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May Chaplain's Reflections

Portrait of U.S Air Force Maj. Christina Pittman, the 169th Fighter Wing chaplain, along with Avalon, the therapy assistance dog for ministry at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina Air National Guard, March 19, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Caycee Watson)

Portrait of U.S Air Force Maj. Christina Pittman, the 169th Fighter Wing chaplain, along with Avalon, the therapy assistance dog for ministry at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina Air National Guard, March 19, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Caycee Watson)

MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --

Over the past few years of my military service, I was honored to give the invocation at many promotion, retirement and change of command ceremonies. Each of these events were opportunities to serve Airmen, specifically in the care of the soul. The thoughts behind my words were intentional and geared personally to the distinguished Airmen and their families as I voiced prayers on their behalf. Everyone has a right to include or not include an invocation at their promotion or retirement ceremony. Air Force Pamphlet (AFPAM) 34-1202 6.1.1 states in short, while Air Force protocol is followed, the honoree’s right of freedom of expression exists including religious expression. For instance, right to request prayer in his or her faith tradition. This religious provision evolved in our Air Force Instruction (AFI) and is a reflection of the significance our military places on the value of our spiritual resiliency pillar. 

Another main area of focus is in the area of religious accommodation, AFI 52-2 1.5 gives guidance on religious tenants or practice and appearance. In the process to acquire expression of faith practice like in wearing of religious garments and hair modifications, several steps take place. Essentially, the Airman’s commander has the final approval while working in conjunction with the chain of command, first sergeant and chaplain.  Before a chaplain can have the conversation with the Airman, a commander’s request proceeds the Airman’s interview. The Airman, with assistance from the first sergeant, provides the commander with a memorandum of the religious waiver and accommodation request. Within the Airman’s request there should include specific religious guidance and explanation for the accommodation or waiver in the document.  This process is meant to cover all steps thoroughly and systematically. 

Last year I experienced a situation where the absence of correct documentation was missing and the military member suffered. During one of our unit’s welcome home gatherings at the Columbia Airport, I was sought out by a returning Swamp Fox to help a young Army recruit who was crying and overcome with emotional distress. The McEntire JNGB deployer befriended the young woman at their prior layover. Upon landing and waiting to collect luggage at baggage claim, he saw the young recruit’s distress. She confided in him about her troubling situation. Once she deboarded the plane and reported to the drill sergeant, he instructed her to remove her Hijab, a head covering worn by Muslim women outside the home, and report in formation. When my Airman told me what happened I knew I could and must provide comfort and clarity to the situation based on my training and role as a military chaplain.

I was introduced to this young woman in a discreet area of the airport. She was withdrawn physically, mentally and emotionally. I could tell she was a scared and alone, eighteen-year-old at a loss as to what she could do. Everything within her screamed, “You cannot remove your Hijab!” while her new chain of authority said she had to obey orders. As I sought to discover the issue, I found out her packet from the Army recruiter was missing her preliminary religious accommodation. I was able to talk to the drill sergeant and assure him of her right and process to appeal to the post commander for a waiver. He welcomed her back to the group with her Hijab veiling her head and they proceeded to load the bus to Fort Jackson.

I continued to follow her process though I was not an Army Chaplain. I referred her to the Post Chapel who sent a chaplain to assist her and provide for her religious needs.  She stayed in reception for an extended time until the proper religious accommodation documentation was in place. When she and I met at the airport, I gave her my chaplain card and she called me numerous times for support. It was a struggle for her in the time she waited to join her class. She even wanted to leave the military. With proper care and support both logistically and spiritually, she was able to persevere and graduate. 

I had the honor to attend her graduation. Her family could not travel to see the ceremony, however, they thanked me for taking care of their daughter. This new trainee was passionate about serving her country and so was her family. This dream of hers was almost crushed in a single afternoon. I was touched to see her heart swell with pride over her new accomplishment. As I think back, I still feel honored to be one of her supporters who was in the right place at the right time. I stepped in the gap and showed her she was worth the effort and that her military family cared enough for her faith and spiritual resiliency to not let her or her family down.

Our chaplain corps can provide assistance and support as you navigate your faith beliefs and accommodations. Our goal is to strengthen each Airman through undergirding their spiritual resiliency by assisting to provide or provide for their religious needs. The greater Air Force knows when our people are living wholly in their minds, bodies and spirits that the total mission success increases. Keep pressing on Swamp Fox! And in these times of uncertainty search how you can use your spiritual beliefs or values to persevere through this marathon called life.

If you desire more information or support on spiritual resiliency or religious accommodation, please call the SCANG Chaplain Corps office at 803-647-8265 or email us at usaf.sc.169-fw.list.fal-hc-ang-chaplains@mail.mil