40 years of women’s chaplaincy commemorated

by Airman 1st Class Alexander W. Riedel
Air Force News Service

WASHINGTON — About 14.6 percent of today’s active-duty servicemembers are women. And for decades, women have held command positions throughout the service, leading Airmen in war and peace. For 40 years now, women have also led Airmen spiritually as military chaplains.

The leaders of the military’s chaplains corps and more than 200 dignitaries and guests gathered at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va., Monday for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new exhibit, themed “Celebrating 40 Years of Women Chaplains: A Courageous Journey of Faith and Service.”

A legacy of perseverance is presented in the exhibit, which displays uniforms, documents and photos that highlight those who paved the way for women in the military chaplaincy.

In 1973, a young American Baptist pastor, Rev. Lorraine K. Potter was accepted into the Air Force Chaplain Corps after first being rejected. Her rejection letter plainly stated the necessary qualifications, including that all military chaplains must be male.

“I met all but one of the requirements,” Potter recalled, saying she accepted the initial reaction as part of God’s plan.

Several weeks later, however, another letter arrived, informing her that the chief of Air Force chaplains had deleted the requirement and that she may apply. Changes to federal law made it illegal to discriminate based on gender or race.

“I never liked being first,” Potter said jokingly. “Even my twin was born an hour before me.”

But many firsts were yet to come for Potter, who eventually rose to become the first female chief of chaplains, retiring at the rank of major general after 31 years of service.

When current Air Force Chief of Chaplains Howard Stendhal joined the chaplain’s corps in 1985, he said, he encountered women well integrated in such leadership and mentoring roles.

Looking across the room during the ceremony, Stendhal thanked former superiors, like Potter and retired Col. Sharon Freeto, the first female United Methodist chaplain in the Air Force, for the guidance and mentorship they provided him during the early years of his service.

“How blessed I am to have learned from your example, which nurtured me in my beginning years,” he said. “For me, it is hard to think of a culture without women in positions of authority. Their humanity and the gifts they bring to the chaplaincy are unique and priceless.

“Whether a woman is flying a jet or whether she is looking at somebody’s tonsils, practicing medicine, or whether she works in the ministry — excluding them would never be consistent with the goals of the Air Force to bring in the best and the brightest,” he continued.

For Potter and her former colleagues, the event was a chance to look back on the past 40 years of challenges and successes.

“When we first had a meeting of women chaplains in 1990, it was a very cathartic moment, and I remember I was in tears, because I realized that I was not alone in this journey,” Potter said. “I’m in awe of the experiences I’ve had over the years and the opportunity our country gives us. Here we can celebrate the ministry that we’ve done, it’s like a reunion and I hope that it will help us keep our history.”

The project, two years in the making, was shouldered by a group of Air Force chaplains, led by Potter herself and Chaplain (Col.) Cherri Wheeler, the command chaplain at U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa and first Air Force woman chaplain to deploy to an active combat zone during Operation Desert Storm.

The team collected artifacts and combed through archives for imagery and documents spanning four decades of female contributions to the military clergy.

“We went through hundreds and hundreds of photos that were given to us, finding the ones that were compelling enough to tell a story without many words,” Wheeler said.

Later, officials from the Army and Navy chaplain corps joined the project and created pictorial montages and displays representing the historical development in each service.

Leading the opening ceremony was Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter, who is not only part of the small group of women in the military chaplaincy, but is also the only female rabbi serving in Air Force blue.

“I’m grateful to the women who preceded me,” Schechter said. “I truly do stand on the shoulders of giants. I don’t feel I have the same struggles and feel like I live in a different Air Force.”

The timing of the event was chosen to coincide with women’s history month, Schechter said.

“To me, it means an opportunity to pause, reflect and give thanks to everyone, men and women, who made it possible for me to be in this position,” she said.

And though the ceremony was a time to celebrate the achievements of the past, the exhibit gives hope for the present and future and the growing legacy women chaplains are building daily, Schechter said.

(For the full story, visit www.ramstein.af.mil.)