By Army Spc. Tawny SchmitJune 2, 2017
JOHNSTON, Iowa -- Army Chaplain (Capt.) Steven De Haan, with the Iowa Army National Guard's 1034th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, was driving to drill at Camp Dodge early one Saturday morning when he received a call that would lead him to one of the toughest moments of his career.
The phone call informed him of the death of a soldier's spouse, and De Haan was asked to be there when the soldier was notified.
Over the years, he's learned to handle those tough situations with silence.
"As a chaplain, most of the time, I let soldiers cry," he said. "I give them space to grieve. Most of the time, words, when you're grieving like that, aren't very helpful."
De Haan joined the Army in 2001 as a mechanic, and spent 11 years in maintenance. However, he said God had a different plan for him, which revealed itself when people started telling him he acted more like a chaplain than a sergeant.
They were right.
In October 2012, De Haan finished the required training and received an appointment as an Army chaplain.
"I like turning wrenches, but as you get higher in rank, you get to push papers, not wrenches," he said. "So instead of fixing trucks, I'm pointing toward the one who can fix souls."
The experiences and skills De Haan developed in the military have a unique fit in the civilian community as well.
In 2016, he became a civilian pastor at Hope Reform Church in George, Iowa, where many of his followers have long family histories of military service.
"A lot of them really care about Soldiers because they were once Soldiers themselves, or they had family who were service members," De Haan explained. "They see it as me helping Soldiers, and that's worth it for them."
"That kind of patriotism followed generation after generation," De Haan said, referring to the members of his church.
Due in part to that patriotism, his followers have been very supportive of his Army duty, he said. His Army commitment requires him to be gone for one weekend each month for drill and a few weeks each year for annual training.
PUTTING OTHERS FIRST
De Haan is currently conducting a three-week rotation at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. Each Sunday, De Haan and Army Pfc. Grant Denham, a chaplain assistant, offer a religious service for soldiers in the field.
Denham said he has only known De Haan for a short time, but has found him to be a humble man who is willing to put others before himself.
"Everybody puts on a giant smile when they see him," Denham said. "Everybody loves him."
One Soldier who attended De Haan's first service at NTC said she believes it's paramount for the Army to have chaplains like him.
"They say the noncommissioned officer corps is the backbone of the Army, but I think the chaplains are as well," said Sgt. Jennifer Pendergrass, a motor transport operator with the Nevada Army National Guard's 1859th Transportation Company.
Pendergrass has deployed four times. She said being overseas or in the field can be extremely stressful, but some of the fondest memories from her deployments are of chaplains helping her and her fellow Soldiers before convoy trips.
The Soldiers would stand in a circle, hold hands and bow their heads as the chaplain said prayers, Pendergrass said.
"Those chaplains' words had a huge effect," she said. "We headed out that gate with smiles as they handed out lollipops and gave us hugs if we needed them."
As tears rolled down her cheeks, Pendergrass said it's important to take a moment when you're at your peak, with fatigue and stress, to take a knee and ask God for extra strength and peace.
De Haan can relate.
"That's where I found my faith roots have to grow deep and cling to God, because he's the source of all our strength," De Haan said. "If I just relied on my own strength, I would falter."
De Haan recognizes, however, that faith is not the main focus for many Soldiers.
"It's not something they desire, and that's fine," he said. "In the chaplaincy, we're here to ensure the free exercise of religion, not to force it on anybody."
He said 60 percent of Soldiers list no religious preference. While this poses its challenges, De Haan said it's not his purpose to convert anyone. He aims to help them find a walk of faith, or help them along the one they're already on, if they so desire.
De Haan said it's common for Soldiers to seek out the chaplain for family-related problems. Coming from a broken family himself, those issues hit close to his heart, so he does everything he can to help Soldiers and their children avoid experiencing what he did. This can be taxing as an Army chaplain, because he's often limited to seeing Soldiers in their more difficult times, and misses out on walking beside them in the good times.
Sometimes, however, it's during the good times.
Annual training at Fort McCoy, Wis., with Soldiers from the 1034th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion was a blast, De Haan said. Army Maj. Gavin Sandvig, Iowa's Recruiting and Retention Battalion executive officer, encouraged the chaplains and Soldiers to get to know each other by playing cribbage at night.
During the annual training, De Haan described how he spent long nights talking to the troops about all aspects of life -- whether excitement about starting a family, or more difficult situations like struggles with alcoholism.
"It was a good group of soldiers," he recalled. "I remember one day just thinking, 'Yes. This is why I chose to be a chaplain.' I love my job."
Through all the ups and downs, De Haan said the best part about being an Army chaplain is talking to soldiers about their lives to see how they're doing. Despite the difficulties, it's moments like the phone call he experienced three years ago that makes his job worth it.
"I deeply care about the soldiers," he said. "I'll cry with you, I'll laugh with you, and at the end of the day, I'm glad God gave me this job."