members at the base.

After all, he may feel quite at home in the chapel...but then, the chapel isn't where he does his job.