WASHINGTON, D.C. (11/14/2011) - Capt. Chris Conklin, chaplain, has his share of stories to tell; he comes from a long line of Army officers dating back to the Revolutionary War on his father's side; he has witnessed miracles and suffering at home and abroad; and he is the archive of the hopes, fears and secrets of everyone who has ever confided in him.
He has a wife of 12 years, Amy, and three children; Joshua, 7, Caleb, 5, and Rachel, 14 months.
A self-proclaimed “Army brat,” Conklin has had an opportunity to travel all over the world, but Florida is where he calls home, mostly because that's where he's spent the most time, he said.
Conklin grew up in a Lutheran home where his mother always insisted that her children be involved in the church community.
“She was always making sure we were going to Sunday school and church, and my dad would go along, but she was really the driving force,” he said.
In the denomination that Conklin belongs to, once a young member comes of a certain age, usually in the early teen years, they sit down for an interview with the pastor before receiving approval for confirmation. In the interview, the student must prove that they know the material they've been learning and that they're ready to start taking over certain responsibilities within the church.
Conklin's pastor stopped in the middle of his confirmation interview and observed that Conklin knew the material very thoroughly, and suggested a career in ministry.
“I said, ‘No way! I'm just trying to make it through this interview,'” he laughed. “I was terrified of speaking in front of crowds. That and preaching don't exactly go along well.”
Then he touched on what's known to some clergymen as the “Moses complex.”
“You remember the story of Moses and the burning bush from the Bible?” he asked. “Where he turns to God and basically says, ‘I'm quick-tempered, I have a stutter—are you sure you want me?' That's kind of how I felt. I think a lot of us pastors have the same type of experience.”
Conklin recalled going on a youth group trip to Mount Mitchell, N.C., in the fall of his sophomore year.
“The experience was to find out what your calling in life was,” he said. “And for me, that's really when I said, ‘OK God, I'll follow along, but you're going to have to open up a lot of doors.'
With a few opportunities to hone his public speaking skills, Conklin soon became comfortable with public speaking and overcame his fear of speaking in front of large groups of people.
“I always look back at that ‘call' experience at the mountain top, and I think that was really my internal call. The official call comes from the church. I gave myself fully into it, and I told my friends in high school that I was going to be a pastor.”
Boot camp for preachers
Conklin explained that normally, the process for becoming a minister involves graduating from high school, completing four years in college, two years in seminary, and then entering the pastorate.
In his experience, Conklin began pursuing his career of becoming a minister at Florida State University. He later found that the institution had once been a Presbyterian seminary, where the religion department is still the oldest department on campus. There he earned his religion degree, completed two years at seminary, then moved on to clinical pastoral education.
“Clinical pastoral education is what I call ‘boot camp for preachers,'” he said. “It's great. I think everybody who wants to be a pastor needs to do it. You've got all this education—high school, college, two years of seminary behind you, and you think you know everything about the Bible, about theology, about preaching. What they do is they take you and they make you be a chaplain at, for example, a major trauma center, under the supervision of someone else. No kidding, your second day on the job after you in-process, you get to go down to the ER and be ready, because somebody's dad just came in with a heart attack, and he's dead and you have to tell the family. It's translating everything that you've learned into dealing with real events and real people. And that is very trying for folks, because some people love theology and love God, but aren't fit to... help people. It's one thing to be a good student, or even a good teacher, but when you've got to sit in the ER and tell someone that their dad died and spend time with them and work through the grief process and the hope of salvation and the gospel, that's where the rubber hits the road, and I absolutely loved it so much I stayed for an additional year.”
Conklin told about his residency experience as a pediatrics chaplain at what was formerly known as Richland Memorial Hospital (now Palmetto Health System) in Columbia, S.C.
“It was amazing. I got to see miracles every day that I was there, and every single day I was with somebody as they died, too. We counted it up for all of the residents, and it added up to about 425 or so deaths in that year that we were there. It's so precious to spend those last moments with people. They know you're there, they know you're holding their hand, they can hear your voice.”
One child in particular from Conklin's time at the hospital left an impression on him.
