The Army's Life Support Area is an ant hive of activity, serving as the transition point for thousands of U.S. service members moving into and out of Iraq and Afghanistan
Moving through the large tents past desks for travel representatives and service liaisons, it's possible to miss a little alcove in the thick of it all and yet very much out of the way of the busyness and hustle that surrounds it.
There is no rushing around in here. In a way, it's not even permitted. Bookshelves line one wall while a comfortable leather couch allows transient service members a place to sit down and relax, and oftentimes the only sound one can hear in this sanctuary from the industriousness outside is the gurgling of the coffee maker on the far wall.
And while a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine waits for the coffee to brew, he might meet one of the sanctuary's caretakers, the four chaplains and chaplain assistants of the 586th Air Expeditionary Group Gateway Chapel Section.
The LSA has a post chaplain, but these four are not here to provide worship services. With thousands of troops coming through the Gateway every week, Chaplain (Capt.) Dallas Little and his unit act as sensors and counselors, constantly on the look-out for service members in need of help.
"The primary reason we're here is to do counseling with emergency leave troops," Chaplain Little explained. "All of the Army folks come through here if they're going home on emergency leave, so we see a tremendous amount, about a thousand a month, of emergency leaves come through here."
The time of transition, the point between leaving home and actually arriving at a deployment or the other way around, can be a very stressful time for military members, Chaplain Little said. The chaplain section exists as a sort of safety valve, giving transitioning troops a place to relax, vent and when necessary, seek help. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on one's outlook, the chaplain staff is constantly busy.
"In six months we've done close to 900 counseling sessions," Chaplain Little said. "The numbers that go with that are pretty astronomical. We estimate 3,000 to 5,000 people every single day come through the gateway. That means that in the six months of our deployment, we've seen right at 220,000 people come through."
Troops moving through the LSA are only here for a few days to week, but Staff Sgt. Matthew Teets, a chaplain assistant deployed from the 78th Air Base Wing at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., said that short time could mean the difference between life and death.
"A lot of these guys who are coming back will eventually go forward to FOBs where there are no chaplains," he said. "Not everybody goes to a brick and mortar installation where they have a chapel staff waiting to minister to their needs. So this is not only the first line of defense for spiritual triage, but it's also the last line of defense."
Chaplain Little said the staff can't just limit their scope to those on emergency leave. He said he was surprised to find how many people going or coming from rest and relaxation leave needed their help
"This is where the surprise came for us," the Clanton, Ala., native said. "We expected that when people came back here from their R and R that they may be depressed because they were having to go back into battle, that they would be homesick, etcetera. But what we found was that a lot of people go home and they face very significant marriage and family issues. Some of them roll into some very interesting situations that are waiting for them when they come home, so we do a lot of post R and R counseling for serious problems folks had."
"We catch a lot of people who are going home that have significant issues, and we also catch people who are coming back that we have stopped from going all the way forward so they can have treatment," Sgt. Teets added.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know just by looking who needs help and who doesn't. That, Chaplain Little said, is where Holy Joe's Cafe comes in. "Holy Joe's Café is a ministry of The First Congregational Church [UCC] in Wallingford, CT. who supplied our complete coffee set-up from coffee and coffee makers to creamer and sugar!"
"Many people who end up talking to us didn't stumble in here looking for a chaplain," he said. "They came in here to get a cup of coffee or a snack, and while they're waiting for the coffee to brew, they find themselves talking to one of our chaplain assistants. 'How are you? How's your day?' After they feel comfortable talking to the chaplain assistants, availing themselves to our ministry of hospitality, then many people stick around and feel safe enough to open up and say, 'Hey, there's something that's really bothering me. Can I talk to a chaplain?"
That ministry of hospitality is the cornerstone of the chaplain section's success. Though centrally located "in the stream," as Chaplain Little put it, with only four people to serve thousands, a hook was needed, a way to give people seeking help an excuse to find themselves near it. Holy Joe's gives them that capability!
"A big part of our ministry here is hospitality," said Senior Airman Alexander Young, a deployed chaplain assistant from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J. We've been asking people when they come in, 'You want a cup of coffee? Sit down, have a seat.'"
