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Staff Sgt. John Shepard, a chaplain assistant with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares for a Mass at the Tuskegee Chapel at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

Staff Sgt. John Shepard, a chaplain assistant with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares for a Mass at the Tuskegee Chapel at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (Chad Chisholm / U.S. Air Force)

Staff Sgt. John Shepard, a chaplain assistant with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares for a Mass at the Tuskegee Chapel at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

Staff Sgt. John Shepard, a chaplain assistant with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares for a Mass at the Tuskegee Chapel at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (Chad Chisholm / U.S. Air Force)

Staff Sgt. John Shepard, right, shares a bag of goodies with an airman from the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

Staff Sgt. John Shepard, right, shares a bag of goodies with an airman from the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (Chad Chisholm / U.S. Air Force)

RAF MILDENHALL, England — Even chaplains can’t be everywhere. That’s why the Air Force has chaplain assistants.

“We’re like his eyes and ears,” said Staff Sgt. Clarence Shuford, a chaplain assistant at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.

The enlisted personnel who serve in every chapel in the Air Force are barometers of unit morale and messengers for troubled sheep in the chaplain’s flock.

“We’re an avenue for them to get to the chaplain,” said Staff Sgt. Steven Hale, a chaplain assistant at RAF Lakenheath, England.

Officers may feel comfortable approaching the chaplain, who is also an officer, but lower ranks may feel more at ease initially contacting the assistant.

“You feel more comfortable with your peers than not,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Turley, the service’s career field manager in the Air Force chief of chaplains office.

A chaplain assistant offers the same confidentiality expected in private discussions with the chaplain.

“I am held to the same standard,” said Staff Sgt. John Shepard, a reservist now serving as chaplain assistant at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

Shepard accompanies a chaplain on daily visits to the flight line. While the chaplain provides spiritual support, Shepard chats with airmen who approach him seeking private sessions with his boss.

He said the reality of combat — mortar attacks and the like — prompt people to seek “answers to ‘why’ questions.”

“There’s a fair amount of people who come in and want to talk to the chaplains,” he said.

Chap. (Maj.) Jerry Sather, chaplain at RAF Mildenhall, answered, “Where do I start?” when asked to explain the role of the chaplain assistant.

“We view this as a team effort,” he said. They free the chaplains from administrative tasks, which allow the chaplains to do their work as members of the clergy, he said.

Plus, they are additional sources for information. He frequently asks his assistants what they are hearing to help him gauge the spiritual health of the community.

“They hear things that we haven’t heard,” Sather said.

Some chaplain assistants are devout in their religious beliefs, but others are not.

“I wouldn’t call myself a religious person really,” said Hale, who has spent nearly all of his eight years in the Air Force as a chaplain assistant. “For me, it’s just working with people and helping people.”

Shuford, however, said, “I love the Lord. I can freely say that. I wanted to serve the Lord and help people meet their religious needs through the [Air Force] community.”

Turley said there is no requirement that a chaplain assistant have a strong religious faith. Instead, the service wants people who are open-minded and compassionate.

“It’s a matter of, could you help others within their own faith?” he said.

The chaplain assistants share the same goal as the chaplains they serve, those interviewed said. They want a person in need to receive the help and comfort they seek.

“If people come out of the chapel with a smile on their face, that’s rewarding,” Hale said.


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