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NEWS | Jan. 11, 2012

God & War: Chaplain offers guidance in Iraq, VA hospital

By Airman 1st Class Tom Brading Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

From Department of Veteran Affairs hospital rooms to war-torn battlefields, Lt. Col. John Painter, 315th Airlift Wing chaplain, helps today's warriors at Joint Base Charleston and veterans at the VA medical center find peace in the disarray of combat and scars of war.

Often times, military families also need his help.

Five years ago, Painter, dressed in full service blues, steps out of a government vehicle in front of a small suburban home. He is accompanied by a medic and squadron commander. As the men approach the house, they notice an older gentleman outside laughing with his family and cooking burgers on the grill. The man's smile fades as he notices the men approaching him from the vehicle. The old man's hands begin visibly shaking and his eyes rim with tears.

The old man is a local father of a service member killed in a non-combative accident. He hasn't been told of his son's death. However, the tears in his eyes and look on his face speak volumes.

"Before anyone said a word, they already knew," said Painter. "We interrupted their family dinner to tell them their loved one had passed away."

To Painter, it is the hardest part of his job as a military chaplain.

However, Painter does multiple tasks in his role as a chaplain. Regardless of the religious denomination, Painter serves as an everyday spiritual needs adviser, providing religious consulting and assisting in guiding service members and their families throughout life's trials and tribulations.

Along with his duties as Wing Chaplain, Painter also works full-time as a Staff Chaplain at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C.

The medical center - named after Marine Pfc. Ralph H. Johnson, a Charleston native who posthumously received the Medal of Honor in March 1968 during the Vietnam War - is where Painter ministers services to many generations of service members.

Painter doesn't just offer guidance to past and present service members stateside, he has also deployed with them.

In September 2009, Painter volunteered for a five-month deployment to Ali Air Base, Iraq with the 407th Air Expeditionary Group. In doing so, he knew he wouldn't be able see his family during that holiday season or all of their birthdays. However, they supported his decision to go.

Painter's wife Stacey and he prayed about the decision, and she said, "We will miss you very much, but you need to be with the troops. They have committed to serve far away during the holidays, and we have to do our part."

According to Painter, a combat-zone is one of the most important places a chaplain's work is needed.

"I discussed ageless military deployment anxieties with service members while on assignment in Iraq; such as being away from home or the fear of dying," said Painter.

While deployed, Painter routinely led groups of Airmen, Sailors, and Soldiers outside the base's protective wire to the historical ziggurat of Ur, a 3,000 year old Sumerian structure in what was the city of Ur near Nasiriyah, in present-day Dhi Qar Province, Iraq.

The ziggurat, or temple, is the best preserved and most visible landmark of the ancient city of Ur and was built during the rule of King Ur-Nammu in the 21st century B.C. Ur is also the biblical birth place of the patriarch Abraham.

Prior to his arrival, the location was off-limits had been off limits. However, because of the historical significance of the location, Painter worked tirelessly with Army Chaplains assigned to nearby Camp Adder and local Iraqi authorities, for Americans to gain permission to the site. An agreement was met, but under one condition; Painter had to personally supervise every Air Force group that toured the ziggurat.

Painter went outside the wire into the Dhi Oar Province of Iraq countless times during his deployment to ensure all the service members who wanted to see the historical religious site had the opportunity to do so.

"Going to the city of Ur was incredibly rewarding," said Painter. "But, the real reward was sharing that once in a lifetime experience with all the Airmen, Soldiers and Sailors I was with."

Prior to re-deploying, Painter was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal by the Commander of the Navy detachment assigned to the base for his work in providing the service members with weekly worship services and to a lesser extent for the ziggurat visits.

After his assignment at Ali Air Base, Painter left the blazing sun of the Middle-East and returned to the lush greenery of JB Charleston - Air Base and the VA medical center.

"Being deployed cultivated my career," said Painter. "I have a deeper connection with the veterans at the medical clinic and those still in uniform."

Painter proudly wears his Iraq service pin above his VA medical center name tag. He is also honored to sit with Navy retirees that ask how he got his Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal.

"My military experience is a great ice breaker with VA patients," said Painter. "It's an instant connection."

Recently, Painter spoke with a retired World War II veteran shortly before the man passed away. They shared stories like war veterans often do about being deployed. Painter noticed the Army 1st Cavalry patch displayed at the man's bedside. Having worked with the 1st Cavalry in Iraq, Painter was able to use his experience to connect with the veteran. His deployment has given him a better understanding of the veterans he interacts with daily.

"It doesn't matter when you wore the military uniform," said Painter. "All service members share an instant connection because of their service. I witness it every day, from the veterans going to the VA medical clinic, to the young men and women at JB Charleston."

According to Painter, the legacy of the American military experience is woven into the fabric worn by the heroes he meets every day at the VA medical center. He notices that legacy has passed on and shines brightly with the young service members he meets at JB Charleston and while deployed.

"At the VA medical center, I get the privilege of helping the heroes that protected me when I was a child," said Painter. "When I'm in uniform, I get to help the heroes that protect my children today. It's a truly blessed job."