“Thomas Stork,” he said after a short pause. “There was something I really took to in him. He was diagnosed with a very rare, very virulent brain cancer. You talk to the doctors, and death is the enemy for them. And they're always striving to win, but for kids, they'll tell you that they've got a pretty good chance against anything except for brain cancer.”
He described Thomas as a boy of tremendous faith.
“He and I would sit for hours and talk and make Play-Dough snakes. From a 10-year-old kid with a terrible cancer diagnosis, it would be easy for him to give up and be mean, and angry, but he didn't. That's how the kids minister to you.”
He told the story of how Thomas wheeled himself down to the chapel one day for prayer, and to make an entry into the hospital chapel's prayer book.
“He wrote something in it that I thought was absolutely amazing and insightful for a kid that age...” He paused thoughtfully for a moment trying to recall the exact words Thomas had written in the chapel's prayer book. “He wrote, ‘I know that Jesus has a plan for all of this, and will be there at the end for me.' Most people who go through cancer or any other long-term illness like that won't come to that realization ever. Very few in recovery will ever be able to look back at it and say, ‘Cancer made me a better person,' and here he was in the middle of it. He was an inspiration for us all.”
Ever since then, Conklin has always found himself pursuing special ministry opportunities outside of a typical sanctuary setting—and it led him to the last place he ever expected to go.
Military service was not part of Conklin's original plan.
“I was actually the first generation in my family to not start off by going into the service. My dad was never upset about me going into the ministry, but there was definitely a sense of, ‘Wow, this is breaking a very long tradition!'” he said with a laugh. “I'm the only son, so if I didn't go into the service it was up to my sister, and she was definitely not.”
But when an old friend from clinical pastoral education called who had become an Army chaplain (and later a chaplain recruiter), Conklin thought twice after hearing him out.
“I knew I didn't want to stay in regular ministry,” he said. “At the hospital as a pediatric chaplain, I got to spend time talking to doctors, patients and families, and I loved to do worship, but I didn't have much of that there. So that's when my friend said to me, ‘Imagine going to a ministry where you could serve God and country in the same job.' He had me hooked at that point.”
His wife, Amy, had only one condition.
“I was OK with joining either the Army or the Air Force,” he said. “But she really wanted me to join the Air Force, because she had grown up in an Air Force family and was familiar with the Air Force way of life, and she knew the Air Force would take care of us.”
After much discussion with his wife and much prayer, Conklin began the application process.
“My dad was at least OK with the fact that it was at least an offshoot of the Army,” Conklin said. “He always joked with people that I'd joined the Army Air Corps.”
As that was happening, tragedy struck the nation.
“Sept. 11, 2001, was when I knew that I was no longer joining a peacetime military,” he said. “I was joining a military at war. I knew that then more than ever, I needed to join. This was something God wanted me to do. So my package was expedited, and I was sworn in Sept. 9, 2002.”
Conklin lost his father a few years later in 2006 after a long-fought struggle with diabetes, shortly after the birth of his second child.
“My dad had been in and out of the hospital over the course of a whole year battling different infections brought on by diabetes,” he said. “But he lived long enough to see me join the Air Force.”
“That's my chaplain.”
With no prior military experience of his own and no firsthand knowledge of the Air Force, Conklin was stepping way out of his comfort zone.
Soon after completing officer training school, Conklin was assigned to his first duty station—Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., from 2002-2005.
“They looked at me and said, ‘You're the youngest guy we've got, we need you to go be the operations group chaplain. Go talk to the ops group commander and he'll put you to work.'”
Conklin described the operations group commander as a great supporter of the chaplain corps and a faithful Catholic who attended church with his family very regularly.
“He said, ‘I've got a huge morale problem, and I need you to fix it,'” Conklin explained. “They flew the RC-135 and the E-4 out of Offutt, and they had a huge problem with the deployment cycles they were on. Each of them was spending about 180 days a year in the desert. They would go 90 days home, 90 days in the desert and so on, and they had been doing that since 1990. They were such a high-demand, low-density asset, and they were constantly deployed.”
