By Mr. Eric Kowal (Picatinny)April 15, 2019
Shortly after the retirement of Chaplain, Lt. Col. Terrance Walsh, in December 2018, Lt. Col. Vernon Shackelford was welcomed to the Picatinny Arsenal community.
Shackelford's call for spiritual inclusion came early in life, and would lead him through many challenging experiences over the years.
"I grew up in Orlando, Florida," he said. "I lived there for most of my life and in Orlando there was a very large church that my family was involved in.
"Out of that experience, I felt a call into ministry. I felt that vocationally, that's what I needed to do. A lot of people talked with me, gave me the pros and cons of it, but at the end of the day, when I graduated from college, it was a natural step for me. Even back in junior high school, I felt that ministry was something that I would be very interested in."
After college graduation, Shackelford went to Seminary School in New Orleans. From there he went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"During that time I had an interesting experience," Shackelford said. "I worked during the week as an emergency room technician, so I actually started out in the medical field. I saw a different side to life than the traditional minister. That whole hospital side of life helped to push me toward helping people."
Shackelford then moved to Ohio where, he would work as a chaplain in an area hospital.
"During that time I was commissioned in the Army Reserve," he said. "It wasn't until my last year in seminary that I had met a Chaplain that had served in Operations Desert Storm/Shield, and basically he said, 'Here is what the Army Chaplain Corps is all about.' For me, that felt like a better fit. Army Chaplaincy was right for me. I never really saw myself in a traditional church setting."
Shackelford spent about 11 years in Reserve status while working both as a church minister and as a school teacher. The combat support hospital he was attached to was mobilized in 2003, and then received a deployment order.
"From that deployment experience, I transitioned onto active duty," Shackelford said.
"I went from a Reserve status, to Reserve on Active Duty, to Active Duty. I never went back to my civilian world after that. I just felt that was the niche I would be best suited for."
Shackelford now has 22-years of service under his belt with three combat deployments. His career is filled with many experiences that required him to provide counsel to troops as well as civilians and family members.
He was not present at Fort Hood when Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 and injured more than 30 people in 2009. Later, when Shackelford was assigned to Fort Hood, and as Hasan's trial played out years later, Shackelford was responsible for some of the counseling that occurred with family members and survivors.
"For an entire month my commander cut me loose and said 'Chap, you need to be over there with those families,'" Shackelford said.
"'This is how you can help them.'"
Several years later, a second shooting took place at Fort Hood. Shackelford was stationed there at the time and again, his experience would be beneficial.
"For me, having that medical background has helped. I have seen mass casualty. I have lost troops on convoys during deployment. Things are fast and furious during those times and you need to be prepared," he said.
The incoming Chaplain admits that he had not heard of Picatinny Arsenal before the Army had assigned him here. He realizes that his current environment is far different from many of the experiences he has grown accustomed to over the years.
"Pic-a-what?" he remembers asking himself when he got the call.
"You would think you are familiar with the whole Army collectively, but in this regard I wasn't."
He remembers being told, "We are going to send you to Picatinny because they need to rebuild their Protestant worship services."
Now, with two religious affairs specialists to support him, Shackelford is ready to deliver.
"I'm the Protestant Chaplain, and Protestant services will be my focus, but the Catholic community, and everybody that comes into the chapel here, my philosophy is 'Let's be collaborative' because there is strength in numbers in smaller congregation."
Shackelford has visions of eventually incorporating a praise and worship type of band into services, along with being engaged in community activities to help spread his word and keep the congregation growing.
"I want to see the Protestant worship have a sustaining capability so that when I leave the Protestant service is not going to die.
"One of my goals is to build relationships. I'm going to have office calls with a lot of the different directorates. Just to let them know who I am, where I am, where I can be found, and I hope I can help."
"I don't see any roadblocks," Shackelford said.
"I think people will see that I am sincere. I'm comfortable in talking with people. I think at the end of the day, when I leave and when Picatinny is in the rear-view mirror so to speak, I want people to remember the relationships we built."
Chaplain Shackelford's office is located inside the Old Forge Chapel on Navy Hill. Protestant worship services are held every Sunday at 10:30 a.m.