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Supporting the Ninth Amendment

Female Chaplains Serve God and Country

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Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Sherri Wheeler, the deputy chaplain for the Air National Guard.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Sherri Wheeler, the deputy chaplain for the Air National Guard.

It sounds like the start of a joke.

Four female ministers – an Episcopalian, a Unitarian Universalist, a Southern Baptist and an African Methodist Episcopal – all join the military ….

But there’s no punch line here, just four strong-willed pioneers working in a career field with few others of the female persuasion.

During women’s history month this year, these new chaplains at the National Guard Bureau are using their varied religious backgrounds to cater to the needs of Guard members.

Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Sherri Wheeler, Air Force Chap. (Maj.) Sarah Shirley, Air Force Chap. (1st Lt.) Janice Tubman-Pettigrew, and Army Chap. (Capt.) Rebekah Montgomery all have different stories on how they pinned on the chaplain’s badge.

Shirley, an Episcopalian minister, joined the military when she was 40 years old, the culmination of a lifelong dream that started, ironically enough, with her reaction to her fellow Vietnam War protestors.

“I was ashamed of how some of the antiwar activists had treated military members and treated veterans. It’s clear [service members] don’t make defense policy, we just carry it out.”

Air Force Chaplain (Maj.) Sarah Shirley.

Air Force Chaplain (Maj.) Sarah Shirley.

Instead, Shirley took a different tack. She began thinking about the mission of the military, and how it reconciled with the Christian doctrine of loving God and neighbor. While not prompting her to join at the time, the idea lingered.

“I thought ‘here are these people of faith that are sworn to uphold their God and sworn to defend their country and these two things often come in conflict,’” said Shirley.

After a deployment to Oman after 9/11, and more than nine years in the military, Shirley still finds herself somewhat unique in her career field.

“I’m still amazed at how many people that have never met a clergywoman before,” Shirley said. “I hope it shows possibility to religious folk.”

Wired differently:
Almost completely unique is Wheeler, a Southern Baptist minister in a denomination that has stopped ordaining female ministers.

“I’m the last of a dying breed,” she said.

Wheeler was going to college to become a teacher when, in her words: God got a hold of me. This meant three more years of schooling after college, a fact that did not sit well for her old-fashioned parents.

“How families took care of young boys, they threw them out [and told them] ‘You go get a job,’” Wheeler said. “The girl got married or the family still takes care of her.”

Nonetheless, Wheeler pressed on. At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, she met an Old Testament teacher, an Air Force Reserve chaplain, who encouraged her not to settle when it came to her career in ministry.

“I told him, ‘I think God’s calling me to be a chaplain’s assistant,” Wheeler said. “He said, ‘No! You want to be a chaplain.’ That summer, he invited me to his base, where he was doing his two-week tour.”

Wheeler, the daughter of an Air Force mechanic, saw something familiar when she drove onto the base.

“I hadn’t been on a military base in 10 years, because my dad had gotten out and moved away,” she said. “It was like being home.”

Also during this visit, she was able to visit the wing chaplain, a colonel, who sat down with her for almost two hours to answer her questions on women in the military.

“I asked him questions [like] ‘What would you do with a woman on your staff?’” Wheeler said. “Because I needed to know. I didn’t have a desire to be some flag-waving feminist – that’s never been my cup of tea. I didn’t want to be an example. I didn’t want to be the first of anything. I just want to do what God told me to do.”

The answers to those questions convinced Wheeler to embark upon a career of more than 20 years.

Sometimes, she said, even men request female chaplains.

When she was sent to England, an Airman was waiting for her. “He was waiting, because he needed – from a woman’s perspective – to understand where his wife was coming from. He couldn’t ask another man. He needed to ask a woman. And there I was.”

Seeing the signs:
For some, it took a little time to come to God. Tubman-Pettigrew, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, came to the cloth after a life of taking religion for granted. Growing up in West Africa and immigrating to the United States, she had known about religion but never gave it any thought.

“Part of our school curriculum [in Africa] was the study of the Holy Bible from cover to cover,” she said. “For me, it was just a textbook.”

When her mother, a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church whom she considered one of her best friends, passed away, circumstances began to change around her.
She began to see signs from God, including crosses in the sky. “After my mother died, everyone seemed to stay away from me,” she said. “I didn’t get it. I didn’t know how to handle it, but now I get it because I see the hand of God in that. I believe it was God’s way of setting me aside from others.”

After pondering career options in the Washington, D.C. Air National Guard, she was mysteriously drawn to the chaplain’s office. “Next thing I know we were talking about chaplain vacancies and seminary and everything else,” she said.

Sense of adventure:
If the hand of God could be seen in Tubman-Pettigrew’s story, it can also be seen in the story of Montgomery, a citizen-soldier with no prior experience in the military.

Chaplain (Capt.) Rebekah Montgomery

Chaplain (Capt.) Rebekah Montgomery

“I didn’t know anyone in the military,” she said. “My father did three years in the Korean War. I didn’t have a single friend in the military. I knew nothing about what it was like. I called all the recruiters, and the Guard called me back first.”

Montgomery grew up in Bethesda, Md., in a diverse community of faiths.

“I have very early memories of having Buddhist friends [and] Hindu friends.” Montgomery said. “I went to high school and junior high with a girl, who was Muslim and chose to wear a veil when she was 14. So, I was very much influenced by the community I was raised in.”

After studying Eastern religions in college, she was ordained at the age of 29 in the Unitarian Universalist Church. After a brief experience as a hospital chaplain, she decided to join the military for the adventure and experience.

She may have gotten more than she bargained for during 18 months in Afghanistan. “I used to joke that I’d have ‘Hey, chaplain’ moments in the shower,” she said. “I’d be literally in the shower and someone would take the time to have a pastoral moment. Which is fine. That’s probably why I loved being on active duty … I was a chaplain [all the time], not just on drill weekends.”

However they arrived at their current positions, all of these chaplains have sworn to serve both their country and their creator.

DVIDS
Story by Sgt. Patrick McCollum

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