'Don't tell them you understand' - Chaplain's assistant shares his unique view of deployment cycles
January 30, 2013
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When it comes to helping Soldiers and Family Members in dealing with deployment cycles at Fort Drum, not many people can say they truly "understand."
An individual at Fort Drum who can, however, is in a good place to help.
Sgt. 1st Class Jeramiah Witt, senior installation chaplain's noncommissioned officer in charge, has not only deployed down range himself, but he also has been the son of a deployed parent, the spouse of a deployed Soldier and the father of twin girls whose mother deployed.
Since childhood, he has lived on the unpredictable seas of a military lifestyle, tossed from community to community, following his parents around the world to wherever the U.S. Air Force ordered them.
Witt was born in Rome, N.Y. At the time, his father, who retired as an officer many years later, was an enlisted airman stationed at Griffiss Air Force Base. His mother also served in the Air Force.
In 1991, then a high school sophomore in San Antonio, Witt and his two younger siblings were left alone with their father while their mother deployed for six months during Operation Desert Storm. He said the separation was difficult, as was redeployment, when she returned home and began reasserting her authority.
"As a teenager, I wasn't having it," Witt recalled. "I wanted to do my own thing."
Not only did he contest his mother's control, Witt said he defied both parents during the period of reintegration, even stipulating that he would rather go live with his grandparents than move from Texas to Boston, where his father had received orders to Hanscom Air Force Base.
"It probably took about six months for me to realize I wasn't going anywhere," he said. "That's when I changed, within myself, and things got easier."
Witt's change in attitude even led him to ruminate about becoming a priest. He said the sudden inspiration was tied to sermons he heard from the chaplain at Hanscom, a passionate man from the inner city who was known for getting out from behind the pulpit and locking eyes with parishioners as he walked about.
Witt's character took form in time. His Army career, which now spans 18 years and includes two deployments to Iraq, has reinforced his resilience.
But the 38-year-old father of young twin girls is quick to point out that he believes no station in military life is tougher than being the child of a deployed parent or being the spouse who stays home with the children while their Soldier is deployed.
"I've lived all three sides of that," he said. "I'd much rather deploy than do any of the other ones. I have learned such a respect for those spouses who do what they do. It is not easy by any stretch of the imagination.
"By the time my daughters had turned 5, they had already lived in six different houses."
Witt met his wife, Capt. Jodi Witt, currently the public affairs officer for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, while living in the same barracks at Fort Myer, Va. It was 1998. She was enlisted in the Air Force, working at the Pentagon and in the process of seeking a commission.
Witt bought her a pizza at the barracks and the two were immediately deep in conversation. Years later, she said she remembers anxiously waiting for their next chance to talk.
"His personality and wit captured me right away," she said.
But after two years of dating, orders came through for her to attend Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. Witt said he did not want to carry on a long-distance relationship and broke things off.
Once she was gone, however, he began experiencing intense headaches and sought medical attention. His doctor told him they were tension headaches, most likely from the breakup.
"That is how I knew she was the one," he said. "I asked her to marry me."
The two were married by a justice of the peace in Montgomery, Ala., just hours after she had received her commission.
"She is the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.
'Don't tell them that you understand'
Witt worked in administration before reclassifying to chaplain's assistant in 2004. He said religion had little to do with his career change. He really enjoyed helping people and wanted to work in a field where he could excel.
"I didn't want to stay in the administrative world; it didn't challenge me enough," he said. "I look at it as my career actually not getting started until I became a chaplain's assistant."
While attending the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School in Fort Jackson, S.C., Witt said he learned about liturgical items, vestments, confidentiality standards and how to treat people seeking help.
"One thing I took with me from school, and I have used all this time: If you haven't walked in those footsteps, don't tell them that you understand," he said. "You really don't understand what that person is going through if you haven't gone through it yourself."
After graduating, Witt reported to Fort Knox, Ky., where he served as the regimental NCOIC of the 16th Cavalry Regiment and later became fund manager at the Main Post Chapel on post.
After more than two years there, he was promoted to staff sergeant and received orders to Fort Benning, Ga., the same year that daughters Lauren and Keara were born in Louisville.
