By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
National Guard Bureau
ARLINGTON, Va. (11/9/12) – National Guard members have come from throughout the country to assist with relief and recovery operations in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, with many Soldiers and Airmen taking part in evacuation, food and water distribution and debris removal operations. But, also present and providing a different kind of support have been chaplains from both the Air and Army National Guard.
"The chaplains are providing religious services and prayer for recovery teams," said Air Force Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) Alphonse Stephenson, director of the National Guard joint chaplaincy at the National Guard Bureau and Air National Guard assistant to the Air Force chief of chaplains. "They're providing on-the-spot counseling and encouragement to not only military personnel but to everyone who is affected."
Many of the chaplains who have responded are from the New Jersey and New York areas, which provides for a greater connection to the communities affected by the storm, said Stephenson.
"They're from the community and they put on the uniform and report to where they are supposed to be and then they go right back out into the community again," said Stephenson.
And while chaplains in the affected areas are primarily there to support military members, they have ministered to non-military members as well, said Stephenson. One way they have done this is by engaging with members of the local clergy.
When it comes to providing support, "a chaplain just doesn't say no," said Stephenson. "There is no such thing."
For Stephenson, a New Jersey native, the storm affected him personally and he found himself providing support to his 89-year-old father in the days after the storm.
"He lives on the Jersey Shore and his lights were out," Stephenson said. "Thank God his house was standing and everything else was fine, but his power went out."
After eight days without power, Stephenson said his father was beginning to feel frustrated and somewhat overwhelmed. "I said to him 'you were in World War II in seven invasions and right now you're sitting in Brick Township, N.J., with a house where the power is out. How tough is that?" said Stephenson. "And he said, 'ya know, you're right.' And I think that's what the chaplain has to do – put it in perspective."
Putting things in perspective is one way that chaplains work to provide hope and encouragement for those they support, said Stephenson.
"The presence of the chaplain is to bring hope," he said. "That's our best product, our most important product. I think the cross or tablets or whatever religious insignia is on the uniform of the chaplain, it's a symbol of a trusted agent."And from the chaplain perspective, said Stephenson, that mission of providing hope is the same whether it's responding to a Hurricane Sandy type event or as part of the overseas or fighting mission. "It's approached with the same vigor," he said. And in a disaster situation such as Sandy, chaplains provide an essential element, said Stephenson. "I think the chaplain's presence is absolutely necessary in these situations," he said. And being there is part of the chaplain's mission. "We are spiritual strength, wherever needed, whenever required," Stephenson said.