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Lead into the light: a chaplain journey

Lead into the light: a chaplain journey

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Tyler Harris, 5th Bomb Wing chaplain candidate, stands in front of an altar at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, June 29, 2018. Harris is en route to become a priest by 2020 through the Air Force Reserve’s Chaplain Candidate Program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alyssa M. Akers)

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --

The trainees’ shadows danced as the morning sun rose over the glowing chapel.

While angels sang and prayers rose, one of the trainees found his path in the light.

Every Sunday for seven weeks, Trainee Tyler Harris marched to the chapel; this was his relief from the stress of Air Force Basic Military Training.

“One thing I noticed was that the Catholic priest was able to bring so much energy, joy and hope to young people who frankly didn’t have any during [BMT],” said now-2nd Lt. Tyler Harris, 5th Bomb Wing chaplain candidate. “After one sermon, I told him that I thought I messed up because I signed up for four years in the Air Force but felt a calling to priesthood.”

Coincidentally, of all the additional duties assigned during BMT, Harris was appointed to assist the chapel during weekend services. During this time, he discovered his calling.

With doubts about his enlistment, the priest informed Harris of the opportunity to become a chaplain assistant after BMT. As a chaplain assistant, he would be responsible for assisting the chaplain by organizing and preparing him to minister to Airmen.

The path aligned during BMT to interview and get a chaplain assistant job, he was then sent to Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, for his technical training. After four years on active duty, he transferred to the Air Force Reserve and began Seminary School.

“After a year and a half, I left [Seminary School],” said Harris. “I felt as if I wasn’t ready, but I continued working [in the reserve] after that.”

Fortunately for Harris, the road to chaplaincy continued as he received deployment orders to Kuwait in 2010.

While deployed, he was the chaplain assistant to retired Air Force Col. Mark Rowan, a Roman Catholic priest. Through their six months together in a religious support team, Rowan would share his experiences as a chaplain and encourage Harris to follow his passions.

“He set a really good example of who a priest should be,” said Harris. “That in itself inspired me to go back to Seminary and pursue my vocation.”

Since the duo would complete six masses in four locations scattered across Kuwait every weekend, they had a lot of time to talk about goals, pray together and encourage one another. Around the holidays, Harris had the opportunity to speak with Archbishop Timothy Broglio, the Archbishop of the Military Services, who further inspired him to become a priest.

“I could see, after years of chaplain assistance, that he still had the spark for being a chaplain,” said Rowan. “There was a reason that we were placed together on deployment. It was my job to turn that spark into a flame, so I’m glad I could inspire him.”

Harris found motivation and immediately continued Seminary School after his return from deployment. Upon completion of his bachelor’s degree in philosophy, he joined the chaplain candidate program and became an officer during his second year of theology studies.

“I’m required to complete five years of theology, a year in a parish, a chapel tour and a few other courses in order to become a priest in the military,” said Harris. “I’m already done with the year in a parish, just a few more years until I make it.”

He recently completed his 35-day chapel tour at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, where he had more hands-on training as a chaplain.

“We don’t lead any worship services, but we do help out and shadow the priests,” said Harris. “It’s an incredible opportunity to encounter people at their work and let them know we’re here to support and listen to them.”

With only two years left of theology, Harris will become a deacon in 2019, then a priest in 2020. After he is ordained he will reappoint in the reserves as a Catholic chaplain.

Although his ultimate goal is to become a priest, he plans on returning to active duty in 2023 when he is eligible through the Chaplain Candidate Program.

“I want to let people know that the Air Force cares,” said Harris. “Whether you’re religious or not, the chaplain corps does a great job in helping those in need.”

The road is long, but the path keeps leading him to the light. With determination by his side, he knows he will make it through.