RAF ALCONBURY, England --
“Everybody is welcome, and everybody has worth and value.” said Lt. Col. Jerry Sather, 501st Combat Support Wing chaplain.
After 41 years of military service, Sather shared stories about his experiences and his reflection on diversity in the military.
“I’m from a small town in Montana,” said Sather. “When I first went to basic training in the Army at Fort Dix [Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst], New Jersey, I had never seen a black person in the flesh, ever. I had never seen a Hispanic person in the flesh. Everybody in my town was white, it was a culture shock for me.”
Sather was born in 1958 and grew up in Libby, Montana. He joined the U.S. Army band as a saxophone player in 1979, serving for the next several years. He left the military to serve as an Episcopalian minister, before returning to the U.S. Air Force as a chaplain twenty years after initially enlisting.
Though he initially planned to retire earlier in the year, Sather extended his retirement date so he could help support the Chapel’s numerous support initiatives during COVID-19.
“It’s a very different world from when I first joined,” said Sather. “I jokingly say, ‘we’ve been through the COVID-19 pandemic, I just needed to add that to my resume.’ I lived through the Cold War, …9/11, … Operation Southern Watch, …support of the global war on terrorism, … Iraq – got shot at, … Afghanistan, … Special Operations, … the Great Tohoku earthquake in Japan in 2011. I’ve been through war, I’ve been through earthquakes, now I just needed a pandemic to round everything out.”
In addition to providing community support during the pandemic, Sather and his team were at the forefront of providing 501st members opportunities to share, listen to one another, and heal in light of racial injustice and unrest in the United States,
The 501st Chaplain Corps team hosted a Prayer Vigil for Justice and Peace at RAF Alconbury, RAF Croughton and RAF Fairford in June 2020. The vigils were held outdoors to encourage physical distancing guidelines.
“There’s a long tradition in many churches of holding such vigils, so we said let’s do something similar,” said Sather. “It was right, as a lot of the tensions and people were feeling those emotions very strongly at that time. It was a release valve, an emotional and spiritual release for people. We’ve had follow-on discussions in different agencies.”
The 501st CSW recognizes 2020 as the Year of the Pathfinder, challenging all Airmen to represent qualities of diversity, readiness, resiliency, innovation, professionalism, and connectedness.
“The military has set the pace for diversity and inclusion,” said Sather. “We haven’t always done it well, we haven’t always gotten it right, but we’ve been out in front of the rest of the society in terms of making it happen. Being with the Pathfinders, I love their slogan, ‘Light the Way’ and their heritage. The 501st is small, but its diverse and spread out. It’s this strange cat within all the other wings within the Air Force. Though we’re small and we’re different, that’s what you need. Things that are small and different can light the way and set an example for how things should be.”
Sather has worked in many different environments around the world. His congregations and his staff were made up of people from diverse backgrounds. His wife is an English national.
“Everybody has different perspectives and comes from different backgrounds,” said Sather. “That’s okay, that makes the world interesting. If we were all monochrome gray, it would be boring and our lives wouldn’t be as interesting. It also makes things challenging. Because of religious diversity, ethnic diversity or cultural diversity, sometimes there’s conflicts, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s accepting people as they are and saying you’re a person of worth. It’s not a matter of better or worse, it’s just different.”
Diversity and inclusion are broad topics that can be difficult to grapple, but Sather has some suggestions for working through problems.
“Inclusion is saying how do I make them feel welcome and allow their voices to be heard,” said Sather. “Sometimes you have to ask yourself or ask other people, ‘am I including you, are you feeling included?’ Sometimes we have blind spots. Diversity allows us all kinds of different voices and to avoid those blind spots, but if we aren’t including them in the conversation, we’re going to miss them.”
For anyone who would like to talk to someone, the Chaplain Corps is always an option.
“We welcome anybody to the chapel,” said Sather. “We always try to minister to people the best we can. Whether it’s racial, religious, or gender issues, we try to model that diversity and inclusion. During counseling one time, somebody came to me and said, ‘I just need some help, and I don’t want to go to mental health, but I’m Wiccan, can I come talk to you?’ I said absolutely you can come talk to me. We don’t have to talk about religion if you don’t want to, we’ll address whatever you want to talk about. That’s what my chaplains are great at. They’ll talk to anybody about anything. Even though we come from a religious point of view, and by law we’re here to support religious needs of the community, we’ll support. We’re everybody’s chaplain. If they want a listening ear, that’s what we’re here for.”
For more information about the chapel, call the numbers below:
RAF Alconbury – DSN 268-3343 or Commercial 01480-84-3343
RAF Molesworth – DSN 268-1533 or Commercial 01480-84-1533
RAF Croughton – DSN 236-8287 or Commercial 01280-70-8287