CAMP MURRAY, Wash. --
When it comes to supporting service members and their families, Religious Affairs Airmen work behind the scenes to help chaplains and commanders consider the health of the force. At the wing level, they support the unit directly through a variety of task. For two Air National Guard Pacific Northwest Airmen, the opportunity to serve as top-tier non-commissioned officers with the Pacific Air Force (PACAF) has capped long careers in the service of others.
In 2012, the 215th Engineer Installation Squadron, at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, was slated to close by the end of 2013. The Washington Air National Guard set up a career day for members to transition into new jobs who still wanted to serve.
At the time, then Tech. Sgt. Rob Boleak was a Cable and Antenna Systems repairman with the unit and expressed an interest in becoming a First Sergeant, but with no open positions in the state, he decided he could work with Airmen in a similar capacity as a Chaplain’s Assistant.
“What was funny is that in my first two active duty bases, I never saw a Chaplain’s assistant and didn’t even know that career field existed,” Senior Master Sgt. Boleak said in describing his opportunity to take on a new Air Force career move.
Similar to a First Sergeant’s role of ‘Taking care of Airmen’, Boleak saw that he could provide other resources available to troops and their families.
“Many people don’t know all the forms of support, resources and connections that Religious Affairs airmen can offer,” he said. “Oftentimes we are the eyes and ear of our members and can feel the temperature of a unit and some of the missing and underlying needs are.”
After serving with the 194th Wing for several years, in 2015 he applied for a newly created role in the Religious Support Team, or RST, at the higher Air Force commands. By adding the Senior Master Sergeant position to support PACAF and other major commands, this would also facilitate a larger pool of potential candidates for the Functional Manager position at the National Guard Bureau.
“It created an RST that had one chaplain and one religious support NCO that could work together out in the field,” said Boleak, discussing the new Senior Master Sergeant role. “Now you have six or seven E-8’s to choose from that have broadened their experience in the career field to help all the RST members in the Air National Guard.”
Being one of the first people picked for this role, Boleak said the job requires 60 active duty days a year with the assigned MAJCOM on top of the monthly annual drills.
“For the battling planning and rhythm in the Pacific, we were creating training plans that would change the Chaplain Corps,” said Boleak, noting how other MAJCOMS noticed and started implanting the changes. “In 2018 the Air Force began beta testing [Task Force] True North by ebbing religious affairs and other professionals within high-risk groups of a Wing.”
“About a year and a half ago, Gen. (Charles) Brown, then the PACAF Commander, said that he like the concept and wanted to replicate the program,” said Boleak.
Eventually, True North-Lite was developed for local Mental Health Teams and Religious Support Teams working in partnership to provide intensive support to at-risk units across PACAF, without the assistance of additional manning.
“The intent was to embed Chaplains into these high-risk units instead of just trying to serve the wing staff and headquarters,” he said. “The program had chaplains attached to Security Forces Squadrons, Nuclear Weapons Centers and other high-stress areas -- places were suicide rates, alcoholism and family problems are more prevalent.”
The success of the program propelled PACAF to utilize active duty, reserve and guard chaplains and other mental health resources, family readiness staff and other service professionals to augment critical areas where commanders felt a need for support. This has created the expanded role for Air National Guard Chaplains and Religious Support assistants in the field directly supporting Airmen.
As Boleak transitioned toward retirement in October his successor was another Pacific Northwest Airman, Master Sgt. Osten Coaty from the 173rd Fighter Wing, Klamath Falls, Oregon. Serving as a First Sergeant with the Logistic Readiness Squadron and 24 years of military service, Coaty was a natural pick to take up the reins for a self-described, “guy who likes to work in churches.”
“I could really tell how much of an impression Senior Master Sergeant Boleak left for this position in his final email to the group,” said Coaty. “He’s already helped me make this a much easier handoff and all the work he has done to define the role.”
The father of three boys is a private school teacher in his civilian career said he thrives in areas where he can help connect people to resources and open lines of communication.
“Being a First Sergeant prepared me in some ways for this job,” said Coaty. “The way you care for people, that each case is different and being ready for the number of issues that arise…these are all important for unit readiness too.”
His excitement for the new job was evident as he spoke about the challenges that lie ahead and the travel in the Pacific theatre once the COVID-19 pandemic allows for international travel again.
“I spoke with our wing chaplain before I applied over the summer,” he said. “I felt like having served on active duty and the guard and having deployed four times over the years prepared me for this next step up.”
In his deployment assignments, Coaty has worked around the world, from the United Arab Emirates to Qatar, followed by a special assignment for six months at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to care for wounded service members, and responding to the massive earthquakes in Haiti in 2010.
“I started off my military career as an Army Combat Engineer, so having my ‘ducks in a row,’ is essential to me,” he said. “This new position at PACAF is a big responsibility, so readiness and resiliency are key factors I hope to bring to the mission and for the Airmen.”
With the assignment being a three to five-year commitment, Coaty knows that he is has been given a chance to work in two assignments at once.
“I will still be performing my drills at the Joint Force Headquarters in Salem, (Oregon) but will be traveling and interconnecting with leadership all across the Pacific region,” he said, describing the expanded expectations. He officially transferred in November.
“The learning curve will be a challenge at first, but Sergeant Boleak said he would still make himself available to questions I have, even though he will be retired,” he said. That’s reassuring and it speaks of his integrity for the mission and taking care of Airmen; even in retirement.”