MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica --
Antarctica is a land of mystery in many ways. It’s difficult to get there--nearly impossible for most of the year because of harsh weather. It’s quite large; nearly the size of the United States and Mexico combined. It’s the driest continent averaging 6.5 inches of precipitation per year, which makes it a desert—albeit covered in ice. Its continental plate rests well below sea level, but ice has accumulated to nearly 10-thousand feet at the South Pole, making it the highest continent on-average. The Antarctic ice sheet holds 90-percent of the world’s total ice.
It’s perhaps best described as a land of surprises, at least that’s how it sounds coming from the mouth of a recent visitor to the least hospitable continent in the world. Major Kraig Kroeker, 173rd Fighter Wing chaplain, recently returned from a nearly two-month stay on the ice of Antarctica.
A partnership with the National Science Foundation provides Air National Guard chaplains the opportunity of a lifetime, who, in-turn, provide resilient, well trained and physically fit uniformed service members to tend to the spiritual and psychological care of the scientific community who reside there.
“Other than the medical doctor there is no mental health,” said Kroeker. “The chaplain takes care of the mental health equation side, the morale side, and the morality and spiritual sides as well.”
He goes on to say that the pool of available people spans most wings across the 54 states and territories, and that many chaplains actively seek out the opportunity. In effect, there are always trained, ready people, which is what the Guard does—provides people who are “always ready, always there,” even when the ‘there’ is Antarctica.
This experience is substantially broadening, giving a chaplain a chance to practice their expertise in a very similar fashion to what a military deployment might look like. Kroeker described it saying, “It’s like drill-weekend every day.”
While he was on-site he said his favorite memory was providing a Christmas service. “Doing a Christmas service with people getting blinded by the sunlight hitting them in the eyes, even though it was 9-o’clock at night,” he said.
He largely stayed at McMurdo Station, which is south of New Zealand. Granted, the whole continent is south of everything--but more specifically, McMurdo Station is on the same longitude as the western edge of New Zealand. Because of this, Kroeker’s duties included providing chaplains services to the nearby Scott Base in New Zealand.
He was able to travel to the South Pole from McMurdo Station, a trip of about 850 miles on a Ski-Bird, which is a C-130 outfitted with skis instead of wheels. Here lies another of the surprising facts about Antarctica. There is a ceremonial South Pole replete with flags from various countries and then there is a geographic South Pole. The reason the two are different is because the ice cap slips a little bit every year due to the rotation of the earth, so each year experts determine where the actual South Pole is and put a marker there—it usually moves about eight inches.
When asked if he plans to put his name in the hat for another trip Kroeker says he’s already scratched it off his bucket list and he’ll let another of the large pool of available Air National Guard chaplains do the same in the years to come.