With his mission complete Chaplain Newton leaves the High Desert
January 5, 2011
Much like Nehemiah, who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C., Chaplain (Col.) Dennis Newton arrived at the National Training Center and Fort Irwin with a similar God-given task and almost three years later, his work is done as he heads to Fort Rucker, Ala.
"I volunteered to come back having been here before, because I knew no one else wanted to come here in my job," Chaplain Newton said as he took time to reflect on his tenure as the National Training Center and Fort Irwin post chaplain. "I thought this is a place that needs someone who wants to be here."
When Chaplain Newton arrived at Fort Irwin, there were significant challenges, but he said he knew he was ready to tackle them.
"When I arrived, I wanted to provide as much as we could afford," he said. "All we had was a small Protestant service of the generic nature."
Call for volunteers are answered
As he polled the community, Chaplain Newton said the decision was made to change the 11 a.m. service to a contemporary praise service, known as ChapelNext. But in order to accommodate those who have different flavors of Protestant services, the gospel service was made healthy and a traditional hymn service was established.
"We jumped from 70 people in attendance to 150 during the first week. Plus, we had 40 in the other service, so technically we went from 70 to 190 in the first week," he noted.
After that first service, Chaplain Newton asked for help in leading the worship service, which resulted in 10 people stepping forward to form the band for the ChapelNext service, and now that service averages 165 people during rotations and close to 200 when everyone is available.
Overall, the average number of people attending religious services on any given Sunday at Fort Irwin now nears 1,000, he said.
"You provide a place wherein they are comfortable. You provide a place that is spiritual," he said. "My job is easy. I find volunteers, recruit, and find out where people are gifted."
Getting the chapel offices in order
When it came to the chapel's administrative staff, Chaplain Newton credited former administrative support assistant Lori Piccard for helping get things off the ground because she saw where things were headed.
Now that Mrs. Piccard has moved on to become a casualty assistance officer, Chaplain Newton offered praise for Mrs. Piccard's successor, Mrs. Alma Smith, for stepping and bringing her own unique set of skills to the position.
"She is connected to the Hispanic community in ways that I am so blessed, and she's a translator, too," he said.
Unlike most other Army chaplains, Chaplain Newton was a Specialist 5 chaplain's assistant before becoming a chaplain.
Reaching out to different religious groups
"One of the things that makes me a little different is I'm the guy who is always looking for the next accommodation," he explained, as he spoke about the addition of the Naturalist and the Muslim services to the installation for those Soldiers and family members desiring them.
As he looked around, Chaplain Newton said finding Bruce O'Dell was key to developing the nature-based religious services on the installation.
Fort Irwin has more Muslim Soldiers than any other installation regardless of size, he said, noting that with the 51st Translator Interpreter Company, Muslim role players and contractors are an addition to the normal Muslim demographics in the Army.
"We have probably double what Fort Hood has, and once I thought about this, I got very serious about this," he said. "I've got the place and made the accommodation in the way the Army does when we have an accredited lay leader."
According the Fort Irwin Directorate of Human Resources Fort Irwin has about 100 Soldiers who list Islam as their religious preference.
Each day, Chaplain Newton said he looks around to see what else can be done without breaking the chapel's budget, which has led to the chapel taking on such projects as a post food pantry and the Women Infants and Children program to benefit the Fort Irwin and National Training Center community.
Without the strong volunteer force, none of those projects would be possible, he said, noting that last year, the chapel did more than 300 background checks and has a core group of about 200 active volunteers.
The chapel has become the heart of the Fort Irwin community as, on any given day, most post leaders can often be found there, especially on Sunday mornings during worship services, he said.
"Most Americans are religious in one way or another and probably about half of Americans actually go to church at one time during the year and the military is probably about the same percentage," he said.
Digging into desert lore
When he's not busy helping meet the installation's religious and spiritual needs, Chaplain Newton has found time to become a desert historian and learn the history of the area surrounding the National Training Center and Fort Irwin.
"I have invested in about 40 books from a guy named Dennis Casbier," he said. "He was a physicist who became a historian of the desert. He printed very limited edition books back in the 70s and 80s, and I've got them all."
One of the more interesting historical highlights of the Fort Irwin area is the Battle of Cady, he said.
"At the Battle of Cady, eight cavalry guys got scared when a Paiute Indian hunting party came through and the cavalry fired first," he said. "They should've let them go and they would've been alright."
Instead, a couple of cavalry Soldiers were killed wherein all that the Paiutes were doing was looking for some food to feed their families and not a fight, he said.
During his time at Fort Irwin, Chaplain Newton has driven the Mojave Road -- from the Colorado River to the tanks at the front gate, which is 170-plus miles of road with only five miles of pavement.
An undying fondness for Fort Irwin
When it comes to why he loves Fort Irwin so much, Chaplain Newton said, "It's the people, the place; it's mission."
The mission is important, but the quality of people is unlike anywhere else in the Army, he said, adding that the Soldiers here represent the future leadership of the Army.
"I'm living with 40-some of the lieutenant colonels who are the future leaders of the Army, and I just find this intellectually stimulating," he said. "I think it's awesome that we have the privilege of being able to associate with some of the folks."
As he prepares to leave the High Desert after the first of the year, Chaplain Newton said everything is ready for his successor, Lt. Col. Joseph Fleury, to take command as everything is back in place.
"I rebuilt and I think you're going to go farther," he said. "People are going to love him."