Military families depend on chaplains for more than spiritual guidance

IMAGE: CNS illustration/Liz Agbey

By Chaz Muth

FALLS, Mont. (CNS) — As U.S. Air Force Maj. Justin Secrest organizes moving
boxes in the family garage, his wife, Jennifer, surveys the kitchen to see what
she can do without before the movers come in a few weeks to take their
belongings to their new home near Kansas City, Missouri.

will be the 13th move that the couple has made in their 24 years of marriage.

moves are a fact of life when one or both spouses in a family have military
careers, and though the physical transport of their belongings to a new home at
Whiteman Air Force Base is a manageable task, it’s the saying goodbye to
friends that never gets easy, 46-year-old Jennifer Secrest told Catholic News
Service as she was packing up her home of a few years at the Malmstrom Air
Force Base in Great Falls.

golden-haired mother of two adult sons and a teenage daughter in high school
became misty-eyed when she talked about leaving the life her family has made in
northwest Montana, the friends who will stay behind and the Catholic Church on
base in which she has immersed herself.

say goodbye to a lot of people,” Jennifer Secrest said as she fought back

husband recognizes the emotional toll these moves have on his wife and said he
has built up some barriers to protect himself from the impact of the frequent
change in assignments.

are some great things about military life, but there are definite hardships,”
Maj. Secrest said. “It’s a strange life and it’s definitely not an easy

biggest constant the Secrests said they have had in this “crazy life that
is the military,” is the church and the relationships they have forged with
various chaplains along the way.

family has benefited so much from the church and we’ve been very fortunate to
have close ties with Catholic chaplains over the years,” Maj. Secrest
said. “Yes, the religious aspect has been important to us, but the
presence of the church in our lives has kept our foundation strong during some
very difficult times.”

deployments have required the 46-year-old major to be away from the family
sometimes for a year at a time.

Secrest figures that her husband’s absences from the family total about five
years in all.

Secrests’ situation is common among military families, making the presence of
the chaplain that much more important, said Father John Reutemann, the Catholic
chaplain at Malmstrom.

military chaplain helps families with unique challenges that don’t necessarily
impact most people in civilian parishes, Father Reutemann told Catholic News
Service during a May interview at the Montana Air Force base.

relocations, deployments, family separations, dangers associated with war — and
at Malmstrom, the stress of guarding and being so close to the largest number of
nuclear missiles on U.S. soil — are just some of what military families cope

Flores’ husband, Army Maj. Rufino B. Flores Jr., has been deployed to
Afghanistan four times during the course of the past several years.

young couple is currently stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North
Carolina, where they celebrated his latest homecoming last December.

dangers Maj. Flores’ war-zone missions have carried their own levels of stress
on the young mother of three small children.

she is thrilled each time her husband returns home, reintegration isn’t as easy
as one may think, Joyce Flores told CNS during a March interview at Fort Bragg,
as her 7-year-old son was preparing for his first confession at one of the
chapels on base.

on his own for such a long time during the last deployment, I found that when
he returned, he had forgotten what it was like to be a part of a whole family,”
she said. “He was responsible for himself and his gear and his mission,
and his day-to-day life didn’t include taking care of children, helping with
household chores and helping the kids with homework.”

was a difficult transition for Maj. Flores when he returned. He had to come to
grips with the fact that he had four other people in the house who depended on
him, Joyce Flores said.

took me a little while to realize that he wasn’t in that mindset and that it
wasn’t automatic the way it had been after other deployments,” she said.

Flores also said that since she had spent the entire year he was gone taking
care of the family needs, she didn’t reach out to her husband for help when he
returned and he sometimes watched while the family went on with daily life,
wondering where he fit in.

Catholic chaplain at Fort Bragg, Father Lukasz J. Willenberg, said
reintegration is one of the biggest stresses military families endure following
deployments and he tries to provide support when a mother or father returns
from war.

return home, sometimes with different issues, and it can be a real challenge to
adjust,” Father Willenberg said. “The combat zone changes them. But
also, as they are away, the kids are growing up; the spouse left behind has to
adjust to the new normal. After 12 months, there are two people who are now
slightly different who have to learn how to deal with each other again, how to
rediscover one another.”

Father Willenberg provides these couples with counseling himself and other
times he refers them to reintegration seminars and retreats offered by the

encourage them to set up a date night or something special just for the two of
them,” he said, “to get away and rediscover each other.”

Catholic Church is invested in helping families stay together and to keeping
marriages intact, Father Willenberg said, and so is the military, because armed
forces service men and women function better when their home lives are stable.

airmen at Malmstrom deploy every other week to the nearby nuclear missile
fields. They are frequently on duty for five days straight, staying in the
field that entire time, then return home for four days in row.

would argue that can be an even more difficult deployment on a family than when
someone is gone for a year at a time,” Father Reutemann said. “They
are constantly in a coming-and-going cycle and you sometimes have a situation
where one person carries the weight of the parenting.”

almost like they are a single parent, yet they are married and there are two
visible parents, he said. “It’s a strange dynamic and one that can create
all kinds of difficulties.”

Reutemann has become a fixture at the Secrests’ home for spiritual support as
well as companionship.

the family prepared to leave Malmstrom, they naturally reflected on how the
church and the chaplains have impacted their lives.

Secrest recalled that when her husband was on one of his long deployments, one
of her sons told her that he needed to go talk to the chaplain.

she tried to press him to see if it was an issue she could help him with, he
told her no and left.

was later revealed that he was struggling in school and didn’t want to burden his
mother, who had been left in charge of the family. But he knew the chaplain was
a source of support.

would not be the same,” Maj. Secrest said, “had we not had that
support that the church gives us.”

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Muth on Twitter: @Chazmaniandevyl.

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