"We go through about 25 pots a day," Chaplain Little said. "One of the high-ranking chaplains came in from a level above us and asked us why don't we have a bigger coffee pot like the kind they have at the dining facility. That's not what we're going for. We want to keep it low-key and personal."
A larger coffee pot would add to the hustle and bustle of the LSA, and Chaplain Little said they make every effort to do the opposite.
"Those coffee makers don't have an auto cut-off like the ones back home," he explained. "It's good because when people come in here, if the coffee's brewing, they can't just pour a cup of coffee and run out. They have to wait. And that waiting gives us a one or two or three minute pause so that we can talk to them, welcome them, ask them how their day went. It's actually kept a lot of people in here past the amount of time they normally have allocated to us, and it's kept people in here long enough to talk to a chaplain who ordinarily would not have."
Once the chaplains are asked for help, the next step begins, a long, complicated kabuki dance finding the best way to provide help and getting that troop to it.
"Oftentimes it includes dealing with different agencies," Chaplain Little said. "If we have someone we truly believe is going to harm themselves or others, then we have to get them in touch with the real-deal mental health professionals, the combat stress team at the Rock. Since we're geographically separated from them and don't have a vehicle, the first thing we have to do is troubleshoot, diagnose and deduce if this person really is a danger to himself or someone else."
Another complication is involves getting the troubled individual to agree to treatment and then just getting them to the Rock.
"We don't have command authority," Chaplain Little said. "We have to talk them into going in and getting treatment. Then we have to shake loose a vehicle, find some means to get them over there. Then we have to coordinate with the Combat Stress team so they know we're coming."
Sgt. Teets said in the end you do what you must. He recounted a story where a young Soldier came into the office and sat down on the couch, just not seeming "right."
"Immediately we saw that this guy was in distress, the Colorado Springs, Colo., native said. "I did what chaplain assistants do. I intervened. We got him some coffee, got him talking, screened him, got him to a chaplain. He had some coffee and it kept him here. I don't smoke, but I went out and smoked with him because I didn't want to let this guy out of my sight. I was afraid that if I let him walk out of this office, so I went and smoked with him to keep eyes on him, make him comfortable and keep him talking."
By doing so, the chaplain staff may have very well averted a tragedy.
"He had formulated a plan to kill two people at his forward location and them himself," Sgt. Teets shared. "It was a good combination of a lot of issues, but a lot of things worked. The wingman mentality worked. It's not just one life saved, it's three."
Despite the complications, the chaplain team has been successful in getting people the help they need, going through this procedure 10 times in six months. One of the things that has made them successful is their cohesion as a team, remaining true to each other through the wingman concept.
"I do think there' some disconnection, and that's why it's important for us as a team to stick together," said Chaplain (Capt.) Jeromy Wells, a chaplain from the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Mont. Originally from Mount Victory, Ohio, Chaplain Wells said being so separated from the rest of the 386th AEW means their crew has to work more closely together.
"We are kind of on an island on our own over here," he went on. "And with all the transients passing through every day, there's not a lot of lasting relationships with people you're going to see week after week."
"We take care of each other as a team," Chaplain Little agreed. "We're not only coworkers, we're roommates. We keep an eye on each other. Part of it is just being a good wingman. We take care of each other, encourage each other."
Chaplain Little and his crew are scheduled to rotate out May 18 and will do so, they say, without any doubt that they've made a difference. When asked if they think they've saved lives, Chaplain Wells replied for the group.
"I have no doubt," he said.
Although the work is stressful and at times heartrending, the members of the chaplain section said they know they're doing God's work.
"I tell my fiancé that I'm caring for people who are heading back into battle," Airman Young said. "People who are heading home that either have trouble with family or heading back home on emergency leave."
"This is what I feel the chaplain service is all about," Sgt. Teets said. "To actually get into an environment where a chaplain assistant intervenes and deals with people, screens people. I find that some chaplain assistants who cross train find out they don't actually like the job because it isn't what they thought it would be. They thought it would be like this."
It's not a typical chaplain posting by any means, an "industrial" model of ministry rather than a "pastoral" one. There is no church, no steeple, just a huge tent with a lot of people, and a small, quiet room where four people and a pot of coffee represent the first and last lines of spiritual defense.