Here to help: The Chaplains
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Members of the U.S. Air Force Chaplaincy provide spiritual guidance and support to Airmen and their families stationed at home and abroad. At Yokota Air Base this role, vital to morale and welfare of the base populous, is filled by four men from different backgrounds.
Leading the team is Lt. Col. David Mansberger, 374th Wing Staff Agency wing chaplain, from Bethlehem, North Carolina, who has served his country as an Air Force Chaplain for 27 years. Mansberger grew up in a Navy family with both his father and grandfather supporting the naval war effort during World War II, so upon graduation from high school he enlisted in the Navy. It was during his four-year enlistment that Mansberger first took ownership of his faith and became a Christian.
"I was assigned to a destroyer, and we were out at sea a lot during the four years I was in," Mansberger said. "I saw a real need for military chaplains since we only had a chaplain aboard the ship for about three months of that time, but the Navy just wasn't for me. I loved the Navy, but I needed to get off the ocean and back to my family, so I joined the Air Force."
According to Mansberger, the chaplain's role is to care for the spiritual wellness of the base supporting overall resiliency and the whole Airman concept while providing complete confidentiality. He also stated that the oath of confidentiality gives Airmen and their families, regardless of their religious denomination or faith group, someone to speak with about any topic.
"There are cases where the only person we as chaplains can talk to is God because of the importance we place on confidentiality," Mansberger said. "The conversations we have with people stay between them the chaplains and God, and we refuse to break the trust our nation's placed in us."
Mansberger accredits his leadership ability and success in the Air Force to the mentoring he received from wing chaplains who he served with during throughout his career. He also stated that they helped him to develop as a person and he remains in contact with them to this day.
The second member of the team is Maj. Oscar Fonseca, 374 WSA deputy wing chaplain, who serves as Mansberger's second-in-command acting in Mansberger's stead whenever he is unavailable. Fonseca is also an ordained Roman Catholic Priest providing for the specific needs of Yokota's Catholic community.
"I was born in Puerto Rico into a Roman Catholic family so I was raised with those beliefs," Fonseca said. "I was heavily involved in the local ministries back home, constantly looking for ways to make people feel better. There has always been this desire in me to help others."
It is this desire to help that led Fonseca to first serve in the Air Force as a physical therapist for seven years. According to Fonseca, physical therapy provided him the opportunity to help people overcome their physical impairments, but couldn't fill his desire to aid the hearts, minds and souls of his patients. Fonseca stated that it had always been his goal to serve as an ordained minister.
"Our goal as chaplains is not to impose religion on anybody," Fonseca said. "We just want to help them build their spiritual resiliency whatever their faith group may be."
Fonseca went on to explain the challenges faced by a military chaplain serving overseas.
"There are many challenges we have to overcome," Fonseca said. "In my case, I come from a denomination where people come to me because that is the culture. In the military it's different, I have to put myself out there amongst the Airmen and be present in their day-to-day lives."
Other challenges Fonseca mentioned included the loneliness experienced by Airman separated from their families, the multiple roles filled by a military chaplain, and being placed in a position where they can see somebody suffering but are unable to help.
"We always like to see positive end results but sometimes there are no happy endings," Fonseca said. "Unfortunately, there are times when we try to help someone and we can tell that they've already made their decision before they came to speak with us, I've seen that too many times."
Despite these challenges, Fonseca finds satisfaction in overcoming the hurdles faced by a military chaplain and Air Force officer, because they provide him with opportunities to grow in both his career and personal life.
The next team member is Capt. Shin Soh, 374 WSA chaplain, who was initially hesitant to join the military as a conscientious objector, despite his desire to serve his country. Born in Korea, Soh moved to the U.S. at 16-years-old where he became a pastor. It was during this time that Soh had his desire to serve in the Air Force reaffirmed by a world-changing event.
"I was a pastor when 9/11 happened, and at that time when I was already looking for ways to serve the country that had been so good to me," Soh said. "I had spoken with a West Point grad, saying that I felt like God was calling me to serve as a military chaplain. He responded: 'Pastor Soh, going through West Point is how I came to know Christ.' That's when I knew that I needed to minister to people in the military."
It was this conversation that encouraged Soh to accept an Air Education and Training Command posting, where he was able to share his faith with new enlistees while supporting their transition into the military lifestyle.
The last member of Yokota's chaplains, but by no means least, Capt. Patrick Poock, 374 WSA chaplain, was raised on a small farm in Iowa. Living just outside of town, Poock and his family rode their bikes everywhere, until, at the age of 14, when his parents became missionaries and moved to Liberia in West Africa. His time spent there helped to develop his faith, but it was his wife's military service that led to Poock becoming a military chaplain.
"I was a dependent spouse working as the chapel's Religious Education coordinator and got to see what chaplains do up close," Poock said. "I knew that I was going to go to seminary someday and I felt that with my experience I would be able to help others in the military."
The training Poock received during his time in the seminary and Officer Training School allowed him to provide religious support to people even when their beliefs contradict his own, which he identified as his biggest struggle as a military chaplain.
All of Yokota's chaplains stressed the importance of faith, religious or otherwise, in a rapidly changing Air Force and the longest sustained period of combat operations in our nation's history. By having that spiritual resiliency component Airmen and their families could overcome adversity, and members of the chaplain corps are always willing to help either strengthen that faith or simply provide an ear to listen.