Here to help: Chaplain Assistants
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Soaring throughout the open skies, a group of young Airmen see the ground thousands of feet below. The Airmen are about to take a leap of faith to complete their training. Their nervous hearts are beating faster. One of them turns to another and says, "pray for me chaps."
The man explains that he is not a chaplain. The others know, but he is the closest thing they have, so they ask him to pray anyway. With a group fist bump, Airmen, all from different religious backgrounds, come together and listen to him pray.
"Hey guys, with blue skies and tailwinds, lets none of us hit the ground without an open chute, amen," said Tech. Sgt. Aleric Hebert, 374th Wing Staff Agency chapel resource management NCO in charge.
In that moment, the entire atmosphere changes; everybody's pumped and ready to go. Each jumper knows that somebody is invested in them and praying for their safety.
Across the Air Force, chaplain assistants support the chaplain corps mission by ensuring that the religious or spiritual needs of Airmen and their families are met. At Yokota Air Base, the enlisted half of the Religious Support Team is manned by two noncommissioned officers and a senior NCO.
Hailing from Livingston, Texas, Hebert began his military career as a maintainer working on F-16 Fighting Falcons at Misawa AB before cross training in search of purpose and direction. According to Hebert, the discipline, travel opportunities and experience provided to him by his current job have made him the man he is today. He is also passionate about sharing that experience to help develop other Airmen.
"If anybody is ever going to see the things that empower me, which I believe in and enable me to be the person I am, it's going to be through how I treat them," Hebert said. "My favorite part of the job is teaching and instructing. Being in a position where I am entrusted with developing Airmen is a huge honor."
Having served on multiple deployments throughout the Middle East, Hebert admits that being a chaplain's assistant can be difficult to handle and is not for everyone. This is just one of the reasons that the career field is cross train only.
"There have been difficulties with young Airmen being placed in situations down range that they didn't have the life experience or maturity to handle," Hebert said. "There are some extreme situations and if you're not prepared you can potentially become another unseen victim."
Dealing with the stresses common to military life necessitates a warrior care program like the Chaplain Corps and taking advantage of this service isn't a sign of weakness, Hebert explained. On the contrary, Hebert believes that seeking help is merely a sign that the individual has been strong too long and sharing their burden is vital to mission success, and, more importantly, the health and safety of our Airmen.
This is a view shared by his coworker, Staff Sgt. Angela Dotson, 374 WSA chapel readiness and training NCOIC.
"Our job is to take care of the Airmen and let them know that we are here for them," Dotson said. "Regardless of what's going on, there is somewhere they can go that's safe and that's here at the chapel."
Dotson's first assignment as a chaplain's assistant was at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, where she built a strong foundation. According to Dotson, the change of pace and workload she found at Yokota was shocking, which she attributes to Airmen being separated from friends and family.
Dotson grew up in a small town in Oregon alongside her three sisters, where she enlisted in the Air Force hoping to broaden her horizons. Her first assignment was Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, where she served in an administrative role. Despite being close to home, Dotson remembers feeling homesick, an experience shared by many young Airmen at Yokota.
"I remember having that homesick feeling, so I can empathize with the people I brief at the First Term Airmen Center," Dotson said. "I feel that it's important that the Airmen know that they aren't alone because for many of them this is their first time overseas."
Dotson compares her duties with those of a military nurse when screening patients, providing emergency care and bridging the gap between officers and enlisted personnel. They are able to perform these tasks because they share the chaplain's oath of complete confidentiality.
"We provide 100 percent confidentiality just like the chaplains," Dotson said. "We aren't here to provide counseling, but if someone comes to us we can provide emergency intervention until they reach a chaplain."
The final chaplain assistant stationed at Yokota is Master Sgt. Erica Neiser, 374 WSA chapel operations superintendent. Similar to Dotson, Neiser enlisted in the Air Force for the chance to see more of the world beyond the cornfields of her hometown in Indiana. Formerly an intelligence analyst, she cross trained due to the long hours spent working at a desk in confined offices.
"I've learned more about the Air Force as a chaplain's assistant than I would have had I stayed in intel," Neiser said. "It was great having an understanding of the Air Force on an operational level, but thanks to all of the people I've met since crossing over I feel like I can better understand the Air Force as a whole."
According to Neiser, the hardest part of her job is distancing herself from the negative situations that she is exposed to.
"People don't come to the chapel because they're having a great day," Neiser said. "They come to us when things fall apart, whether it's their career, their family or thoughts of suicide where they can't see another way out. We're constantly exposed to these things but when we get a phone call or an email thanking us for our help, it touches our hearts and gives us the strength to keep going."
Despite these difficulties, Neiser believes that rare moments restore her faith and show a glimmer of hope in humanity, making everything she does at the chapel worthwhile.
Yokota's Religious Support Team offers scheduled counseling sessions throughout the year in addition to walk-in crisis intervention. Other services include retreats for married couples or single Airmen, religious services for many denominations and community organizations such as the Airmen's Ministry Center or Club Beyond. If a minister or lay representative for a particular religion is not available on base the RST will make contact with one from Atsugi Naval Air Base or Camp Zama, ensuring that the religious needs of base personnel are satisfied.
For more information on RST services, the chapel can be reached at 225-7009, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For emergency care outside of these times there is the 24 hour number 225-3740.