PRETORIA, South Africa – They’re an ocean and seven time zones apart, but chaplains for the New York Army National Guard and the South African National Defence Force agreed during a virtual meeting April 26 that their roles in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic are similar.
Army National Guard Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Scott Ehler and South African Chaplain (Col.) Rev. Elsabe Francis shared an online conversation to discuss best practices and lessons learned since both countries mobilized to control the coronavirus.
“The ministry teams are on the ground with our service members providing daily support. Even though we must socially distance ourselves, we are ensuring our service members don’t isolate,” Ehler said. “We are desperately trying to remain spiritually connected and located to the frontlines of duty.”
“I believe all chaplains all over the world share one intent, to engage with soldiers to boost morale and strengthen their steadfastness in supporting government efforts to curb the spread of COVID 19 virus and to ensure citizens are and feel safe during the COVID 19 pandemic,” Francis said.
Chaplains in both nations are working to strengthen the mental health and resilience of the service members to whom they minister, the two agreed. Chaplains also have to be a source of trusted information and counsel, they said.
The New York National Guard and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) routinely exchange ideas and best practices as part of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. New York has partnered with South Africa since 2003.
The New York National Guard has 3,600 troops mobilized for Operation COVID-19, the National Guard’s role in New York State’s unified response to the COVID-19 crisis.
New York, and specifically New York City, has become one of the areas on the globe hardest hit by the pandemic.
As of April 29, there were 299,691 known cases of COVID-19 in New York, and 18,015 New Yorkers have died. New York State officials estimate 31 percent New York City’s 8.39 million people have or had the disease.
The New York National Guard has 1,337 Soldiers and Airmen on duty in New York City and 883 working in the suburbs.
These missions range from distributing meals to logistics and administrative support of medical personnel, to administering COVID-19 tests and assisting at the Javits New York Medical Station established at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.
A particularly tough mission has been assisting the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City in removing the remains of those who died at home or outside a hospital.
The chaplains have helped Soldiers and Airmen deal with the stress of these missions, said Col. Rob Mitchell, the New York National Guard director of joint operations.
“We have learned very quickly that a pandemic like this engenders a high degree of uncertainty and stress,” Mitchell said.
“The chaplains, and behavioral health teams, are having a notable impact in reducing stress and anxiety in the ranks as well as meeting the ministerial needs at mission sites,” he added.
The South African chaplains are deployed to assist military personnel and the South African Postal Service involved in what the National Defence Force has dubbed Operation Notlela, which means “lock in” in the Sotho language.
South Africa’s President Ramaphosa implemented a nationwide lockdown March 26 to try to halt the spread of the COVID 19 virus and “save the lives of hundreds of thousands of our people.”
He has authorized the deployment of up to 73,000 military personnel, including reservists for the mission, which is currently set to run through June 26.
National Defence Force members were originally deployed to augment law enforcement, but their mission has expanded.
The South African military chaplains are deployed mainly in three provinces: Gauteng, Western Cape and Free State, Francis said.
National Defence Forces Chaplain General (Brig. Gen.) Rev M.A. Jamangile has encouraged communities to practice social distancing and obey the president’s lockdown order.
Chaplains from the New York National Guard and the SANDF have met in person four times the past two years to share ideas and best practices. This was their first virtual meeting, but it will not be the last, both Ehler and Francis said.
Collaborative efforts like the virtual meeting are an opportunity to expand their faith in one another and draw strength from each other while working toward the same goal, they agreed.