From Fort Benning, he deployed twice as brigade chaplain NCOIC with 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.
As a chaplain's assistant down range, Witt said it was important to first build a rapport with other Soldiers. He also said he needed to let them know he would be there for them no matter what.
"We don't come out and trust people right off the bat," he said. "One of things I have learned is that if you ask Soldiers what they do, they get excited about it. They want to tell you. So I asked questions."
Witt's most recent experience with multiple deployments was when his wife spent a year in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.
It was a hectic time for the Witts. Before his wife left for Afghanistan, Witt moved her and their 3-year-old daughters to Fort Drum so he could deploy to Iraq in October 2009 with 3rd Infantry Division. Jodi Witt then had to move their daughters to her parents' house in Arkansas in February 2010 so she could deploy the following month.
Witt redeployed to Fort Benning that summer, picked up his daughters in Arkansas three weeks later, moved them to Fort Drum by September 2010 and took care of them until his wife redeployed in March 2011.
"With the experiences I've gone through, there is not much now that shakes me a whole lot," he said. "I think those experiences help me to better relate to somebody a little easier and a little faster."
Jodi Witt emphasized her husband's generous nature. She said he is the type of person who intentionally finds opportunities to help his fellow man -- the first one to stop and help a stranded motorist on the side of the road, for instance.
"Jeramy is one of the most giving people I have ever met, both personally and professionally," she said.
After redeploying in 2010, Witt reported to Fort Drum and became the fund manager for a short time before taking over as the senior chaplain's NCOIC in 2011. His current boss, Chaplain (Col.) Darrell Thomsen Jr., Fort Drum's senior installation chaplain, arrived several months later.
As NCOIC, Witt said it takes a team effort to make Fort Drum's religious support services a success. His office is responsible for ensuring the smooth weekly operation of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services at all three chapels as well as the standard implementation of other religious programs.
A major effort Witt and Thomsen spearheaded last year at Fort Drum was to close the Main Post Chapel for 18 months for renovations. The major expansion project, which includes doubling the size of the MPC sanctuary, is expected to last through spring 2014.
Witt and other staff relocated MPC religious services to chapels on North Riva Ridge Loop and Po Valley Road. They also moved other religious programs, services and nearly a dozen administrative offices to a cluster of modular buildings in the 400 area of South Post.
Remarkably, Witt said religious support services and programs across post have continued without major disruption while attendance at worship services appears to be holding steady.
"We've done this transition undermanned," he said. "I'm three chaplain's assistants short. It has been a very challenging experience. But because of the team we have in place, it does not seem as bad as it could have been."
Witt said many agencies at Fort Drum partnered with his office during the transition, especially Public Works, Network Enterprise Center, and Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Drum.
"Every time we had something that we needed to help the transition run a little smoother, the support that we have received has been phenomenal," he said. "There was never anything that was a showstopper."
Witt said the team of religious support personnel at Fort Drum is second to none.
"I have been blessed to have phenomenal chaplain's assistants and NCOs who work with me," he said. "I have also had the opportunity to work with some great chaplains."
At the top of that list, Witt places his boss.
"He's one of those few chaplains that if he were to call me up down the road saying he needed a chaplain's assistant, I'd go in a heartbeat," Witt said of Thomsen. "I wouldn't ask where it was or what the job entailed. I'd just go."
Thomsen is quick to also offer praise for the work Witt accomplishes on a daily basis.
"Sgt. 1st Class Witt is the epitome of a humble 'servant leader,'" the colonel said. "I've personally watched him on numerous occasions selflessly sacrificing his time and resources to assist Soldiers at any grade and/or their Family Members with implementing measures to meet their immediate concerns and intentionally mentoring many to reach their potential in life by making wise choices.
"He is simply the best."
Maybe the best mark of a man comes from the words of his spouse with whom he shares his life every day. Witt's wife called him her "rock," the backbone of their marriage, and the "azimuth" that directs them both when times get tough.
"Throughout our years together, we have grown closer as a Family," she said. "And through both the good and hard times, Jeramy has always injected his sense of humor.
"I honestly believe his zest for life and the opportunity to make light of any intense situation or crossroad we have encountered has made our life together richer," she added. "This is evident when I see the smiles on our children."