GEILENKIRCHEN, Germany - Father Okorie had folks praying even before he entered this world.

Born in the rainforests of southeastern Nigeria, Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Onyema Okorie gave his mother — and her doctors — a scare during labor. Options were discussed and prayers were said, but, in the end, his mother opted to let nature take its course, and all went well.

That led her to name her sixth child Onyemauchechukwu, which, in the Igbo language, means “who knows the mind of God.” It was later shortened to Onyema.

“From that moment, all hell broke loose,” Okorie said, laughing uproariously.

The U.S. Air Forces in Europe’s company grade chaplain of the year for 2007 appreciates a good joke, as well as the blessings of life, given his remarkable journey. Okorie, who moved to the U.S. after college, is now up for the top Air Force award, which will be announced this spring.

“I like to be humble in whatever I do,” said Okorie, a Catholic chaplain at Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base. “The reason why I’m in the military is to be there for people, the same for my ministry. I feel it is a privilege to serve.”

One of two Air Force chaplains assigned to the 470th Air Base Squadron, Okorie also serves Catholics assigned to nearby Brunssum, Netherlands.

The 39-year-old priest is known for his energetic and passionate style, and he drew raves last summer during a four-month deployment to Balad, Iraq.

In his nomination packet for the USAFE award, Okorie was referred to as a “premiere combat chaplain” and was lauded for his “superb work,” including an “amazing ministry to isolated forces” in the field, particularly Special Forces.

“Those guys do not talk a whole lot,” Okorie said. “But it was the most incredible experience serving those guys because of their experiences, because of what they go through, and what they have survived. It gives them a greater appreciation of their faith.”

Okorie often traveled out to the Special Forces camps a couple of times a week. Most of his time, however, was spent at Balad Air Base, collocated with Logistics Support Area Anaconda north of Baghdad.

There, Okorie worked the combat hospital, relentlessly administering to the needs of injured and dying soldiers, battle buddies, medics and hospital personnel of all specialties.

For two months, he was the only Catholic chaplain in and around Balad, a major hub of U.S. military activity. On weekends, he would typically say as many as seven Masses, traveling near and far by land or air.

“What a wonderful man,” said Maj. Gen. Charles Baldwin, the Air Force chief of chaplains.

“Part of the reason why he won [the USAFE award] was because of his great ministry at Balad.”

Time in a combat zone does tend to strengthen a person’s faith, Okorie said. War coupled with the absence of home life leaves people more time to reflect.

“Those are the times,” Okorie said, “when they really start to process things.”

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