Before joining the Army, Chaplain (Capt.) Azande Sasa spent years as a civilian minister with no aspirations of becoming a chaplain.
"It wasn't even in the realm of possibilities," said Sasa, 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion.
After having served 10 years on active duty, she can't imagine doing anything else.
An accomplished athlete and scholar, Sgt. Ahmad Schaffer had a scholarship for Mississippi State University. But instead of walking the college path others in his family had taken before him, Schaffer wanted something else. With virtually no knowledge of the military or ideas of available career fields, he met with an Army recruiter.
"I just said I wanted an MOS where I could help people and travel around the world, and he told me about chaplain assistants," said Schaffer, 202nd MI Bn.
Neither could have predicted their paths would cross at Fort Gordon and send them around the world doing what both are passionate about: ministering to others.
In the time Sasa and Schaffer have been serving as the battalion's UMT, they have developed numerous programs and events that center on the Chaplain Corps core competencies: Nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the fallen.
Given the intense operations tempo typical of an MI element, getting Soldiers all together at one time and place can be a challenge. Fortunately, Sasa and Schaffer enjoy challenges and look for ways to navigate them. Recently, they took advantage of an opportunity to conduct suicide intervention training in conjunction with regularly scheduled physical training.
"It's hard to make time for ACE (Ask, Care, Escort), but it's incredibly important, so we incorporated it at a time when everyone could be present," Sasa said.
One of Schaffer's favorite events had the battalion's Soldiers looking to the skies. During the 2017 total solar eclipse, the UMT invited everyone outside for devotional with pizza and glasses for everyone to participate in the historical event.
"We always look for creative ways to take an opportunity for ministry; everything can be an opportunity for ministry," Sasa said.
As important as training and events are to their mission, sometimes the least suspecting things wind up having a profound impact. A book collection housed in Sasa's office is an example of such a case.
"We had just gotten some books and then a couple days later, a Soldier walked in and said, 'That's the first I ever saw my faith group represented in a chaplain's office,'" Sasa explained.
It was a poignant moment for Schaffer, who up until that point did not fully grasp the importance of having a diverse book collection. As word spread about the book collection, traffic in and out of the office increased, opening up more opportunities to ministry.
"We want everyone to come in our office and feel like it's their home -- like they are welcome and they have a place to go," Sasa said.
Along with ministering to Soldiers on the home front, Sasa and Schaffer frequently deploy to support service members in some of the most dangerous and remote parts of the world.
For these reasons and many more, it should have come as no surprise they were recently recognized as one of the Army's top UMTs.
Sasa and Schaffer received Battalion Unit Ministry Team of the Year award for U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM). The two were formally recognized during an annual training event in Kingwood, West Virginia, where dozens of chaplains and religious affairs assistants were gathered.
Although surprised by the award, Sasa said none of it would have been possible without their battalion's support, adding that she felt blessed to be part of the "best team dynamic" she has ever had as a chaplain.
"It's always a challenge in a unit that is fast paced, that has a lot going on … to find a way to provide support and the training, so we try to work hard to make sure whatever we do is nested within the unit mission, because if it's not, then it's taking that out of their mission set, and that's not what we're here for -- but still providing meaningful religious and ministerial support," Sasa said. "Our command's support is phenomenal."
As they reflect on their accomplishments look ahead to what's on the horizon, neither have any regrets about joining the Army.
"I'm just proud that I'm doing what I've always wanted to do, which is taking care of people and traveling to do it," Schaffer said. "I've been so many places overseas … with care packages and stuff … I love motivating people."
Sasa added, "Never a day goes by that I am not amazed and surprised at what new way that I am called to serve and provide ministry."