Religious Support Teams with Task Force True North

  • Published
  • By Rebecca Ward

“When you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand, and nothing, no nothing is going right.  Close your eyes and think of me and soon I will be there to brighten up even your darkest night.” – Carole King

The lyrics of the Carole King song, "Ain't it good to know that you've got a friend?" could sum up the intentions behind Task Force True North's embedded asset program, which includes a Religious Support Team at all four beta-test installations.

“For me,” said Master Sgt. Kenyetta Sullivan, a Religious Affairs Superintendent, “it’s all about the people. I can do a million programs and a million marriage retreats, and a million healthy office relations. But in the end, all of that is just the people. I need to see the people every single day.”

Because she is embedded within the 673rd Logistics Readiness Group, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Sullivan says she is able to get to know her Airmen on a personal level and is better equipped to quickly respond to emergency situations.

“From leadership, they truly appreciate having us on hand. It’s worked in our favor when we’ve had a few crises in the squadron, and a commander can just call my personal cell phone and say I need you to help me deal with this,” said Sullivan.

For the Airmen who may seek her counsel, it’s important to note that unlike the mental health providers, even those embedded with True North, conversations with Sullivan and others on the Religious Support Team are confidential. That helps build trust among the Airmen she serves, even when guiding them to seek additional help with the squadron’s other mental health providers.

“As it goes down to the micro level of the individual, I’ve seen drastic improvements to the point of ‘okay, I’m thinking about suicide’ one day, and after speaking with somebody, whether it’s myself or the social workers – ‘okay, I feel a little bit better, but I’m still going to need care.’ So then we do intensive care with the social workers, and now we have functioning Airmen back at work who are no longer in the crisis of suicide.”

Sullivan was originally assigned to the chapel during her activated tour as a reservist at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Then, at the outset of Task Force True North, she was asked to stay on as part of the program, and enthusiastically said yes.

“Before, at the main chapel, we would sit at the chapel all day waiting for people to come to us with a crisis. As a Task Force True North RST, I spend the majority of my day out and about in individual offices. I’m getting to know their personal stories, their work struggles.  If there is just a slight change in their demeanor, I can pick up on that because I see them on a day-to-day basis,” said Sullivan.

While all installations have spiritual or religious assets on base, Task Force True North places chaplains and Religious Support Airmen at the group level. In a time of need, they are quick to respond. Leaders recognize that proximity matters, whether they are supporting leadership teams during times of crisis or deliberately serving to help prevent one.

Capt Charles Kim, Chaplain of the 509th Mission Support Group at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, says Task Force True North provides opportunity for RSTs to build trust and meaningful bonds with Airmen accomplishing the mission, often times becoming honorary members of various units..

“Before, there was this invisible barrier where a lot of Airmen or perhaps even leadership felt like he’s the chaplain at the wing level. But now with Task Force True North, they’ve been calling me “my chaplain,”” said Kim.

Working as a duty chaplain was vastly different from the way he now interacts with Airmen. 

Kim said, “Generally, in the previous model, if there’s an emergency or crisis, leadership or the squadrons will call the command post. The command post would then try to find who the duty chaplain is and then connect us to that particular squadron.”

Now though, Kim said, since he’s embedded with the 509th, any leader can call on him without going through the command post. 

“I even had a flight chief today contact me directly to see an Airman, so that really drastically reduced the time to deliver care for the Airman,” said Kim.

The availability of RST and their physical location within a group can make a huge difference in a life or death situation. Senior Master Sgt. Sherrill Sinclair said she saw first-hand the importance of their jobs when she worked with the 509th Security Forces Squadron at Whiteman AFB. They had two deaths during her time with the squadron. One was accidental while the other was a death by suicide, which can, in some cases, influence others to harm themselves.

“During both of those times, we would bring the whole squadron together because they work a lot of hours together.  They’re very tight,” said Sinclair

“Chaplain Kim was one of the providers, along with the embedded mental health providers. They would rally up with the Airmen and stick around after we would break the news, in case they need to speak with anyone. So he was very helpful during those times for me,” said Sinclair.

Sinclair added that Chaplain Kim was key in helping put together memorial services for both of the Airmen, speaking during the services and counseling mourning family members. Chaplain Kim’s availability, she said, is crucial to the well-being of the 509th SFS.

“I never felt uncomfortable calling Chaplain Kim on a Saturday after midnight which is when I get my phone calls most of the time,” said Sinclair.  

Sinclair said no matter the day of the week or the time she called, Chaplain Kim would immediately agree to meet with an Airman in distress

For the Air Force, spiritual fitness is integral to Comprehensive Airman Fitness, along with physical, mental and social fitness. Embedded RSTs minister to Airmen and provide spiritual care to equip Airmen and their families with the skills necessary to remain spiritually fit. They also provide guidance to leadership about spiritual, ethical, moral and religious concerns affecting Airmen and families.

The Air Force is committed to building and sustaining a resilient community of Airmen in which those ideals can thrive. The embedded assets of Task Force True North, while still in beta test at Minot AFB, North Dakota; Beale AFB, California; JBER, and Whiteman AFB are part of that commitment.

“For me,” said Sullivan, “that is what this is all about. Making sure that you are fully functional and fully whole, fully happy, and then you go back to the mission.”

For more information about Task Force True North, look for a series of articles on the Resilience website in the coming weeks to learn more about the program and its initiatives. The Air Force Integrated Resilience Directorate supports Major Commands (MAJCOM) and their Wings, and subordinate formations to foster and promote resilience among Airmen and their Families, optimize performance and decrease negative outcomes, while building a more mission ready and lethal U.S. Air Force.