Chaplain reunites with mentor during promotion ceremony

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jarrod Grammel
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
In 1997, a young, senior airman chaplain assistant stood with his right arm raised as his mentor, friend and chaplain administered the Oath of Enlistment. More than 15 years later on April 30, the two men were reunited when the then-senior airman was promoted to major, now himself a chaplain.

Chaplain (Maj.) Erik Harp, 93d Air Ground Operations Wing chaplain, had always wanted to be a chaplain. After returning to his home in Pendleton, Ore., from his mission in Fresno, Calif., for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, he called his denomination and told them he wanted to be a chaplain.

A young Harp, who only had a GED certificate, was told he needed a 90-hours master's degree to become a chaplain. With a family legacy of military service and a new wife, Harp decided to enlist in the Air Force while he was attending community college in his hometown.

"I wasn't that good of a student in high school," he said. "In fact, I got into a bit of trouble as a kid. I saw the military as a way to sort of escape bad friends and a bad situation."

After earning his GED certificate, Harp attended community college where he met his wife. Harp, whose father had served in the Navy, thought the military would be a good option.

"We really hit it off, and we didn't wait to start a family," he said about his wife, Margaret. "So the question was how two college kids were going to start a family. We didn't have any money. That's when I realized the military was truly the best route."

Harp left for basic training and was assigned a job in Base Information Transfer System (BITS), who are tasked with passing memos throughout different agencies on base. However, his future changed during a visit to the chapel while in basic training, and he ended up never spending a single day working in BITS.

"Well, I was at the chapel, and there was a chaplain who gave a briefing," Harp said. "There was like a thousand of us sitting in the chapel, and he said a select few of us have an opportunity to become a chaplain assistant.

"I thought, 'wow, what an exciting thing,'" he added. "I want to be a chaplain one day, and this would be the ultimate internship. So I threw my hand up, me and one other person."

Harp was interviewed, accepted, his Air Force specialty code was changed, and he was sent to Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., for technical training. After training, he was sent to Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., where he would get paired with Chaplain Bill O'Sullivan, then a captain, who would impact his life in major ways.

One way O'Sullivan impacted his life occurred during a training exercise when Harp lost a communion and service field kit. Not knowing it was a chaplain's bag, someone reported it as a suspicious package, causing the base to ground and divert aircraft.

"The commander at the time was very livid," Harp recalled. "He asked me to report to him. Chaplain O'Sullivan wouldn't allow that. He went with me. He said that we were in it together, and we were going to take these lumps together.

"So we stood at attention in front of the wing commander and took quite a chewing out," he added. "Then he asked whose bag it was. Chaplain O'Sullivan stood forward and said it was his. That could've been the end of his career too."

The new team got off relatively easy with a serious verbal reprimand, but O'Sullivan's selflessness was something Harp would remember for a long time.

"One thing that did was totally inspire me," Harp said. "That's the kind of chaplain I want to be. The kind of guy who stands up, advocates for Airmen and is willing to put his Airmen first. That's the quality and type of person Chaplain O'Sullivan is."

O'Sullivan said the story of the forgotten bag could easily be said about Harp because he is selfless and is someone who is always willing to give up something for someone else.

"He was my guy, and I was grateful," said O'Sullivan, now the division chief of personnel and readiness at Air Force Reserve Command. "Of all the chaplain assistants I came across, he was the best.

"Erik has a way about him that is so disarming," he added. "He did that as a chaplain assistant. I thought he is just the kind of guy you want going ahead of the chaplain, who can essentially warm up the audience. He was great in that capacity."

While Harp was working as a chaplain assistant, he didn't give up on his dream of becoming a chaplain himself. As an enlisted Airman, he began taking college classes and working toward a degree he could use to become a chaplain. However, balancing a family, work, job training and college was challenging for Harp.

"One of the things that helped me keep my focus and press toward my goal was Chaplain O'Sullivan," said Harp. "He was one of the most supportive chaplains I've ever met. He would ask me how I was doing and allow me to run my papers by him to proofread before I submitted them. He was just always that encouraging force."

Harp acquired 27 credit hours from college level examination program tests while working toward his degree. While stationed at Maxwell AFB, a master sergeant informed him that Alabama State University was offering white minority scholarships. Harp took advantage of the program, went to school full time and earned a master's of science in general counseling.
Shortly after making staff sergeant, Harp was selected to be a chaplain and was in the first Officer Training School class after 9/11. As a chaplain, Harp was given a direct commission and promoted to first lieutenant.

Throughout his years as a chaplain, many things have impacted his life, but there is one that stands out. At Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, Harp worked in the intensive care unit providing support to wounded service members. Harp estimates he was at the bedside of 400 to 500 wounded service members during that time.

While at Landstuhl, Harp was in also charge of the Chaplain's Clothes Closet, which provided clothes and shoes to wounded service members who needed them. As the years went by, Harp noticed a collection of single shoes from amputated service members who only needed one and left the other behind.

"Those shoes accumulated in a very large tub, and they became a silent memorial to the sacrifice of our service members and the cost of freedom," Harp said. "I realized that freedom was bought by blood, by the limbs and by people's very lives."

As the years passed and Harp became more experienced as a chaplain, he never forgot about his friend and mentor who taught him so much at the beginning of his career. When Harp discovered that O'Sullivan had recently moved to Robins Air Force Base, Ga., he thought there would be an opportunity to eventually reunite but was surprised at how well everything lined up.

"We knew there would be an opportunity at some point to meet," O'Sullivan said. "I didn't know it would come this way, but it was very fortuitous and just really cool to have him ask me to come down to swear him in."

During the promotion ceremony, both men exchanged kind words, remembering the impact they had on each other's lives more than 15 years ago. Harp thanked the many people who helped him throughout his career, and his wife and five children for their support.

On May 1, Harp's birthday and promotion date, he also was also assigned a chaplain assistant for the first time in his career. He said he is excited to have an additional person to help reach more people and provided better ministry.