With academy flock, chaplain tends many faiths

Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Sawatsky is Navy Chaplain of the Year


Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly Sawatsky fills many roles as a Naval Academy chaplain.

She is one of the main religious advisers for more than 1,200 incoming freshmen, or plebes, during an arduous summer indoctrination period. She shares preaching responsibilities each Sunday for three congregations, performs weddings for academy alumni and brings in religious speakers to address the brigade.

But of all these duties, she most relishes being a spiritual and emotional counselor to sailors and Marines, a daunting responsibility that has allowed her to see the survival of struggling marriages and struggling warriors.

"We work with them, we play with them and we go to danger with them," Sawatsky said of those she helps. "You are literally there all the time. It's almost your business to be in their business, and it's an incredible opportunity to be part of their lives."

Sawatsky was recently named Navy Chaplain of the Year for 2006 by the Military Chaplains Association, the highest honor for a Navy chaplain. She was chosen from more than 500 chaplains serving in the fleet.

"Her extraordinary impact on this generation of young officers will ensure enduring positive leadership throughout our fleet," said Capt. Alan T. Baker, the senior chaplain at the academy, in a written statement. "Her broad involvement impacts all areas of midshipmen's moral and spiritual development."

The role of chaplain in the military can be peculiar for a deeply religious person, as chaplains are expected to hold services according to their own faith, while at the same time counseling people of all faiths. Chaplains are also responsible for carrying "Red Cross messages" to troops, telling them a loved one has died or may be dying.

In recent years, chaplains and other leaders at the U.S. Air Force Academy have been the subject of controversy because of accusations of bias and inappropriate proselytizing to non-Christians. In the aftermath of several task force studies and a federal lawsuit, that academy now requires cadets to go through religious sensitivity training.

Sawatsky, 41, said, "We don't have room for proselytizing as chaplains." Instead, she said, she ministers to midshipmen in about 20 different Protestant denominations and helps those of other faiths by asking them about their religion.

"I try to ask, `What does your faith tell you?' " she said. " `What does your faith tell you about this issue, and how does it tell you to handle this kind of situation?' "

She has been assigned to the academy since last summer. Before that, she served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, completed a tour in Okinawa, Japan, and served as a chaplain recruiter. Sawatsky began her active-duty ministry on the submarine tender USS McKee in 1995.

She was born in Calgary, Alberta, and grew up in Malaysia, moving to the United States in 1979. She graduated from Trinity Western University in Vancouver with a psychology degree and received a master's of divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., in 1994.

In 1991, she became an American citizen and was commissioned an ensign in the Navy.

Among the highlights of her career: working with Marines in Okinawa and witnessing "the incredible work they do every day," watching midshipmen go through the maturing process at the academy, being involved in a memorial service for Ronald Reagan while aboard the ship that bears his name, and reconnecting with people she has helped over the years.

"Every day, you have a great experience because of the places you go and the people you meet," she said. "At the end of a tour, sometimes you wonder what kind of difference you've made, and then someone will come up to you and say, `Remember how you talked to my wife and I, and things weren't going too well? Well, we're still married, and we've been doing a lot better.' It's amazing to see the growth people are going through and to know you've had some part in their life."bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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