NEANG Chaplain Corps find new ways to connect with Airmen

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt Natasha Hilsgen
  • 155th Air Refueling wing

As the 155th Air Refueling Wing headquarters underwent major renovations, the wing’s chaplains and chaplain assistants quickly realized that the office arrangements would limit their effectiveness with only a small table in their temporary set-up, at the headquarters, to serve as the chaplain office.
“The old model of us being in our office space was just not cutting it anymore,” said Chaplain (Capt.) Michael Zimmer with the 155th ARW.
The chaplains wanted to try something new and embed themselves with the subordinate units throughout the wing, similar to what chaplains in the Army currently do at the battalion level.

Each of the chaplains would have an office space in a different unit on base, placing them closer to their Airmen, instead of locating all of the chaplains in one central office. Zimmer was assigned to the 155th Air Refueling Wing Operations Group, which he says is a closely knit group. The operations group is made up of the aircrew members who fly and operate the wing’s KC-135 Stratotankers. They work together, hang out together off-duty and deploy together. For all intents and purposes, they are family.

“At first, I think there were definite doubts and questions as to why Ops was assigned a chaplain,” Zimmer said. “They are a closely knit group and while they were accepting, I was not immediately a part of Ops.”

That has changed as time has gone by. Zimmer said he has recently noticed a change regarding his presence.
“At first, there were safe distances kept,” Zimmer said. “Now, I have noticed – in the best way possible – I’m not really noticed anymore. I am no longer an outsider who happens to come around, but the chaplain who is just there.”

The transition from the wing headquarters to their new homes has allowed the chaplains to build relationships with Airmen in the units, and the benefits are clear. “The normalization of a chaplain’s presence makes it much easier for a member to ask for ‘a quick word’ or to go out to eat to talk,” Zimmer said. “When we can regularly converse about anything and everything, it makes it far more comfortable for them to speak to me about particular problems.”

The operations group members have embraced Chaplain Zimmer’s presence as well. They invite him to lunch regularly, and arranged for him to go flying with them on an orientation flight to see what they do.

“He is now a friendly face. He is some we know and interact with on a daily basis,” said Maj. Tyler Sandberg, 173rd Air Refueling Squadron chief of current operations. “Just having him here is going to be great and pay dividends in the long run for us to have that relationship.”

The 155th Air Refueling Wing’s efforts are something that Chaplain (Maj. Gen.) Steven Schaick, U.S. Air Force chief of chaplains, is implementing as his vision for the Chaplain Corps called HC Next. A part of his vision is for chaplains to be embedded in the units below the wing level. “So what is being initiated on the active duty side as a whole, is already being done on our base with great success,” Zimmer said. “We are ahead of the game.”

One thing National Guard Bureau is pushing for is chaplains to have a full time presence on their respective bases, Zimmer said. As far as he knows, there are only 10 other Air National Guard bases that have a full time chaplain position. Just recently, Zimmer accepted the position to serve as the full time chaplain for the 155th Air Refueling Wing, another way the Lincoln air base is remaining forward thinking.

“It goes to show that our Leadership wants to provide as many resources to our Airmen as possible and make necessary changes to be sure that our Airmen are truly being cared for,” said Zimmer