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Team helping troops deal with stress, grief

Published: 10:55AM November 1st, 2012
Team helping troops deal with stress, grief

Sgt. Christopher McCullough

Chaplain (Capt.) Yoonhwan Kim (left) delivers a sermon at Protestant services for Apache Company, 1-23 Inf. at Combat Outpost Mushan, April 30.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE MASUM GHAR, Afghanistan – While the number of U.S. casualties in 2012 has decreased dramatically, even one death of a friend or comrade can be traumatic to a Soldier. That is why unit ministry teams are so important to the Soldiers on the ground.

These two-person teams usually consist of at least one chaplain and one chaplain assistant whose primary duties involve planning, providing and performing religious-support operations. One of their most important duties is to act as grief counselors to Soldiers following a traumatic event. One such team is the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment “Tomahawks” UMT, overseen by Chaplain (Capt. )Yoonhwan Kim.

“Because of the very kinetic nature of this particular tour, we have focused a lot of our ministry on counseling, conducting critical event briefings and helping Soldiers deal with combat-related stress and grief,” Kim said.

Kim’s assistant, Sgt. Courtney Hickman, helps ensure Kim is where he needs to be when he needs to be there. In addition to coordinating their movements via ground or by air, Hickman also takes care of the chaplain’s welfare outside the wire, where the chaplain is considered a noncombatant.

“When we go outside the wire, on patrols, he keeps me in check,” Kim said. “He makes sure I don’t do anything foolish that would put someone at risk. He’s my personal PSD (personal security detachment).”

The Tomahawks are in the horn of Panjwa’i District in southeast Afghanistan, considered the birthplace of the Taliban. Panjwa’i has been a traditional Taliban stronghold and is volatile. That is why Kim feels it is their UMT’s duty to be there for the Soldiers — especially following a traumatic event — before they even realize they need the team.

Hickman, who was an ordained minister prior to entering the Army, assists Kim with grief counseling when the need arises. His background has enabled him to be an asset not only to the UMT, but to the line companies and the Tomahawk Battalion.

“Sergeant Hickman is an extremely mature individual,” Kim said. “Emotionally, he has great depth. He’s a great counselor. He counsels Soldiers apart from me, just independently.”

When asked about this, Hickman proved he is a modest man who cares little about being in the spotlight. He explained that his role is to be the chaplain assistant and make sure the chaplain is taken care of.

“I just kind of bring that ‘extra round’ in my pocket being a minister,” Hickman humbly stated.

Kim brings his own ‘extra rounds’ to the fight. Prior to joining the Army at 38, he was a minister for 15 years. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. As a pastor, Kim said he did a lot of counseling: marriage, kids and family issues in addition to spiritual concerns. He believes those experiences have helped him prepare for dealing with Soldiers now.

“Having had that background with the church, and being a counselor working with families and married couples, it gave me that experience, that knowledge, to work with our Soldiers and help the best I can,” Kim said. “I also have a degree in counseling and so we’ve been focusing a lot of our time and energy on counseling Soldiers ... because a lot of guys have lost their buddies ... and they have a lot of stuff they’re dealing with, so we make ourselves available.”

Kim and Hickman both come to 1-23 Inf. with notable resumes. They also understand one another, which enables them to work together better and benefits not only their UMT, but the Soldiers they serve.

“Sometimes I think chaplains and chaplain assistants get together and they don’t learn (about) each other well enough,” Hickman said. “I think that’s made (Chaplain Kim and me) stronger because we know each other. I call it the yo-yo effect. He knows when to throw me out there in a sense. I know when to back off and he’s able to flow in.”

As the Tomahawks’ deployment draws down, Kim and Hickman’s job is far from over. Once they get back to home station at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, they will be busier than ever as Soldiers unwind, decompress and begin to heal over the next year. Kim admits the Army workload is heavier than anything he ever did during his 15 years as a minister, but that he is glad to help Soldiers.

“The stresses (of a deployment) affect everybody regardless of their rank or how long they’ve been in the Army,” Kim said. “I’m just glad Sgt. Hickman and I are here to support our Soldiers and their Families.”