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Warrior of hope: a chaplain's journey

Capt. Benjamin Quintanilla, 28th Bomb Wing chaplain, right, hands a cup of hot chocolate to Airman 1st Class Taylor Tschida, 28th Security Forces Squadron response force member, at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Jan. 7, 2016. Chaplains provide many services including unit engagement as a way to boost Airmen morale. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Denise M. Nevins/Released)

Capt. Benjamin Quintanilla, 28th Bomb Wing chaplain, right, hands a cup of hot chocolate to Airman 1st Class Taylor Tschida, 28th Security Forces Squadron response force member, at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Jan. 7, 2016. Chaplains provide many services including unit engagement as a way to boost Airmen morale. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Denise M. Nevins/Released)

Capt. Benjamin Quintanilla, 28th Bomb Wing chaplain, looks around the 28th Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordnance disposal training site at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Oct. 6, 2015. As a chaplain, Quintanilla visits squadrons to boost morale and meet with Airmen who may be having a rough time. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sadie Colbert/Released)

Capt. Benjamin Quintanilla, 28th Bomb Wing chaplain, looks around the 28th Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordnance disposal training site at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Oct. 6, 2015. As a chaplain, Quintanilla visits squadrons to boost morale and meet with Airmen who may be having a rough time. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sadie Colbert/Released)

Capt. Benjamin Quintanilla, 28th Bomb Wing chaplain, center, poses for a photo with orphans from the Watoto [Swahili for ‘children’] holistic care program in Uganda, Africa, Aug. 4, 2014. Quintanilla served as a missionary in Uganda for two years, caring for and rescuing orphaned and abandoned children before becoming an active duty Air Force chaplain. (Courtesy Photo)

Capt. Benjamin Quintanilla, 28th Bomb Wing chaplain, center, poses for a photo with orphans from the Watoto [Swahili for ‘children’] holistic care program in Uganda, Africa, Aug. 4, 2014. Quintanilla served as a missionary in Uganda for two years, caring for and rescuing orphaned and abandoned children before becoming an active duty Air Force chaplain. (Courtesy Photo)

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- It was a day that seemed like any other as he made his way out to the hangar for a counseling session with an Airman.

Upon arrival, he asked around to see if there was an office where they could speak privately, only to find there was none. But there was something that could be used: a golf cart.

"It was a unique experience for me," said Chap. (Capt.) Benjamin Quintanilla, 28th Bomb Wing chaplain. "In my normal pastoral setting, I would never get the chance to counsel somebody in that way while driving up and down the flightline as the jets are taking off."

Quintanilla and other chaplains in the Air Force are what the chapel corps likes to call "visible reminders of the holy." While everybody can see a chaplain in different ways, his goal is to bring hope to people and provide for the freedom of religion every day. However, Quintanilla didn't dive right into the military as a chaplain.

"When I was young, my dad was preparing to deploy for Operations Desert Shield and Storm, and I remember my school putting on this big appreciation day for all of the children of deploying [parents]," he said. "I felt so proud when they asked [us] to stand up."

It was then as a young first grader Quintanilla decided he wanted to serve his country one day, just like dad. As a 21-year-old college student, he remembered the decision made years ago.

"I thought to myself, I don't want to look back and regret not serving my country," he said.

Now he had to choose: does he join the military or stay at home and help his father pastor the church? Choosing to follow his heart, Quintanilla enlisted as an Air Force dental technician. But it was as a senior airman stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Quintanilla encountered a situation that would change his life.

"While in Germany I got to the opportunity to be an oral surgery technician," he said. "Once a month, we were put on-call, and this was during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. We were tasked with helping the oral surgeons take care of the troops that came back home injured. There was one case in particular near the end of my enlistment that really changed my plans."

Quintanilla mentioned he had plans to finish his degree in psychology, and then pursue his master's degree in counseling.

"As we were working on this one particular person [who had been in a blast], his brain activity was very low," he said. "The neurosurgeons came in then and informed us that his wife and daughter were in the air to come and see him before he passed away. After a while, we were told to stop operating because there was no brain activity. He was gone."

The experience shook Quintanilla to his foundation, but he did the one thing he could do: pray.

"It was then two things became apparent to me in that situation," he added. "One was I could pray for his family. Two, I could be there for them; I could be present with them."

In that moment, he knew what his future would be. Rather than getting out after his enlistment, he would become a chaplain.

"I felt like I was searching for the calling in my life, and after that situation, I finally found it," Quintanilla said.

Before becoming an active duty chaplain, however, he also served as a missionary.

"After I finished seminary, I became a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves for about two years," Quintanilla said. "I was also a part of the Individual Mobilization Augmenter program, so I would work one month out of the year to complete my duty days, then I went to Africa to serve as a missionary."

In Africa, he served with an organization called Watoto [Swahili for 'children'], a holistic care program rescuing orphaned children in Uganda.

"Many of the babies we rescued were found in pit [toilets] or even abandoned in bushes," he said as he pulled out his phone, showing a picture of a wide eyed baby, snuggling inside a onesie that was ginormous on their frail body. "One of the babies, however, was found by dogs. It was suspected that her father had been performing sacrifices, because one of her legs was almost completely burnt off."

After his missionary services, Quintanilla applied for an active duty chaplain position, for which he received the thumbs up and made the move to Ellsworth. He states his time while enlisted helps him understand the struggles and stressors many Airmen he counsels are going through, which in turn helps him be a better chaplain.

"Being a new active-duty chaplain, I was really blessed to have such a wonderful team to help mentor me along the way," Quintanilla said. "Everybody from the support staff and assistants to the chaplain staff really made the transition a smooth and enjoyable experience. I serve the young Airmen now the way I would serve my young airman-self."

In the end, Quintanilla strives to be the kind of leader that also serves.

"I like to think back to the story of Jesus and His disciples' right before He was going to die," he said. "Jesus removes the shoes from the disciples' feet, and begins washing their feet. He shows them in that moment what it means to be a servant leader, and I hope to be the best "foot-washer" that I can be. That just means that I want to serve people to the best of my ability, every day."