Lieutenant Colonel Leah Boling braves conflict zones like soldiers. But unlike soldiers, she’s not armed with bullets but with words of worship and encouragement.
Born and raised in Davao, Boling is the first female chaplain of the 154th Wing of Hawaii’s Air National Guard.
Chaplains are non-denominational clerics or spiritual representatives attached to secular institutions like hospitals, prisons, schools, and the military.
Military chaplains like Boling serve as sources of comfort and inspiration for soldiers who are deployed to conflict zones and are separated from their families for long periods of time. They help boost morale and contribute to the sound mental health of soldiers.
“It (spiritual support) is very important; it's an important component of a total person. Even for the atheist ang agnostics and those who don't believe. And chaplains are open to anybody. Believers or nonbelievers,” Boling said.
A dream come true
Boling grew up to be very religious. After graduating from the Holy Cross of Davao College, she received the calling to go to the seminary and become a minister.
As a Southern Baptist, she went to Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. There, she learned that women can’t be ordained as ministers in the Philippines but she resolved not to allow this to hinder her dream. Boling said she really “wanted to marry, bury, christen, and baptize” people.
She went on an internship at the Makati Medical Center as part of her Clinical Pastoral Education, a requirement for her seminary degree. During her internship, she found out that the United States was looking for chaplains, particulary Asians.
Soon after graduating, she applied and was accepted as a chaplain at the Queens Medical Center in Hawaii. It was also in the US where she met her husband, a member of the US Air Force.
It was only after the 9/11 terror attack on the US that she felt the need to become a military chaplain, a path that not many women take.
"When I saw that there was so much pain that our soldier members were experiencing, and that they were in need of chaplains – that was what really led me to want to serve. Patriotism plus the calling. That's how I looked at it," she said.
A unique job
While military chaplains represent church organizations, they are not allowed to proselytize. There are military chaplains from different religions but they provide spiritual support and ministry even to those with different beliefs.
A Southern Baptist like Boling wouldn’t be able to perform the rituals of other faiths, but problems involving marital and financial concerns, among others, affect everyone, regardless of one's religion. Boling is able to connect with and help people of different faiths by focusing on their problems.
Another unique component of her job is that she does not need to be in a church to provide her ministries. "I can be in a hangar, or opisina, nagbibisita (or in the office, visiting). I can bring the church to them; I can have that representation of God."
But that also means being deployed to conflict zones like other members of the armed services.
One experience she shared was being deployed as a young captain to Zamboanga in support of the Joint Special Operations Task Force. Boling went to places that even the locals wouldn’t go to. “The hair at the back of my neck stood up the whole time….I was thinking that we can be shot anytime.”
But to be there and provide spiritual support not only to the soldiers but to local communities was worth it, she said.
The biggest challenge, she said, is not being deployed in conflict zones but constantly facing human suffering.
"You need to be prepared [for human suffering]. Thankfully, you are prepared to handle those in the seminary. Just be there, knowing that it's not about you but the other person, the service member,” she said, relaying her advice to those who wish to take the same path.
Military chaplains serve as counselors to soldiers, helping them deal with all kinds of problems. Boling has a license in marriage and family therapy and holds a professional counselor license.
The most common problem of soldiers, she said, are marital issues.
"Most of my counseling is centered on marital problems. It doesn't matter if they've been married a year or over 20 years. I even had one who'd only been married for a month and already came to me for marital problems," Boling said.
Other problems confronting soldiers include substance abuse, loneliness due to separation from their families, and even suicidal tendencies.
On February 16, Boling found herself back in her home country upon the invitation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to share her expertise to Filipino chaplains.
Chaplains from the US Armed Services, including Boling, and the AFP met Thursday at the Shrine of St Therese for a professional and spiritual workshop on caring for persons with substance abuse addiction. The event, “Preventing and Addressing Alcohol and Drug Problems,” offered the chaplains an opportunity to share best practices in substance abuse prevention, treatment, and recovery.
Boling helped train AFP chaplains on how to prevent and provide treatment for drug problems in the military. It was her first time sharing her experiences to Filipino chaplains.
"Filipino chaplains are great from top down; they were wonderful. Several of them approached me after saying they can’t wait to bring the information they’ve learned to their units,” she said.
More women chaplains
Boling has broken barriers by serving as the first woman chaplain of Hawaii’s 154th Wing. "I really thought when I joined that it would be challenge, but lo and behold, hindi talaga (not really). I was well received by both Filipinos and American service members, as well as other people. They were very welcoming,” she shared.
During her Manila visit, she learned that there are no women chaplains in the AFP and used the opportunity to invite Filipinas to take the same unique career path.
“It’s not about being male or female. If you're a caring person and if they're in a deep problem, they don't care what gender you are. They just want somebody to look them in the eye and say, 'Is there hope for me?'” she said.
Boling added that being Filipino also helped her succeed. "I am able to use the good parts of our culture, like when we introduce each other, right? We say, 'Taga-saan ka? Oh, ganoon ba? (Where are you from? Oh, is that so?)' like you've known the person forever. So I try to bring that in…and make a connection.”
Overall, to be a good chaplain, you just have to be a nice person, according to Boling. “Be kind, be gentle and generous, and be patient, and have lots of understanding. Don't be judgmental. Think of qualities that you want in a friend.” – Rappler.com
Don Kevin Hapal is Rappler’s Head of Data and Innovation. He started at Rappler as a digital communications specialist, then went on to lead Rappler’s Balikbayan section for overseas Filipinos. He was introduced to data journalism while writing and researching about social media, disinformation, and propaganda.