SCANG Chaplain experiences a "baptism of fire" on "The Ice"

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. -- Have you been to The Ice? For one Swamp Fox, South Carolina Air National Guard Chaplain (Lt.Col.) Brian Bohlman, the answer is yes. The Ice is the nickname for Antarctica for those scientists and personnel who live and work there. Bohlman is currently serving on a 60 day tour at McMurdo Station as part of an ongoing Air National Guard (ANG) Chaplain rotation known as Operation DEEP FREEZE. He is scheduled to come home early in December.

Bohlman is the senior Chaplain for the 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, South Carolina. It is believed that when Bohlman set foot on Antarctica in early October, Swamp Foxes from McEntire have now deployed to all seven continents. His deployment was months in the making. Every year the director of the ANG Chaplain Corps sends out an email to all ANG Chaplains looking for volunteers to serve a rotation for Operation DEEP FREEZE. Applicants are competitively selected and have to meet an exhaustive list of training requirements and experience including spiritual resiliency, crisis and traumatic response, mass causality and emergency response and so on. The Chaplains who serve at McMurdo Station work with a very diverse transient population consisting of both military and civilian personnel. Bohlman volunteered for this mission earlier this year and was selected for the opening rotation.

So how does one get from South Carolina all the way down to Antarctica? The answer is: not very easily. It's only a mere 8,840 miles. "I flew commercial all the way to Christchurch, New Zealand which took me close to 36 hours due to several long layovers awaiting connecting flights. Then I took a New Zealand 757 military aircraft which landed on the Ross Ice Shelf runway at Williams Field, McMurdo Station. Landing on the ice didn't feel too much different from asphalt and I was able to record the landing with my video camera," Bohlman said.

The U.S. Antarctic presence is led by the National Science Foundation under the auspices of the U.S. Antarctic Program which conducts scientific research in that region. Work is performed at three bases: the South Pole (Amundsen-Scott Station), Palmer Station and McMurdo Station, which is approximately 850 miles north of the pole.
"Research is performed at and near McMurdo Station in aeronomy and astrophysics, organisms and ecosystems, earth sciences, glaciology and glacial geology, integrated system science, ocean and atmospheric sciences. Participants in the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program also work at sites in the area," Bohlman said. Approximately 950 personnel work as McMurdo and about 100 of those are ANG members. The 109th Airlift Wing from the New York Air National Guard provides airlift support for the National Science Foundation. And Operation DEEP FREEZE, as currently constituted as opposed to historically, provides the critical military logistical support for the National Science Foundation but is not a free-standing military mission.

To say that the working conditions in Antarctica are austere and remote would be a bit of an understatement. Antarctica has a well known reputation for being the coldest, windiest, and amazingly, driest (approximately two inches of precipitation per year) continent on the planet. Nearly all of the landmass is covered by ice. Bohlman noted that the average annual temperature at McMurdo is zero degrees Fahrenheit with highs reaching 46 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. Being that the seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere, it is their spring season right now. "The highest temperature I've seen since I've been here is about 30 degrees. The lowest was minus five with a wind chill minus 20 degrees. We had snow about a week ago but it eventually melted due to the 24 hours of daylight that will last until the week of February 20, 2017," Bohlman said.

Bohlman is a part of the McMurdo Ministry Team and works at the Chapel of the Snows, the southern-most place of worship in the world, as it is locally known. Chaplains conduct worship services, provide counseling, spiritual guidance and are on call at all times. As with most deployments, the days do seem to run together. "It does feel a lot like 'groundhog day' since there's a lot of repetitions of eat, work, sleep, repeat cycles. However, taking time to hike one of the many trails or going on a recreation trip helps clear one's mind and breaks up the monotony of the daily grind," he said.

Working in such a harsh environment like Antarctica does entail some risk as Bohlman found out on only the second day of his deployment. A scientist conducting field research accidently fell into a crevasse and was killed. It was quite a shock to the McMurdo community. "Within 48 hours of my arrival, I was called to the [Emergency Operations Center] and activated to provide crisis pastoral care and counseling to 40 persons involved with the tragic loss of beloved glaciologist involved in a snow mobile accident. In many ways, this was a 'baptism of fire' for me and underscored the value of having a chaplain available to provide emotional and spiritual care in times of crisis. The memorial gathering provided many with a forum to celebrate his life and his many accomplishments and resulted in a closer, resilient community," Bohlman said.

For reference, McMurdo Station is now 18 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Bohlman said the time difference makes it a challenge to talk to his family back home. So he usually corresponds via email. He lives in a dorm with other U.S. personnel and has a room to himself due to the nature of his job requiring confidential counseling. With the approach of total daylight during the Antarctic summer, Bohlman said it took some getting used to. "I had to take tin foil to darken my room because I was having trouble sleeping at night. I really miss seeing it get dark and watching a good sunset. The 24 hours of daylight makes it hard to know when to stop working," he said.

In a place like Antarctica, all the food is obviously imported but surprisingly good according to Bohlman. "We have C-17s flying in 'freshies', fruits and vegetables, from Christchurch. The Galley, a/k/a the dining hall, offers many varieties to include vegan and vegetarian options. And there is pizza available 24/7 and that is very popular with those in a hurry to eat," Bohlman said.

Even though he is on a military deployment, Bohlman says he only wears his Air Force uniform once a week. The rest of the time he blends in with the civilian personnel he ministers to. "I only wear my uniform on Mondays when I attend the meetings with the military staff. All other days I wear a dark blue rugby shirt with the National Science Foundation logo and the word Chaplain embroidered on it. Wearing jeans and this Chaplain shirt really helps me identity with the civilians here and there are two different cultures between the two groups. I also grew a mustache in order to blend in more with the civilian population. Strangely, it did make a difference upon my arrival and making first impressions with the civilians as many of them have long hair and beards."

One interesting program Bohlman instituted while he's been at McMurdo is a discussion group studying the British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. "On Thursday evenings a group of about 15 people gather at the Chapel of the Snows to watch film clips from the dramatized A&E movie Shackleton followed by a discussion about leadership, resilience, and faith. The other Chaplains who follow on after me will continue to lead the study group until the end of February. This group has been what I will miss most about this tour of duty, as people who I first met in Christchurch are still part of this study group, and I've made enduring friendships that will last a lifetime," Bohlman said.

Reflecting back as his wraps up his tour to The Ice, Bohlman said he was glad he had a chance to participate in this unique mission. "There are several things that I've learned while I've been here and worked among a very diverse civilian population. A spirit of adventure is what first attracts people to apply for contract work in Antarctica. However, it's the spirit found within this caring community that brings people back here year after year. In fact, many people I met have been coming here to work for five or more years, and one person for over 30 years! I will also miss the community that I found here. All in all, I have no doubt that God sent me on a spiritual mission to this remote location for such a time as this to provide a ministry of presence, care, and hope at the southernmost place of worship in the world. One scripture that has been very meaningful to me is from Psalm 61:1-2 which says 'Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.'"