JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --
Leaving for or returning from a deployment can challenge the resiliency of 62nd Airlift Wing Airmen. They have to say goodbye to their families and friends and be a part from them for a considerable amount time. Then, when they return, they could have undergone times of great stress during their deployment.
In order to offer spiritual help to these Airmen, the 62nd AW Chaplain and 62nd Operations Group commander initiated the inclusion of a religious support team (RST) on flights taking Airmen to and from deployed locations. During the quarterly Expeditionary Airlift Squadron (EAS) swap out at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, and an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia, RSTs have now become an integrated part of the process.
The RST consists of two Airmen, a chaplain and a religious affairs Airman. During the final EAS swap out of 2018, the RST was comprised of Chaplain (Capt.) Jammie Bigbey and Staff Sgt. John Nieves Camacho.
“Some of the things we’re doing is simply connecting and hearing people’s stories, seeing how deploying has affected them,” Bigbey said. “It’s not always what we do, but the fact that we’re present. Our main mission is to be available, and not just in our office. Every mission and every day is going to be different – mainly we’re here to listen.”
The typically five-day round trip to deploy Airmen and bring home those just finishing a deployment provides the best environment for Bigbey and Camacho, or any RST, to be able to reach as many Airmen as possible in such a short time.
“Our purpose during the flight was to integrate with those around us,” Camacho said. “We are building stronger relationships with our Airmen, and experiencing firsthand the operations and lifestyle of aircrew helps us to understand and relate better.”
Even if an Airman does not actively seek out and talk to the RST, their presence alone on the flight can have a positive effect on them.
“I think they are a great morale boost,” said Capt. Kaley Jenkins, 8th AS pilot and one of the returning Airmen. “It’s always nice having a blessing over the flight, and when we come back, it’s nice seeing familiar faces as well.
“I would say that every member who contributes to these deployments, whether it’s the chaplain, pilots, loadmasters or whomever, is really a valuable member of the team,” she continued. “It’s nice to have positive perspectives right after a deployment maybe when things are a little less positive at the time.”
The RST’s goal during the EAS swap out fell in line with the Air Force’s four pillars of resiliency, which are the founding blocks of comprehensive Airmen fitness and are designed to provide balance to one’s life. The pillars are social, physical, emotional and spiritual, with the RST focusing on the last one.
“To me, the Chaplain Corps role is vital because we directly support those accomplishing the mission,” Camacho said. “Like maintainers who prepare aircraft for missions, we help maintain Airmen, both during good times and hard times by playing our part in keeping them fit to fight. Between our regular unit engagements and counseling sessions we perform, we ensure our folks stay mission ready.”
The main mission of the Chaplain Corps at McChord Field is to provide spiritual guidance and support for Team McChord Airmen, and the RST’s mission is no different for the Airmen they meet during the flights and while they are on the ground at a deployed location.
“While cutting-edge technology provides an advantage, to me, our greatest strength over time is our Airmen,” Camacho said. “If I can help someone persevere through a tough time in their career and get them back on track, they will be just a bit stronger, and so will our military force.”
As the RST spoke with and got to know Airmen during the flights, they are reminded of their real purpose as a chaplain and religious affairs Airman.
“The story isn’t about us,” Bigbey said. “It’s not that we’re special or what we do is special. We wouldn’t have a purpose or calling if the Airmen didn’t exist. It’s their stories – they are leaving their families and going into theater.”
Being able to interact with the aircrew flying the C-17 Globemaster III transporting the Airmen provided the RST a unique glimpse into what life is like for an aircrew Airmen.
“My favorite part truly was getting to know the crew and seeing all of their different personalities, how they work together, and the camaraderie on the road,” Bigbey said. “They invited us in and it’s unlike anything you can see on a local flight or back at McChord. It’s a completely different atmosphere in which people connect and it was amazing to be a part of it.”
Every Airman contributes through one means or another to McChord and the Air Force’s mission, from the Airmen who deploy to the chaplains and religious affairs Airmen who ensure they have the spiritual fortitude to keep going.