MADISON, Wis. – Many Wisconsin National Guard members stepped into new roles the past seven months, conducting COVID-19 testing, assisting law enforcement and supporting elections. Capt. David Schlador became proficient at cracking eggs and flipping pancakes.
“It’s part of caring for service members,” said Schlador, a chaplain with the 173rd Brigade Engineer Battalion mobilized since March as the chaplain for Madison’s Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ).
The building is the Wisconsin National Guard’s headquarters, home of Wisconsin Emergency Management and the State Emergency Operations Center.
“The operational tempo here can be very fast and change by the hour,” said Maj. Christopher Philpot, the JFHQ commander. “Missions are complex and require coordinating with lots of external agencies and administratively caring for the thousands of Soldiers and Airmen working since March.”
Most Friday mornings at JFHQ, Schlador and his chaplain assistant cook a free breakfast of pancakes, sausage and eggs to order for the several hundred people who work in the building. Schlador borrowed the idea from the 64th Troop Command, which is the headquarters responsible for executing the Guard’s COVID mission.
“In the spirit of sharing best practices, I brought the idea back to Joint Force Headquarters,” Schlador said.
Pancakes are not Schlador’s primary mission but are a means to improve troop resilience and morale. Military chaplains primarily provide religious and spiritual support for service members regardless of faith. They also assist service members navigating difficult times and deal with long and stressful missions like the Wisconsin National Guard has conducted for most of 2020.
“COVID and its social distancing and the pace of missions can create social barriers and isolate people,” said Schlador. “All the things we did [as a unit ministry team] created social opportunity.”
“It makes time for comradery,” said Spc. Kolten Vanelzen, a religious affairs specialist who assists Schlador with his chaplain duties and with preparing the breakfast.
“I enjoy seeing different faces every Friday,” Vanelzen said. “It helps us connect with people so we can better serve their needs.”
Philpot arrived at JFHQ from a field artillery unit. At first, he did not fully understand the importance of morale events and support at the state headquarters and senior leadership level.
“The only constant right now is change, but the weekly breakfasts had a grounding effect,” said Philpot. “It gave everyone something to look forward to at the end of the week.”
Besides the social barriers created by COVID, Schlador also found that ministering at the strategic level of a state headquarters involved moral and ethical counseling to senior leaders.
“The biggest difference was the advising piece to senior leaders,” said Schlador. “That is something I would not normally do this extent in my regular unit.”
Schlador credited his team members – Vanelzen and Staff Sgt. Connie Gustafson, a religious affairs sergeant for the 64th Troop Command – for many of his team’s achievements during his seven months at JFHQ. Besides hosting the weekly breakfast, they arranged ruck marches, fun runs, weekly spiritual services, daily prayers, and individual counseling to Soldiers, Airmen and civilians working in the building.
“Both of my assistants were instrumental to the success of our mission,” said Schlador.
Philpot said the presence of the chaplain team had a huge effect on the morale of the people working at JFHQ, ensuring that something positive would be discussed in meetings.
“Other than positive cases and test results, of course,” he said with smile.