RICHMOND, Virginia – When Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen headed to Washington, D.C., in January 2021, chaplains and religious affairs specialists were right alongside them to provide support and assistance.
“The recent mobilization of more than 2,400 Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen to Washington, D.C., provided numerous opportunities to provide the highest levels of direct religious support to our Virginia Guard Soldiers and Airmen, as well as their families,” said Maj. Brett Johnson, the Virginia National Guard Joint Force Headquarters full-time support chaplain. “This direct religious support is made possible through the leadership, oversight, and support of our division, brigade and unit commanders, combined with the expertise and teamwork of our Unit Ministry Teams which are made up of a chaplain and a religious affairs specialist or NCO.”
“Wherever the Soldiers were, the unit ministry teams were there,” explained Maj. Dan Finley, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team chaplain. “I was really impressed with what they did. Wherever the Soldiers were, at hotels, at the D.C. armory, at the Capitol, the unit ministry teams went wherever the Soldiers were.”
Finley was especially proud of the six battalion chaplains and their noncommissioned officers because of the inexperience among the chaplains.
“We only had one captain chaplain that had significant experience,” he said. “But the majority were first lieutenants.”
Finley explained Army National Guard chaplains complete chaplain school in phases. As a result, some of the battalion chaplains in the 116th hadn’t finished chaplain school yet.
“A couple of them had just graduated in December and were put on the mission,” he said. “They had minimal training but they also had good, experienced NCOs to assist them.”
The NCOs were vital in helping the chaplains understand the operational side of the mission. Finley cited Sgt. Mary Soliday as an example. He said she was instrumental in securing a sacred space for the IBCT and tracking the battalion UMTs movements in the area of operations.
“They knew who to coordinate with to get out with the Soldiers,” Finley explained. “They were crucial in handling logistics and coordinating transportation.”
Among their duties, the battalion UMTs took initiative to set up morale, welfare and recreation events and worked with the USO to provide activities and food for the Soldiers.
“They had a lot of initiative and a lot of service heart,” Finley said. “They did what they needed to do to take care of Soldiers.”
The UMTs worked not only with chaplains and religious affairs specialists from the Virginia Army Guard, but also personnel from Army and Air Guard from other states. Some states sent Soldiers without chaplains so the Virginia personnel helped out where they could, covering down on additional units.
“You really had to work as a team, especially with COVID-19,” Finley said. “It required a lot of extra coordination.”
Aside from Finley and the six battalion UMTs that were on the ground, a Religious Support Team from Virginia was also in D.C. for the mission.
According to Johnson, the term "Unit Ministry Team" is always changed to "Religious Support Team" “when they are operating within in a Joint-Force mission construct.”
“Originally, the Virginia Air National Guard and Virginia Army National Guard were only tasked to provide one Religious Support Team each in support of the Presidential Inauguration, which was a joint force religious support mission,” he said. “However when Virginia was called upon to support the D.C. Civil Disturbance Response mission, that's when religious support took on a multiplied effect. We were concurrently supporting two distinctly separate religious support missions in D.C., with two Religious Support Teams covering down on the Presidential Inauguration, one Army and one Air, while all other Virginia Army National Guard Unit Ministry Teams were actively providing direct religious support to our troops involved in 24/7 operations in support of the D.C. mission.”
Capt. Will Cochrane and Spc. Brittany Engels were in D.C. from January 14-26 as an RST assigned to a task force separate from the 116th IBCT.
“We provided religious support to Soldiers and Airmen from Virginia as well as other states, depending on where we were at any given moment,” Cochrane explained. “Inside and outside the Capitol building, the Supreme Court building and the Library of Congress building. We provided ministry of presence, religious support, encouragement, a listening ear and prayer as requested.”
They helped set up Sunday chapel services inside the Capitol building for Soldiers and Airmen and provided confidential counseling to Soldiers and Airmen upon their request.
“We also coordinated religious support, including the delivery of requested religious literature and items, to an Airmen belonging to the Muslim faith,” Cochrane said. “He was very appreciative of our support.”
“Wherever our Soldiers and Airmen were, our Virginia Army National Guard Unit Ministry Teams and our Joint Army/Air Religious Support Teams consistently provided for all religious support needs of our service members,” Johnson said. “This support included those that were quarantined or isolated due to exposure to COVID-19 and those on duty at Fort Pickett tasked with planning and supporting the push of our troops to D.C., their sustainment while in D.C., and their return from D.C.”
When they left the nation’s capital and returned to Fort Pickett, Cochrane and Engels’ mission didn’t end. They were then tasked with providing support to Virginia Soldiers who had tested positive for COVID-19 and were quarantined.
“After visiting the TF members that were running the operation and hearing some possible concerns they had about morale, we coordinated with the USO to have items delivered to them in quarantine,” Engels explained. “That was probably my biggest contribution to that mission in itself, but Chaplain Cochrane, Sgt. Maj. Kim and Chaplain Finley all played a very big part in the resiliency aspect to those Soldiers that truly needed it.”
When everything was complete, the Virginia Guard chaplains and religious affairs specialists can look back on the whirlwind mission and appreciate the support and services they provided to a historic event.
“It was surreal and a great honor to provide religious support to Soldiers and Airmen during this mission,” Cochrane said.
“To be sure, the unprecedented nature and scope of the mission surrounding the Presidential Inauguration, as well as all the teamwork involved in the rapid deployment and redeployment of our Soldiers and Airmen will not soon be forgotten,” Johnson said. “We remain grateful for the opportunity to play our part in it all, in support of our commonwealth and country.”