JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. –
Growing up in Colombia, South America, Father Gildardo Garcia always knew he wanted to be a priest, but he never imagined where his chosen path would lead. After several years in the priesthood in Colombia, he made a decision that would change his life and ultimately take him from South America to the United States, the U.S. Air Force and now Joint Base Charleston as a civilian priest.
"In 1995, at 34 years old, I decided to move to the United States. I served several Catholic communities for the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.," Garcia said. "It was a great opportunity. I was able to learn English while serving the church."
Four years later, Garcia learned the Air Force was desperately seeking Catholic chaplains. Although the thought of ministering to Airmen around the world was enticing, he decided the timing just wasn't right.
"It seemed like an exciting opportunity," Garcia said. "But I still had things to do before I could consider joining the Air Force. I felt my command of the English language was not quite good enough and I still had to become a United States citizen."
So he worked on his English and he did indeed become a U.S. citizen. And two years later, true to his word, he joined the Air Force as a Catholic chaplain.
His Air Force resume reads like a world almanac. During his time on active duty, he was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., Lakenheath, England and Dyess AFB, Texas, and has deployed to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Afghanistan and Kurdistan.
But, after almost nine years on active duty, Garcia decided he needed a change. So for personal and professional reasons, he decided to leave the Air Force. As coincidence or fate or perhaps a turn of plain old luck would have it, a civilian position opened for a Catholic priest at JB CHS.
"One out of every four Airmen claims to be Catholic," Garcia said. "The Air Force still needs Catholic chaplains, so when this position became available, it was a perfect fit.
"Whether I'm in uniform or civilian clothes, I am here to provide for people's pastoral and spiritual needs and to allow people to exercise their religious freedoms. I want to help you find what you need to practice your faith."
Chaplain (Maj.) Nelson Arroyo, JB CHS deputy wing chaplain said, "I am thrilled to have Father Garcia as our newest member of the JB CHS Chapel staff. His experience during the past nine years as an active duty chaplain at various bases and his experience with warrior care during five deployments, promise to make him a fantastic resource for caring for the precious people we serve."
Since arriving here almost two months ago, Garcia has already added additional Catholic services to the Chapel schedule, and now provides five services during the weekend.
"I'm also exploring the possibilities of beginning a Bible study class," Garcia said. "Additionally, I'm working very hard on building relationships with the local Catholic churches in the community."
As for the future, Garcia is exploring the possibility of joining the Air Force Reserve, but for now, he is perfectly content to spend time exploring his new home. The thing he is most impressed with: the hospitality he has received since arriving in Charleston.
"The people are very friendly here and I love all the opportunities for outdoor recreation," Garcia said. "I'm really excited about being here and serving the people of this wonderful base."