GRAFENWOEHR, Germany – For one Ukrainian-American chaplain, his path to serving a higher calling all began with a lucky shot in a lottery.
Maryland Air National Guard Chaplain (Capt.) Vladimir Steliac, assigned to 175th Wing, currently serves as a chaplain for the Air National Guard Readiness Center at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.
In 1997, Steliac immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine after winning an American green card lottery, which selected 10,000 winners across various European countries to immigrate to the U.S., offering a unique opportunity at citizenship. After five years of continued good conduct in America, he was happy to be awarded full citizenship in his new home. But his life, and America itself, would soon be changed forever.
Steliac began serving at St. Andrew Cathedral in Silver Spring, Maryland, a Ukrainian-Orthodox parish, in 2001. After 9/11, and the resulting U.S. military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he volunteered for military chaplaincy service, especially to help combat military suicides.
“I thought, ‘why can’t I, myself, not get involved and help?’” said Steliac. “Because this was my new country, this was my new world, and I wanted to support it.”
Due to the Army National Guard’s 15-month-long deployment cycles, he realized his bishop would not agree to him leaving his large civilian parish community for such a long time.
“That basically was the end of my hopes and dreams to be a military chaplain,” said Steliac.
But he didn’t give up and consulted with the Maryland Army National Guard’s chaplain at the time, Chaplain Sean Lee, about other ways to support his country as a military chaplain.
“Chaplain Lee at that time said, ‘If you really want to help and serve, we do have a state defense force and you can serve there in uniform. You are fully integrated as a chaplain and you can provide chaplain support to Maryland National Guard as a chaplain,’” Steliac continued. “The only caveat was that I would be a volunteer, and that I will not be paid. No benefits, no nothing.”
“My goal was to help, so I said, ‘Of course’”, said Steliac.
Steliac would devote the next 12 years providing voluntary chaplain support through the Maryland Defense Force, often working with the Maryland National Guard.
Eventually, based on the shorter deployment cycles of the Air Force, Steliac made the switch from the state’s defense force to Air National Guard and joined the 175th Wing in Maryland, where he serves to this day, leading to his current assignment.
This May, Steliac was requested to come to 7th Army Training Command’s (7ATC) Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany, to serve as an interpreter and cultural/religious advisor for a newly-created 14-day Armed Forces of Ukraine Chaplain Training Course alongside a multinational group of chaplains from countries including Ukraine, Belgium, Holland, and the United Kingdom. The intent of the course is to advise and provide formal education to Ukrainian chaplains on U.S. and NATO chaplaincy procedures.
“It is always wonderful to be part of working with the Army,” said Steliac, “And seeing the abilities to be one strong, effective, ready force - that is wonderful, particularly for me. It was pleasant to see chaplains from other countries in Europe because we got to talk and share and have lunch and see different experiences.”
“You feel part of something great or something bigger than you,” he said. “It's a great feeling.”
Serving a higher purpose is nothing unusual for a military chaplain. Steliac believes that the chaplain’s role is essential to military readiness in any mission.
“There's no such thing as readiness without spiritual and metaphysical and moral and ethical readiness,” said Steliac. “If those things are not ready - you can be as skilled as you want; if your mind will not be fully alert and fully engaged and you're not committed to do what you are asked to in the front lines, where things are rather complicated and fast and dramatic - things may go sideways. We in the military do not like to go into some kind of military engagement and fail on a battlefield. We will always like to have things ready ahead of that engagement.”
Nowhere in the world is the need for readiness more relevant than in Steliac’s original home country of Ukraine, which has been at war since Russia’s military invaded its borders on Feb. 24, 2022.
“It saddens me greatly that they had to experience so much death,” said Steliac. “So much trauma, so much tragedy, so much difficulty in the 21st century. This should not happen.”
“Even if they weren’t Ukrainians, which they are close to my heart, I would still be saddened and dismayed by what Ukraine had to go through for absolutely no reason at all and be part of this diabolical and unprovoked war,” he said. “So that is the sad part, but we remain hopeful. We remain steadfast in our support. We will continue to pray for them as chaplains and as individuals.”
In spite of the war that necessitated the creation of this chaplain’s course, Steliac has been able to make connections with Ukrainian chaplains that he would not have been able to otherwise.
“It is joyful because I get to train and be with Ukrainian chaplains,” said Steliac. “There are many Orthodox priests, which I am as well, so we have a lot of commonalities. We serve the same liturgy and we share the same traditions and customs. So you can imagine, it is very close to my heart.
“Coming from war, I was expecting to see them tired, to see them exhausted because they have, in a way, came from hell to come here to train,” he said. “Yet I see them active. I see them highly intelligent, highly prepared; I see them very proactive in the classroom. I can only marvel at their level of dedication.”
“Another positive,” Steliac continued, “is that we brought them here to Germany to train them, but they brought with them so much combat experience as chaplains because they served as volunteers for years.”
”They brought that experience which we, the U.S. chaplains, do not have to that degree,” he said. “Yet what we had, that we could share [are] our experiences, our structure, how we deal with commanders with issues on strategic, operational, and tactical levels – everything that a total force will bring, we try to share with them at the end of this training.”
“Potentially, they could be the best chaplains in Europe,” Steliac said.
The 7ATC-hosted Chaplains’ training class was created from a range of multinational organizations including U.S. European Command, U.S. Army Europe and Africa (USAREUR-AF), Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine, Security Assistance Group – Ukraine, along with the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s Chief of Military Chaplain Service. It is also the first course of its kind.
By integrating various military chaplain communities into one training format, the course not only teaches Ukrainian chaplains, whose official military chaplaincy service is still very young, but sets a new template for collaboration in training between the chaplaincies of various NATO and partner nations.
“They are chaplains, and it’s easy to see, too, that even without seeing the crosses that they wear, that they care about people,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Nathan McLean, 7ATC chaplain and course leader. “The fact that they are pastors came through and they applied the material that we gave them, which was wonderful to see.”
According to Chaplain (Col.) Jack Stumme, U.S. Army Europe and Africa chaplain and the course’s senior mentor, there is interest from the involved U.S., Ally and partner chaplaincies to create a new multinational Chaplaincy Center of Excellence within NATO in the future.
McLean believes that the success of this first international chaplain course not only serves as “the proof of concept” for the idea of a multinational Chaplaincy Center of Excellence, but helps the Ukrainian chaplains “learn how to fish.”
“That was our goal,” McLean continued, “that they would walk out of here not just having attended something, but learning how to do it for themselves.”
As for Steliac, the lessons learned from the two weeks he spent with the Ukrainian chaplains in Grafenwoehr will follow him to his unit, where he intends to put them to use.
“[They] cannot attain readiness without training, without getting exposed, without going and training with Ukrainian chaplains and seeing what combat chaplaincy looks like,” said Steliac. “Because today, if you want a laboratory of Ukrainian chaplaincy, it will be in Ukraine. Here that laboratory came to us, and I will be able to take that knowledge and augment our readiness, in the event of being called to serve.”