Taking a leap of faith to light the way for others
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Military chaplains are known for providing a listening ear and crisis counseling to all in need. In light of the guidance they provide, these same individuals may face their own struggles and their true accomplishments can go unnoticed.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Kevin Hostettler, a 35th Fighter Wing chaplain, has served as an active-duty chaplain for six years and is one of six chaplains at Misawa AB.
His ministry years began in 2001, when he was installed as the pastor of a small church on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona.
“That was a difficult time,” said Hostettler. “We were living in a double-wide trailer with no air conditioning and eventually had three small kids there. I was fresh out of college and had to learn many leadership lessons the hard way – from failure. In many ways, I was in over my head.”
Hostettler’s struggle caught the attention of Air National Guard Col. Mike Sproul, 86th Air Wing, U.S. Air Forces Europe assistant command chaplain, who served as the senior pastor of Tri-City Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona when inactive from the military.
During their interactions, chaplain Sproul’s Air Force chaplaincy experiences intrigued Hostettler and led him to consider military chaplaincy as a potential career. Sproul became his mentor and helped him secure scholarships to fund a Master of Ministry degree at a local seminary.
“I realized the opportunities of ministry that were available in the military chaplaincy and I got excited about it,” said Hostettler.
After six years in the pastorate, he began what would become a three-year journey towards active-duty chaplaincy. Hostettler earned a Masters of Divinity and was granted an active-duty commission as a chaplain in 2010.
He began his Air Force career at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and after three years of learning the mission, he deployed to Dover AFB, Delaware. This unique 110-day deployment with mortuary affairs placed him as the primary chaplain in charge of the Family Support Center. He provided assistance to nearly 400 family members as they grieved the loss of their fallen service member returning from deployed locations around the world.
“I am so grateful that God and the Air Force gave me the opportunity to be a piece of the healing process for the grief-stricken as they took their first steps towards recovery from the worst news of their lives,” he explained.
This deployment had such an emotional impact on Hostettler that he wrote and published an article titled “Chaplain at War with Grief” in which he discussed the impact his time at the mortuary had on him and also offered a tribute to those who paid the ultimate price.
Since the mortuary deployment was stateside, his wife, Jenny, relocated their family to a small house owned by her hometown church in eastern Pennsylvania, a two hour drive from Dover. The proximity allowed his family to visit with him on weekends or down days.
“It worked out that about once a week we were able to meet up,” the chaplain said. “But being close to family presented its own challenges because of the nature of what I was doing; the transition to home life was not always easy.”
Hostettler recalled a difficult moment while visiting with his family during his mortuary deployment.
“It was Christmas day and my daughter was unwrapping her present,” he said. “I noticed the box looked like a casket. The lid had a cut out showing the face of the American Girl doll laying inside and when the lid opened it truly looked like a casket. When she picked up the doll and hugged it, I lost it and burst into tears.”
With tears forming, Hostettler’s voice cracked. “Just being able to squeeze my family when I knew that the people I was working with would never do that again was one of the biggest emotional challenges of my life.”
After returning from that deployment, he and his family received orders to Misawa AB, hopeful they’d be together for a while.
A year after arriving at Misawa, Hostettler was selected to deploy again.
Understanding that the distance during the deployment would be challenging for them, Hostettler found creative ways for his family to stay connected. He and Jenny agreed to purchase large Lego sets to use as monthly countdown markers for their six children and in secret he did the “open when” project for her.
“I wrote her about 15 to 20 letters and left them for her in a place she wouldn’t find them until after I deployed. They were labeled, ‘open when you’re sad,’ or ‘open when you’re happy,’ all of them had different titles on the envelopes,” he explained.
Knowing that his family was taken care of, Hostettler focused on the deployment which allowed him the opportunity to deploy with one of his own teammates. Master Sgt. Stenya Mendoza, a 35th FW chaplain assistant, joined him on a deployment to Southwest Asia to aid and support Airmen with the 14th Fighter Squadron in combat missions supporting Operation Inherent Resolve.
“It’s very rare for chaplains and chaplain assistants to deploy together,” he explained. “We were originally going to different places, but when Col. Timothy Sundvall, the 35th FW commander at the time, realized we weren’t scheduled to go with the 14th, adjustments were made.”
Deploying together allowed them the opportunity to take care of Misawa’s Airmen and to grow as a chaplaincy team.
“Being a part of the combat mission was certainly a highlight,” he said. “There was never a question as to why we were there – we got to see the effects of our work every day.”
The work done on this six-month deployment contributed to Hostettler and Mendoza winning the Pacific Air Forces Religious Support Team of the Year award for 2015.
Hostettler’s hard work was also noticed in his home unit. Upon returning to Misawa AB, he learned that he had won the 35th FW Company Grade Officer of the Year award.
“It is rare for a chaplain to receive this award at the base level; I was so incredibly shocked when they called my name,” he said. “I was honored to have won at the staff agency level, having the spiritual dimension recognized on the same level of war-fighters on a war-fighter base was something I did not expect.”
Once back at Misawa, his work continued as his focus returned to both the care of Misawa’s warriors and his own reintegration with his wife and six children.
Balancing military obligations and family life is one of the most difficult tasks military members can face. In this regard, Hostettler identified “communication” as one struggle common to most troubled family relationships.
“It’s the practice of clear communication that’s needed,” he said. “The method of achieving clear communication may be different for each couple. I tell couples during counseling that if it ain’t working, stop, evaluate and try something else. It’s the intentional effort of doing whatever you can to help communication happen; that’s very important.”
The experience chaplains gain in deployed locations and in military life at home station enables them to better relate with service members. They experience wartime stress and family reintegration issues, similar to those in other career fields.
“This added perspective gives them a unique advantage over civilian clergy in ministering to military members,” explained Hostettler. “Through years of service, chaplains add experiential skills to their robust educational background enabling them to be even more effective advocates of religious, moral, and spiritual wellbeing and resiliency.”
Chaplain Hostettler encourages all Airmen to seek out help when needed. “Don’t wait till you see the fire to ask for help – if you smell smoke, it’s time,” he said.
This passion for helping others fuels his drive to serve for as long as he is able.
“I will be in the Air Force as long as God and the Air Force will have me,” said Hostettler. “As long as I continue to love what I’m doing and I have the sense that God wants me here, I’ll be here. If that’s 20 years, then great! For me it’s a privilege to serve both God and our nation – being able to do both is a really awesome privilege and I try not to take it for granted. It’s a wonderful life.”