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From Vermont to Antarctica (and back)

By Julie Shea | 158th Fighter Wing | April 13, 2020

ANTARCTICA – Close to midnight on Jan. 7, Chaplain Esther Lee arrived at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Chosen to be part of the support staff for Operation Deep Freeze (ODF), Lee “hit the ground running” and met with military members and civilian workers on the brisk, sunny morning of Jan. 8.

Assigned to the 158th Fighter Wing, Vermont Air National Guard, Maj. Lee was stationed in Antarctica for nearly two months and provided services in the Chapel of the Snow for multiple denominations, including Protestants, Catholics and members of the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

She also hosted Wednesday night spiritual fitness and meditation, attended tai chi, celebrated the Chinese New Year and supported other community activities to provide a “ministry of presence” to the 1,200 service members, scientists and civilians stationed there.

Operation Deep Freeze began in 1956 and now features more than 100 buildings at the McMurdo Station, which is run by the United States Antarctic Program, part of the National Science Foundation. The New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing holds the sole responsibility for delivering personnel and supplies to the station, by way of 10 ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules’, the only aircraft of its kind in the world that can take off and land in the snowy, frozen conditions of the Arctic.

Upon her return to Vermont, Chaplain Lee talked about her Operation Deep Freeze experience.

Question: Where are you from and how long have you been a member of the Vermont Air National Guard?

Answer: I immigrated from South Korea with my family and became a member of the VTANG [Vermont Air National Guard] in 2007 until 2009, and then came back in 2012. I always wanted to join the military. My family used to live in the Lake George area in Upstate New York. I explored joining the Army first, but I didn’t like it. Instead, I joined the VTANG, which was closer to home.

Q: Describe what Operation Deep Freeze is, where it occurs and how long you were there.

A: I was chosen to be the chaplain for both military members and civilians for the duration of Dec. 31, 2019, to Feb. 22, 2020. Every year, three chaplains are chosen to be a part of support staff and our main work station is at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Prior to ODF, I had not participated in a deployment.

Q: What were your primary duties there? Did you have a daily routine or was every day different?

A: I provided a variety of religious support: Sunday Service with communion, Wednesday night spiritual fitness and meditation, pastoral care and counseling for military and civilian personnel, crisis intervention and response, and emergency response to casualties, accidents or incidents. I provided memorial services, small group meetings and programs, and kept access to the Chapel of the Snow open 24/7 for reflection and meditation.

I enjoyed worksite visitation and daily interaction with the nearly 1,200 population there and had fun volunteering at the Galley Bakery. I provided moral and spiritual support to the Army, Navy and New Zealand Kiwis’ cargo handlers during offload and reload. I engaged with the Coast Guard’s icebreaker crews and Ocean Giant crews. Toward the end of my time there, I had the opportunity to provide a worship service at the South Pole for 64 personnel.

Q: Tell us about the Chapel of the Snow.

A: It is a serene place where they can retreat from daily noise, drama, and stress. ... They utilize the chapel for solitude, quiet reflection, meditation, prayer, worship and programs.

Q: Did you have any significant events you needed to respond to as a chaplain while you were deployed to Antarctica?

A (from her weekly written report): I was notified (about the death of Staff Sgt. George Girtler, 37, from the 109th on Jan. 12) right after lunch. I was with the medical team at the clinic. I provided last rite prayer. ... It was a very sad 24 hours. I visited the flight line (Willie Field) twice within 24 hours and made myself available after the shocking news . ... Many were still in shock and didn’t know how to respond to the news. SSgt Girtler was on the maintenance team. I saw many tears roll down their cheeks, and all I could do was be with them and comfort them. ... On the ride back to McMurdo from Willie Field, no one spoke any word. One serviceman softly sobbed.

Q: What was your favorite memory from this experience?

A: My favorite memory was to walk and be with people in their darkest, loneliest and saddest time and offer hope, love and peace. Sometimes people do not want answers or solutions. They just want someone who hears and sees their pain, hurt and scars without any judgment. They just want someone who understands their pain, hurt and healing process. It was a very meaningful deployment.