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Nevada Guard, SPP shepherd Tonga military toward expanded chaplaincy

By Sgt. Walter Lowell | Nevada National Guard | Aug. 25, 2017

NUKU’ALOFA, Tonga – The American Soldier is given everything he or she needs so they can focus on the missions and duties they are assigned. A bed to sleep in, medical care, food at the chow hall and educational assistance.

Another of these amenities is access to religious services. Chaplain Corps provides Religious Support. They allow for religious freedom for all, provide religious services and counsel to members of the armed forces.

Not all nations have such services available. Tonga, a South Pacific friendly force with the U.S. during WWII and currently, the state partner to the Nevada National Guard, does not have an official religious section of its military.

In July, a Nevada National Guard Ministry Team visited Tonga as part of the Nevada State Partnership Program knowledge exchange providing ministry services during an exercise and collaborating with the Tongan military in creating its first chaplain corps.

Lt. Col. Hal Woomer Jr, the state command chaplain, and Master Sgt. Stan Harvey, the state master religious affairs non-commissioned officer, spent over two weeks in Tonga. They engaged with the ranking government officials, royal ministers, Tongan soldiers and civilian religious leaders.

"Our mission was to begin mapping out a joint strategy for a chaplain corps into the Royal Tongan Marines and His Majesty’s Armed Forces," Harvey said. The ministry team visited many community churches of several denominations, on two different Tongan islands.

Woomer said that because no chaplain corps exists in HMAF, the military would contact local civilian religious leaders to accompany them on overseas deployments.

The Tongan service members and the country as a whole have a deep faith, he said. Having a chaplain within their ranks will certainly support spiritual needs and increase resilience across their force.

During the visit, the ministry team met with Lord Veʻehala, a Tongan noble and high-ranking military officer. Lord Veʻehala’s wife invited them to her church service where Woomer was requested to lead worship with the aid of an interpreter.

Woomer said the connections they made at that church built a great relationship with the community and will make a huge difference for how they will develop the state partnership in the future.

The two joined with local religious leaders and ventured out to the community. They visited hospitals, community centers and even went door-to-door, some people even invited them into their homes.

"The level of hospitality was in excess of anything I have experienced anywhere in the world," said Harvey. "We were received warmly as if we were family."

Harvey said the team was able to lay down a first layer foundation with key military and the religious leaders in the community. This is an important first step to support the Tongan military in their goal of a chaplaincy for HMAF.

The next phase for the ministry team will be to work with the Tongan military leadership to explore, several models, that they can consider as they start building a chaplaincy within HMAF. They have also examined finding young local pastors would be interested in joining the Tongan military.

"To the people of Tonga, I would like to say it was an honor to serve alongside your soldiers, and a blessing to get an insight of your culture," Harvey said. "It had all the elements of a life-changing experience."