Conklin said the operations group commander there was having significant problems with people leaving the unit, experiencing family difficulties and high amounts of stress.
“He said, ‘I need a chaplain that I can dedicate just to them, and I want to get you trained up to be an aircrew member with them.'”
Conklin went through intense training to get his wings. He was put on flying orders, sent through an altitude chamber, flight physical, survival school and advanced survival school, and got trained up to fly with members of the unit all over the world.
“The flight doctor and I used to do morning sick call and prayer call,” he recalled with a chuckle. “It was great because they knew they could talk to me. They knew that I had all the security clearances and all the read-ins that they did, and that I knew what they were going through. And it was great because I would fly with them all the time. There's something about being trapped in a metal tube with someone for about 16 hours that makes them open up. My favorite part about being a chaplain is when it goes from, ‘Oh, that's a chaplain,' to, ‘That's my chaplain.'”
The pointier end of the spear
“I found that the guys who were at the pointier end of the spear were the ones that really craved communion, worship, forgiveness, and someone to talk to,” he said. “They were the ones who were constantly asking me to come out and to do worship service for them, hear their confessions, and just listen. It may be just that they saw death that much more closely, and the wanted to be ready for it.”
Conklin rattled off a number of places he has been deployed to in his Air Force career, including Africa, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan and Pakistan.
“It was weird, because it was a constant motion,” he said. I'd go away for three or four days with some of those guys, then I'd come back and go out with the RC-135s for a day or two on the road, and then I'd go up and down the flight line with worship services over the weekend. It was a great experience.”
It was hard for Conklin's unit to let him go when the time came to move on to a new base, he said.
“At my going away, the ops group commander got up and spoke, and he said, ‘I credit Chaplain Conklin with keeping our mission going and keeping our planes in the air.' He really had a heart for the people and he knew what they were struggling with and he wanted to help them. It did a lot of good for a lot of people.”
Talking is therapy
As a chaplain, Conklin has been a listening ear for scores of service members throughout his career. But when he faces tough challenges, or simply needs to vent, he has his own resources to use as a sounding board.
“It really depends on the situation, but if I just need to vent, my wife is always there to listen,” he said. “If it's a tough counseling case or work issue where I really need to go and seek some advice, I have a couple of chaplain friends I go to that I trust immensely. I can share anything and know that it's not going to leave that setting, and that allows you to share a whole lot. I go to my fellow chaplains for the same reason that a lot of people go see the chaplain—because they're really good at keeping secrets!”
On his last deployment, Conklin was involved in a mass casualty situation where he had to provide first aid for an Afghan family, and held three different children as they died. He also counted up about five of his own friends who have been killed in combat, including other chaplains, where he had to act as a summary court officer.
A summary court officer is the person who settles debts with the decedent's estate, and, in this case, picks up where they left off with counseling sessions and anything other loose ends not tied up.
According to Air Force Instruction, when a chaplain dies, another chaplain must step in as a summary court officer in order to preserve privileged communication.
“We already carry enough of peoples' secrets,” he said. “Then I inherited two more chaplains' worth of secrets; I had to go through all of their emails, all of their documents, everything. It takes a lot of prayer to process things like that. You've got to talk it out. You can't hold it in. Talking is therapy because it translates all of your experience and integrates in into your life story.”
“I think my wife kind of sees what I do as a chaplain as sort of an extension of what I was doing as a civilian pastor,” he said. “She doesn't deploy with me, so she doesn't see that part, and neither do my kids. My boys know that daddy is the guy who gets up and talks on Sunday, and he goes away sometimes for six months at a time.”
To some degree, Conklin thinks it's better that way.
“Deployments and separation are tough on any family, but there are certain things you see and do on deployment that you want to keep away from your family. I don't want to introduce those things to them. They hear the sanitized version from what goes in the medal package.”
Despite some of the challenges he faces, though, Conklin makes one thing absolutely clear: he loves what he does.
“I haven't gotten everything I've asked for, but I'm thankful for everything I've gotten,” he said. “I would've never planned this life for myself, but I love it. I have a joke that I share with my congregation—If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
By USAF Senior Airman Susan Davis
Provided through DVIDS
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