JOHNSTON, Iowa – Two National Guard chaplains have become the first women to serve as state chaplains in their states and the country.
Lt. Col. Martha Kester will serve the Iowa National Guard, while Lt. Col. Heather Simon will serve the New Jersey National Guard.
Both Kester and Simon started on Oct. 1, allowing them to claim the title together. Chaplain (Col.) Laurence Bazer, deputy director of the National Guard Bureau Office of the Joint Chaplains, commended them for their achievement.
“These two women represent the best of our Guard and you could not have picked better individuals to lead their states,” said Bazer. “They’re going to bring their wisdom and experiences to help not just their states, but our entire Army Guard chaplaincy, to greater levels.”
Kester suspected taking the position might have historical implications but was pleasantly surprised when she realized she would share her achievement with Simon. They both began their journeys to become chaplains in 2007, with Kester earning her commission that year and Simon in 2010 after serving a decade in the medical corps.
“I’m thankful that both of us are going to be in this position because it’s hard to aspire to something you don’t see,” said Kester. “Now, the two of us did. Being in a male-dominated profession, you have to just stand up for yourself and go after your goals.”
Simon shared her enthusiasm.
“When I learned about Chaplain Kester, I was like, ‘Praise God,’” said Simon. “We have females in all roles in the Army, but somehow this has been missed, and we don’t mirror our troops. It’s an opportunity for us to bring a different flavor into the chaplaincy, a different style of leadership.”
Bazer was the first Jewish chaplain to become a state chaplain in Massachusetts and understands the gravity of being a trailblazer for others to follow. He said it would be important for Kester and Simon to be battle buddies and support each other as they navigate their new roles.
“Here at the National Guard Bureau, myself included, we are here to help them succeed,” said Bazer. “I’ve been in their shoes - to be this high-demand, low-density chaplain. It’s very important for the Guard to be able to say that our chaplaincy can look like our entire force.”
For Kester, taking the position means an unexpected return to her Iowa National Guard roots after serving as the deputy state chaplain in the Nebraska National Guard the past few years. She was a chaplain in the Iowa Guard for 13 years at various units and levels, including on a historic deployment to Afghanistan in 2010. Now, she feels like she’s “coming home.”
“I wanted to make sure I had served in every aspect of the Iowa Guard because when I first came in, my goal was to be the Iowa [National Guard] state chaplain,” said Kester. “When I went to Nebraska, I thought that goal was gone. Then Iowa’s senior leaders sought me out and they’ve put this trust in me to come back.”
When she’s not providing services for Soldiers on drill weekends, Kester serves as a rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Des Moines. Military chaplains have their own faith denominations but provide spiritual and emotional support to service members regardless of their background or religion.
Simon is endorsed by the Church of the Nazarene. While she doesn’t lead her own parish outside the military, she has a strong background in therapy and years of experience supporting Soldiers in various states. Most recently, she served as a chaplain in the Arkansas National Guard and as an instructor at the Professional Education Center in the state.
For Simon, being a safe person for Soldiers to confide in is the most important part of her job. It wasn’t long after she became a chaplain in 2010 that she knew she chose the right path. One drill weekend, a Soldier’s wife dropped him off at drill and was in a serious vehicle accident on her way home.
“She ended up passing, but it was holding her hand as we bid her goodbye, holding him in the intensive care unit, that I realized this is what I’m called for,” said Simon. “I’m here to pray for them, touch them, and bridge that gap between the Soldier and their unit.”
In that same year, Kester was deployed to Afghanistan. She described the deployment as a place where she felt a constant sense of purpose.
In combat environments, chaplains are trained to handle many difficult situations. They’re available to support Soldiers as they navigate being away from home and the danger they face each day. For Kester, that meant “going outside the wire” with Soldiers and being that comforting presence.
But the death of a Soldier is something you’re never fully prepared for. With one week left of the deployment, Sgt. 1st Class Terryl Pasker was killed in action during a patrol.
“I remember coming back from the ramp ceremony to send him home and talking to my roommates, and I just broke down,” said Kester. “I’d done countless funerals before, but I knew his story. He was an amazing believer, and he chose to come on the deployment when he could have gotten out of the Guard.”
These experiences are a harsh reality for chaplains across the Army and can build up over time. After returning from a deployment to Cuba, Simon said the hardest lesson she had to learn was how to step back and take care of herself.
“I came home exhausted and couldn’t help anyone in the state I was in,” said Simon. “I had to learn to say no and do better self-care, which allows me to serve others at my best.”
As they settle into their new roles, Kester and Simon will continue supporting Soldiers and mentoring chaplains from the unit level to the battalion level. Both chaplains are eager for to guide and learn from their colleagues.
Simon described the concept as “shepherding” – a chance to support other chaplains through training on the most current trends, building career plans and sending them to schools to build their professional development. It’s also an opportunity to let them know they’re “appreciated and loved” when they face personal challenges.
“There’s nothing better, nothing,” said Simon. “This is a dream, the best job there is in the Army. And I want other women to know that there is a place for them here, a future for them.”