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November Chaplain's Reflections

Portrait of U.S. Air Force Capt. Samuel Gray, chaplain assigned to the 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina, October 2, 2020. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Edward Snyder, 169th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

Portrait of U.S. Air Force Capt. Samuel Gray, chaplain assigned to the 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, South Carolina, October 2, 2020. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Edward Snyder, 169th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)

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

The Muslim call to prayer greeted the morning sun as the F-15s returned victorious to the tiny undisclosed base. The chaplain, careful not to wake his snoring roommate in their 8x12 sleeping container, rose early for his 30 second “combat shower” in radioactive water. Stepping into the cold, it took his usual 214 steps to get to the “bathrooms”. Steps that he hoped would be more enjoyable with the arrival of spring. As expected, there were no lines when he arrived. Also as expected, the shower drains were backed up. At least the water pooled around his ankles was lukewarm from the previous shower. That was something right? Looking for the small things to be grateful for was what kept him going. He had to appear happy for those who looked to him for hope and encouragement. But in reality he was sad.

Reviewing the day ahead in his mind while trying to keep a positive attitude was his daily “exercise” as he stood beneath the tepid water gushing from the shower head. He shaved and brushed his teeth with bottled water not knowing how much more he could take of the “daily grind”. Being grateful was becoming increasingly more difficult. In addition to his many counseling sessions, today was Ash Wednesday and he would be distributing ashes to members… while in a sandstorm! It was not something he was looking forward to but he would do it because it was his duty.

Dressed in a uniform wearing a parka, goggles, a shemagh wrapped around his head, and with a tiny box of ashes securely tucked away, he set out looking more like a Tusken Raider than a chaplain. On cue, a 4,300 foot wall of wind and sand slammed the base. Visibility was zero and the bright light of day became an ominous blood orange glow. Fifty mph winds nearly knocked the chaplain to the ground at each step he took. Where was the “bright side” in this situation, he thought. But he’d find out soon enough.

Sand had rubbed his skin raw by noon. Even though he was tired and sandy from head to toe and he longed for a “combat shower”, he found relief from his discomfort in the welcome he received at each stop. People were genuinely surprised and thankful for his visits. They laughed together when he gave out ashes and ironically reminded them that they “were dust and unto dust they would return”. His presence gave them encouragement, and they gave him renewed purpose.

At days end he discovered strength in fulfilling the purpose of his mission, finding great joy and true gratitude for so many things. His happiness was not forced or contrived but real. In the end he was ministered to while ministering to others.

Bottom line: We are made to love. It is in loving we overcome sadness, cement relationships with each other, and discover the many reasons we have to be grateful. Love each other well and know that you’re loved.