VDF chaplains provide support at Fort Pickett chapel during annual training season

Virginia Defense Force Chaplain (Capt. (Va.)) Chris McKeon conducts a Sunday service July 15, 2019, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Saul Rosa)

FORT PICKETT, Va. — Virginia Defense Force chaplains are volunteering their time to conduct Sunday services at the Fort Pickett Bulla Chapel through the summer to provide religious support to Soldiers conducting training on the installation. The partnership between the Virginia National Guard Chaplain Corps and the VDF Chaplain Corps opens the chapel every Sunday from June 2 through Aug. 25, 2019.

“The partnership activities between the VDF, the Chaplains in the Virginia Army National Guard and transient training units have proven to be a force multiplier during the annual training periods in 2019,” said Col. Paul Gravely, Maneuver Training Center Fort Pickett garrison commander. It has especially been important during the two eXportatable Combat Training Capability rotations for the Virginia’s 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and the Pennsylvania Guard’s 2nd Brigade, 29th Infantry Division. I am extremely proud that the Army and VDF chaplains have been able to provide a level of support not previously available at the installation.”

Virginia Defense Force Chaplain (Capt. (Va.)) Chris McKeon conducts a Sunday service July 15, 2019, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Saul Rosa)

Coordination for the support involved senior chaplains at the Joint Force Headquarters – Virignia, Virginia Army National Guard and 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and the Virginia Defense Force.

“This is a true win for the organization,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ben Sprouse, the VNG state chaplain.

“The religious support collaboration between our VDF Chaplains and Virginia National Guard chaplains is positively impacting Soldier’s during a very busy annual training season at Maneuver Training Center Fort Pickett,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Brett L. Johnson, Virginia Army National Guard full-time support chaplain.

“Over the last several years, the Virginia National Guard Chaplain Corps has been understrength and as a result it became challenging to provide religious support at Fort Pickett during the apex of the annual training season,” explained Chaplain (Maj.) Jonathan Goldwire, brigade chaplain for the 116th IBCT and project officer for the VNG/VDF chaplain collaboration.

Goldwire said that a formal agreement between the VNG senior chaplains and senior VDF Chaplain (Lt. Col. (Va.)) David Lagerveld in early May opened the doors of Bulla Chapel, and the chaplains all met prior to the start of services to address any questions and set the schedule for the summer.

“With religious support being provided by a number of highly-qualified and well-trained VDF chaplains, civilians and Soldiers alike have been taking advantage of the religious service being offered.” Goldwire said. “A number of chaplains from visiting units have expressed gratitude and appreciation for having a regularly scheduled service for their Soldiers to attend during annual training. Not only is the partnership benefiting the Virginia National Guard, but it also provides a great experience and opportunity for the VDF to serve the commonwealth in a different way.”

The experience for the VDF chaplains has been very positive. In several situations, National Guard chaplains for units outside of Virginia either asked the VDF chaplains to conduct the Sunday service or they conducted the service together.

“I knew from the beginning that this project was going to be rewarding, but we honestly had no idea of the level of ministry that we would be providing to so many Soldiers,” Lagerveld said.  “We are also experiencing a very high level of respect and acceptance from all the Soldiers who are attending, and this has become a great opportunity for our chaplains and for the VDF.”

In addition to the Sunday service, VDF chaplains have provided religious support to Soldiers for other special circumstances like spending time away from their families on Fathers Day as well as Soldiers preparing for an overseas deployment, Lagerveld said.

The VDF chaplains also expressed their appreciation for the support of Staff Sgt. McDermott, a Virginia Army National Guard chaplain assistant, for preparing Bulla Chapel for Sunday services and assisting with the services themselves.

To become a chaplain in the Virginia Defense Force, a candidate must have a baccalaureate degree of not less than 120 semester hours from an accredited college or university, a graduate degree from an accredited college or university in theological or religious studies in the area of study as their religious orders requires with at least a total of 72 semester hours in graduate work in these fields of study with 36 credit hours in a field related to theology. They must provide a resume of ministerial education and experience that shows a minimum of four full years as the leader in charge of a faith community as the senior pastor, priest, rabbi or other minister of a congregation along with a written endorsement from their congregation stating that they will support their service as a VDF chaplain. They must also provide a valid ordination to a religious orders that enables them to serve as the pastoral leader of a congregation regularly meeting in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and they must complete a VDF background check and have a favorable interview and endorsement from the VDF command chaplain. For more information, contact chaplain@vdf.virginia.gov.

Bulla Chapel is the last chapel currently in use at the Virginia National Guard Maneuver Training Center at Fort Pickett, and it was dedicated May 24, 2011 to Chaplain (1st Lt.) Thomas McNeill Bulla who died from combat wounds in World War I. Bulla was born near Fayetteville, North Carolina, on January 4, 1881. Soon after he graduated from Union Theological Seminary he moved to Emporia where became the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in 1911. Bulla volunteered to become a chaplain after a request by the colonel of the 4th Virginia Infantry, an element of the Virginia National Guard, and was appointed in the rank of first lieutenant.

During the early opening days of the Allied operation known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that began Oct. 18, 1918, Chaplain Bulla repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire by moving across “no man’s land” helping wounded Soldiers to safety. On the morning of October 15, the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry was the lead element for yet another attack in the area known as the Molleville Farm. It was during this assault that Bulla, again helping wounded Soldiers, was struck by enemy fire and mortally wounded. He was evacuated to an Army hospital at Petite Mejoy where he died of his wounds on October 17.

The VDF is authorized by Title 44 of the Code of the Virginia as the all-volunteer reserve of the Virginia National Guard, and it serves as a force multiplier integrated into all Guard domestic operations. The VDF reports to the Adjutant General of Virginia as part of the Virginia Department of Military Affairs along with the Virginia Army National Guard and Virginia Air National Guard. Members of the VDF volunteer their time for training and are only paid when called to duty by an authorization from the Governor of Virginia.

Chaplain (Maj.) Jonathan Goldwire and Chaplain (Capt. (Va.)) Chris McKeon pose for a photo after Sunday service July 15, 2019, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Saul Rosa)