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Chaplain, religious affairs Airman support domestic response exercise

U.S. Air Force Chaplain (1st Lt.) Philip Nelson, a staff chaplain for the 181st Intelligence Wing, smiles while talking on a radio at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, Ind., Aug. 14, 2021. Airmen from the 181st Chaplain’s Office supported exercise Homeland Defender, which is a joint domestic response exercise involving more than a dozen military and civilian emergency management agencies. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by 2nd Lt. Jonathan W. Padish)

U.S. Air Force Chaplain (1st Lt.) Philip Nelson, a staff chaplain for the 181st Intelligence Wing, smiles while talking on a radio at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, Ind., Aug. 14, 2021. Airmen from the 181st Chaplain’s Office supported exercise Homeland Defender, which is a joint domestic response exercise involving more than a dozen military and civilian emergency management agencies. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by 2nd Lt. Jonathan W. Padish)

MUSCATATUCK URBAN TRAINING CENTER, Ind. -- The scene at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center had all the hallmarks of a search and extraction training exercise. Heat from the midday sun beat down on the concrete and training structures. Humidity from a typical Indiana summer day permeated the air and clung to one’s skin and clothing. The noise from whirring generators and power tools seemed to attack one’s hearing from all directions. Yet amidst that scene stood a calm and collected presence – a team of Airmen from the 181st Chaplain’s Office.

U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Philip Nelson and Staff Sgt. Matthew Payne, both members of the 181st Intelligence Wing’s Chaplain’s Office, took part in exercise Homeland Defender from both a training and real-world perspective.

The training, which simulated a natural disaster and a series of related domestic response scenarios, involved more than a dozen emergency management agencies that support the State of Indiana, including the Indiana Air and Army National Guard.

“The Air National Guard Chaplain Corps was tasked by National Guard Bureau to respond to the exercise,” said Nelson, a staff chaplain and resident of Beulah, North Dakota. “The purpose of our presence was to promote religious support in a joint environment and skills in military chaplaincy.”

That presence provided additional training opportunities for exercise participants and Chaplain Corps members.

“It brings a different flavor,” said Payne, a religious affairs Airman and resident of Terre Haute, Indiana.

In particular, the presence of the 181st Chaplain’s Office provided an opportunity for the Airmen to show the tandem nature of a chaplain and his or her religious affairs Airman.

“Religious affairs Airmen work hand-in-hand with the chaplain,” said Payne. “As religious affairs, we ensure Airmen and Soldiers receive their religious accommodations.”

Being able to train with and display that capability during Homeland Defender was particularly valuable.

“We learned how to give immediate care in a hectic situation,” said Payne.

For both Nelson and Payne, they were able to leverage past experience to accomplish the mission. Nelson is a former enlisted medic and an associate pastor in the civilian world, and Payne is a former security forces Airman and is a history teacher in his civilian life.

“Having experience with security forces in both a training and operational environment painted a broader picture of the exercise,” said Payne. “And some of the role players were parents, and my experience in the civilian world helped me empathize with them. Having prior experience helped me assess potential problems before they advanced.”

That past experience was especially beneficial for Nelson, who previously served alongside many of the exercise’s search and extraction team members while a medic for the 181st Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and high-yield Explosives Combined Enhance Response Force Package (CERFP).

“When you can tell people you’ve been in their sweaty shoes, it gives a level of authenticity,” said Nelson. “You walk through the hot summer sun with them and you can say you’ve been there before.”

That past experience does more than help Nelson build trust with service members performing the mission; it helps him break down barriers and provide access to mental health and care resources for disaster survivors, too.

“Having prior CERFP medical experience helps me connect with survivors and witnesses,” said Nelson. “I can provide a person with a measure of appropriate information to give them enough information to understand the situation while not undermining search and extraction efforts. Once they understand who I am, I can connect with them.”

Indeed, that prior military and civilian experience makes the 181st Chaplain’s Office well-suited to the domestic response mission of the Air National Guard.

“I love the mission,” said Nelson. “It’s near and dear to my heart.”

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