A career of caring: Chaplain to retire after 38 years of service

  • Published
  • By Melissa Walther
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
It's 1974. Feathered hair and polyester are "in," the top song on the radio is Barbara Streisand's "The Way We Were," "The Longest Yard" is in theaters, and Chaplain (Col.) Steven E. West joins the Air Force and begins an almost 38-year career serving the spiritual needs of U.S. Airmen and Soldiers around the world. That career led him to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.,  where he currently serves as the senior chaplain.

"I felt the call to the ministry in my teens, actually," West said. "But I kind of ran away from that and joined the Air Force because I didn't want to do that; I knew what kind of life it was, and I didn't want it for myself."

Originally West enlisted as a fuels specialist and was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, a location that made him worry about losing his calling to serve God.

"I was a young, single Airman, and I was stationed in Las Vegas," he said. "I knew what kind of temptations there would be, but I never lost that calling, and in fact, it just got stronger."

In 1977 West decided to give into that calling and took the opportunity to join the Air National Guard and attend college and seminary school, with the goal of becoming a military chaplain.

"The day I left active duty in the Air Force in 1977, when I went out the gate at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, I prayed 'Lord, if I can ever be an Air Force chaplain, that's what I want to be. I know what it's like to be away from home, to be in the dorms, to have the temptations that everybody does - to have that peer pressure and just feel alone."

'I wanted to do that because I didn't want Airmen to have to feel that," he continued. "I figured I'd at least have an understanding and know where they were coming from a little bit."

He spent the next three years serving in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve before being honorably discharged in 1980 at the rank of staff sergeant.

"To be a chaplain, you need your college degree, three years of seminary school and two years pastoral experience before you can even be looked at," West said. "I got married and my wife and I spent time as missionaries in east Africa, and I pastored in different churches in the United States. Except for those two-and-a-half years I was a missionary, I have been in uniform since 1974."

After his time in Africa, West enlisted in the Army National Guard and attended seminary school as a chaplain candidate. Upon graduation in May 1987 from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisiana, he was commissioned in the Army National Guard and began his service as a military chaplain.

"I didn't stay with the Army for long, though," he said. "A position opened up just down the street from where I was serving my battalion in Louisiana, and it was with an Air Guard unit in Mississippi. I jumped at it, because the Air Force is really where I wanted to be. That's where I had been enlisted, that's where I had always prayed God would send me back, and it worked."

In total, West spent 14 years in the reserve forces of the Army and Air Force before finding his way back to active duty in 1993.

"Sixteen years after I left active duty, I found my way back, and this is where I've always wanted to be - serving as an Air Force chaplain," he said.

With such a long career, West said he's seen many changes, both in the military in general, and the chaplain corps, specifically.

"In the 1970s there were a lot of chaplains who just positioned themselves in the chapel," he said. "If you wanted to see them, you went to see them. If you didn't go to them, you'd never see them, or even know who they were. And even if you went, it just never seemed like they cared a lot. I'm not sure why that was. But that's changed tremendously."

"When I came back in, chaplains seemed to have a more caring nature, and the Air Force chaplains were starting to get out into the units," he continued. "We've continually progressed, and just on this base alone we've got three of our five chaplain offices not in the chapel whatsoever. They're out in the different units, and that's where they need to be, because that's where you form relationships."

Forming those relationships is something West said is key to the success of the chaplain corps, and is something he has always enjoyed doing himself.

"When people feel like they need to come to someone, they need to feel like it's someone they know and trust," he said. "It opens the door. Getting out and pastoring to people is the one thing I enjoy the most."

West said some of his fondest memories of his time in the military involve that personal, one-on-one pastoring he was able to do while deployed. West has deployed to Andoya, Norway; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Taegu, Korea; and served as wing chaplain at Balad Air Base, Iraq.

"Before I came to Langley, I was the chaplain for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and we were able to do a lot of great things at that level," West said. "You knew you were making a difference, but you didn't get to see it face-to-face. I've been here since May 2013, and getting to work directly with people, and see the difference you can make in their lives is huge to me."

While West's official retirement date is Jan. 1, 2015, his retirement ceremony is planned for October, and he will take terminal leave for the remainder of his time in service. Although he will be retired from military service, West said he has plans to stay involved in the military and spiritual community.

"God has blessed me with a number of opportunities, and the things I've been able to see and do is unbelievable through the years," he said. "When I worked for the Joint Chiefs, one of the things I'd hear all the time from civic organizations was 'how can we get involved?' There are more than 10,000 non-profit groups dedicated to serving the military or military families in some way, but there was no way to find out which ones were good. So I co-founded SupportMilitary.org to help people figure out just who and what they were donating to. I'll be involved in that when I retire. I have no plans to just sit around."

West said part of his desire to remain connected to the military community has to do with the people themselves.

"They're doing incredible things out there. Just being a part of that is a privilege."
At the end of his career, West offered some advice for Airmen and their families.

"In 38 years, some of it's been hard, most of it's been great, but the best thing is the people. They're what make the difference. You can make any assignment good. There's no such thing as a bad assignment, just a bad outlook. Get involved in your community and make the most of any moment, and make those friends. That's what will be with you the rest of your life."

West has quite a bit of personal experience in making the most of any situation and making a bad location into a good assignment.

"I've moved 22 times in the 34 years my wife, Cherri, and I have been married, and she's stuck with me all of that time," he said. "She's not crazy about moving, but she's been the greatest support in the world."

With all that moving, West said he is looking forward to his next move when he retires.
"We purchased a home in Birmingham, Alabama, a few months ago; it's on the top of a mountain, and I don't plan on moving ever again," he said.