Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ralph Bieganek
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ralph Bieganek (Photo Credit: U.S. Army Official Photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

DETROIT ARSENAL, Mich. – Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ralph Bieganek signed into the U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command on the first of August. In the few months he’s been the command chaplain, he’s had the opportunity to find somewhat of a groove, despite the fact that most of the TACOM workforce he serves telecommute.

He is, by his admission, more of a hands-on, in-person, face-to-face kind of chaplain. It’s what he prefers, at least, as he gravitates toward favoring the telephone instead of email in his inter-personal communications.

He also sends hand-written notes to people. It’s a low-tech, high-touch way to better connect with people.

If he uses the Army’s newer Teams platform, he prefers those he’s conversing with have their cameras on. It’s all about connection for Bieganek.

Bieganek joined the Army nearly 40 years ago, starting his career in the Reserves in various enlisted positions, he said, working with radios, tanks and re-enlistments.

“I came into the Army that wore steel pots, ate C-rations and drove Jeeps,” he said. “I’m in a much different Army now. The best way to put it is I’ve had the privilege of two careers.”

The second career began in 1998 when he joined the active-duty ranks as an Army chaplain at Fort Knox. It was a career move that he probably wouldn’t have seen himself in earlier in his life.

“I usually tell people, ‘God has a sense of humor’. As a kid, I spent more time in taverns than in church. That's the honest truth.”

After a religious conversion experience, someone suggested that he consider training for ministry, so he attended and graduated from a small religious college in Michigan before completing four years of graduate work in Kentucky. At the time, he was still in the Reserves.

“That's when I first got to Fort Knox, by the way,” he said, referring to his Reserve duty station. In Kentucky, during his four years of graduate work, he had the opportunity to serve small churches and take part in ministry related to medical care including hospice.

After securing an endorsement from the Evangelical Church Alliance, he commissioned in the Chaplain Corps, his second Army career took him everywhere from Korea to Germany, several points in between and, eventually, back to Michigan – and TACOM.

The task of the TACOM command chaplain, Bieganek said, is far removed from his earlier days of serving mostly, if not exclusively, Soldiers.

“In my early days as a chaplain, the command needed me to primarily provide direct religious care to people who were asking for it. That was my ministry back then, whether (leading) services or (serving) people asking for counseling,” he said. “I'm not bragging, but the honest truth is, people would stand in a line outside my door. It was a strange thing to look out the door and see twenty people waiting to talk to me. That's what it was like working with privates at Fort Knox twenty-some years ago.”

“I would also attend meetings for the command, but almost all of what the command needed me to do was to care directly for Soldiers who were having difficulties functioning, who were very stressed-out in their adjustment to the Army.

“Now,” Bieganek said, “I work in a command that is, first of all, mostly civilian with many mature people, most of whom are not going through radical turbulence or change like coming into the Army and fresh from basic training.”

“My primary purpose at TACOM is to advise the command. The keyword,” he emphasized, “being advise. It’s part of Army doctrine.”

Bieganek noted that his advise-the-command role included such things as research on COVID-19 related issues regarding religious accommodation and the Army’s policy regarding transgender Soldiers.

“My primary function, really, is to advise the command on questions regarding religion, morals, and issues regarding vaccine requirements and how people are getting along. Those are things which fall to me as a chaplain.”

Bieganek also noted that he has traveled to some of the arsenals and depots, but has done so less than his predecessor. So far.

“I’ve done a lot more of my work telephonically,” he said, noting he was making arrangements to travel to Ohio for a visit to the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center – Lima. He also traveled to Watervliet Arsenal in December to conduct several refresher courses dealing with suicide prevention.

“I was offered the opportunity to teach the suicide intervention classes by Teams, and I politely declined,” the chaplain said. “I would rather teach the class five times a day to the point of exhaustion so that people could see me face to face and I could quickly change the class to adapt to the needs of the audience. A two-dimensional screen picture is not the same as being in the same room with somebody.”

When Chaplain Bieganek does travel, his back-up is Sgt. Kiana Wesley, the religious affairs non-commissioned officer assigned to the TACOM chaplain’s office.

“I'm so grateful for Sergeant Kiana Wesley,” Bieganek said, adding that she has garnered a great deal of trust and confidence within TACOM.

“She does a great job of stepping into meetings to represent the concerns that I would have if I had been there. In particular, she's done a great job at representing our core functions, at some places where I couldn't be. Additionally, she does a great job of being sensitive to and connecting with people from various backgrounds. If they have an issue or concern and they reach her first, they feel heard. They feel respected.”

Having a capable assistant has, no doubt, added to a successful transition to TACOM for Bieganek despite the dramatic difference in the overall workforce. One of his favorite things to do as an Army chaplain is to be around Soldiers, he said, leading worship in the field in remote and rugged conditions.

That’s tops on his list. If he could only mention two things, the other would be sharing his faith through music.

“I have found that songs are a very non-threatening way that I get to express my faith and other people get a chance to do what they want with it. It gives them freedom.”

Although Bieganek’s plans were to stay at Fort Knox until the end of 2022 and retire, those plans changed when the Army gave him new permanent change of station orders.

He is grateful, however, to be back in his adopted home state of Michigan. He added that his wife of 35 years, Carol, followed him all over the world out of her own sense of religious service, but, now back in her home state, is able to care for her elderly mother who lives a relatively short drive away in one of Michigan’s southernmost counties.

“At this stage in our lives,” the chaplain said, “it’s very neat to be back in Michigan.”