BOGOTA, Colombia - South Carolina Air National Guard Chaplain Lt. Col. Brian Bohlman and Master Sgt. Charles Williams, noncommissioned officer in charge of the SCANG Chaplain Corps, attended a three-day symposium in Bogota, Colombia, discussing how religion matters to military commanders, service members and their families, July 13-16.
The symposium united representatives from 12 countries from the Caribbean, North, South and Central America, gaining an increased awareness on the role religion can play in a service member's life, the role of the chaplain in a military context and the ability of religion to influence individual and institutions toward peaceful coexistence.
This U.S. Southern Command Senior Religious Leader Symposium was hosted by Monsignor Fabio Suescun Mutis, Archbishop for the Colombian Military in cooperation with the USSOUTHCOM Religious Affairs Office.
"Making that initial connection with the religious leaders was important to me, I don't think the priests were aware of our State Partnership Program with the Republic of Colombia," said Bohlman. "I've been wanting to do something with the State Partnership Program and it [the symposium] was just perfect."
Bohlman and Williams were able to hear what other countries are doing with their chaplain programs. One program that stood out to them was the Dominican Republic chaplains' participation in crisis response and are very involved in their country's support during natural disasters.
"I discussed the importance of taking care of oneself following a crisis in order to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue," said Bohlman. "I also explained how the National Guard trains chaplains and chaplain assistants in spiritual resiliency and traumatic event management to help individuals recover following a traumatic event."
It was discovered during conversations, that the countries involved share similar social issues like suicide, domestic violence and alcoholism among their ranks.
"It brought a lot of conversation between the countries on what programs were in place to help the service members and their families. We were able to talk about how our Strong Bonds program and the chaplain's assistant are tools to help in these issues," said Williams. "I was the only National Guard chaplain assistant there, for them to see that Chaplain Bohlman and I could work together as a team even though I'm Catholic and he is Protestant, intrigued them on what we do as a team and they wanted to find out how we made this work."
The trip was also used as an opportunity to mentor and encourage new chaplains in their military roles to support the service member. This allowed for camaraderie and fellowship around meals which those in attendance said it felt like God's family at large and was a neat experience.
"It was good for us as a Religious Support Team (RST), Chaplain Bohlman's role as the wing chaplain and my role as NCOIC is more administrative here. This gave us an opportunity to grow together as an RST and to foster a relationship between the country of Colombia and the United States," said Williams.
In a country [Colombia] which is 90 percent Catholic, integration of religion in the military creates a broader dialogue on how it can be used to leverage it as a force for good.
"We believe the language of healing, hope and forgiveness is a religious language and we believe that religion, along with diplomacy together, can help bring about peace," said Bohlman.