MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
Deployments often raise thoughts of Airmen in combat zones, operating in foreign communities that may not understand their presence. In some deployed locations Chaplains can provide opportunities for Airmen to get into these communities and give back.
One U.S. Air Force Chaplain used a deployment to Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras as part of Joint Task Force Bravo to help Airmen take their minds off the stressors of home and engage in humanitarian efforts.
“One of the cool things we got to do there that we don’t get to do [stateside] is we had nine orphanages that we were responsible for getting volunteers for,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Timothy Dahl, 23d Wing chaplain. “Almost every Saturday and some Sundays we had a group going out.”
Soto Cano’s status as a non-combat zone allows Chaplains to venture outside the wire to find volunteer opportunities in the local community which included the nine orphanages. One of the orphanages was run by a local charity and was used as a community hospice for children with AIDS who often times went there to die.
Anyone deployed in support of JTFB had the chance to volunteer including one Army major that used the orphanage visits to fill the void of being away from her son.
“I liked the orphanage visits because you can go back to the same one and build relationships with the kids that were there,” said U.S. Army Maj. Melinda Latting, who was the Regional Contracting Office’s chief of contracting in Soto Cano. “I’m a mom of a seven year-old so interacting with those children kind of made me feel closer to my own son. Maybe I loved on them because it brought me closer to my son, but they also needed that attention and that warmth from someone.”
Whether it was bringing gifts, showing the children something new or just spending time with them, the orphanage visits proved to be a hit among the volunteers giving them a humanitarian experience.
“It was humbling,” said Dahl who has been an Air Force Chaplain for two years. “We got to minister to them and bring them toys. If you brought a soccer ball with you, you’d never be able to tell these kids were sick because they were so good at it. It was very significant to the volunteers because they knew they were making a difference in a positive way.”
Dahl commented that with the hustle and bustle of day-to-day operations, humanitarian efforts provided a much needed outlet.
“My favorite part was the volunteering we did and the community engagements we had,” said Latting. “For me it was considered a deployment and during my other combat deployments I didn’t have that interaction with the civilian population like I did at Soto Cano.
“It gave us a perspective of the bigger picture for why we were there,” Latting added. “It brought us out of our own offices to work together outside of our military duties. Overall the people of Honduras saw us as helpers, not inhibitors to the stability of their country.”
Another way volunteers got to make a difference was through Chapel sponsored hikes, which started nearly 15 years ago with volunteers from the Chapel partnering with Honduran nationals who worked on the base.
“People would donate money, we’d go to the local food pantry and buy between 3,000 and 3,500 pounds of food,” said Dahl. “We’d make sure we went to places no one else was helping, divide the food up and pack it into everyone’s backpacks, drive as far up the mountain as the buses could take us and hike three to five miles up. Each of the backpacks were full of staples that would feed a family of four for two weeks.
“Whether it was hanging out with the kids in the orphanage or the physical exertion of hiking up a mountain, the missions were therapeutic experiences for the volunteers,” Dahl added. “Some people put their headphones on and it was them versus the mountain. Others really enjoyed playing with the kids in the orphanages and in the mountains. Others needed to rest and recharge.”
Dahl added that while going out into what was considered an almost third-world country and finding villages that needed help, he saw things that changed his outlook on life.
“One time we went into the mountains to check out a potential hike location beforehand and we saw a family bathing in a very deep ditch with lots of nasty water,” said Dahl. “They have no [plumbing] system in the mountains. I felt very blessed about where I got to sleep and bathe that night.
“It’s really easy for me to complain about my life,” added Dahl. “It’s really easy for me to feel sorry for myself when something happens that I don’t like or that I’m uncomfortable with, but when I see how other people are living, the clothes they have to wear, the places they have to live and the food they have to eat and those kids are there smiling, it made me see how blessed I really am.”
Focusing energy and attention on the needs of others gave military members the opportunity to develop an appreciation for things that are often taken for granted. The prospect of learning lessons like those have made Soto Cano a deployment Chaplain Dahl recommends.
“If anyone is ever offered the opportunity or option to go to Honduras, I’d say do it,” said Dahl. “I find value in doing humanitarian aid in the local community because for one you make a positive difference in their life and that’s important. But, when we help people and see how other people are living it helps us realize how blessed we really are. Coming back from Honduras, that’s what I brought with me.”