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Airman answers higher calling

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Veronica Aceveda
  • 512th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
What would prompt a 16-year enlisted Airman to get out of the Regular Air Force unexpectedly? For one 512th Airlift Wing reservist, it was a calling from God.

Chaplain (1st Lt.) Kim Willis began her military career in supply and later as a mental health technician. Her life-altering moment happened when she was serving at an Army installation in Kuwait. Part of her job in mental health was to see everyone coming in, going home and forward deploying.

She said she became actively involved with the chapel there. A Navy chaplain suggested she consider becoming ordained.

"Having come from a family of ministers, I knew most of my life I was supposed to do something in the church, but I never really wanted the responsibility," said Chaplain Willis, a Milwaukee, Wis., native and mother to three younger siblings.

Even though she scoffed at the suggestion from the naval officer, she said it stayed heavy on her mind.

"I couldn't rest or sleep," she said. "I didn't have any peace until that one early morning. I was crossing a field when I saw a formation getting ready to convoy to Iraq. As I got closer, a lot of them seemed like babies - how young I thought. I looked at them again, and I knew ... how dare I not do what God's been asking me to do."

From there, the technical sergeant who had tested and made the next promotion cycle for master sergeant, left the service to pursue a masters degree at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C. During her last year in school, she joined the Air Force's chaplain candidate program and was originally assigned at Robins AFB, Ga.

How she came to Dover's Liberty Wing, she said was largely due to retired Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Groth, the 512th Airlift Wing's former chaplain.

She met him in 2007, when she performed a site visit at Dover AFB.

"I'm always on the lookout for chaplain talent," said the retired chaplain. "I don't want chaplains to be their best; I want them to be the best. I could see Chaplain Willis had what it takes to be one of the best chaplains, just like when I hired Chaplains Ball and Kelleher. I could see that she was humbly bold, meaning she would be passionately present amongst the troops with fierce servant hood and tenacious leadership."

She joined the wing in January 2009.

"What I like most about being a chaplain is being able to be present and available," said Chaplain Willis. "Whether it's marriages, baptisms, funerals or invocations, it's about inviting the presence of the holy into whatever gathering."

Currently a resident of Norfolk, Va., she recently started a new civilian job at the Veterans Administration in Hampton, Va., where she's the supervisor in training for clinical pastoral education. CPE is a program, which trains chaplains, generally in a hospital setting, but can also be for other places.

"It's a complete emersion into whatever setting you'll be in, for example, doing hospital visits and hospice," she said. "This program really helps you learn what your strengths and talents are."

Professionally, she said her goal is to become a CPE supervisor, so she can help prepare other chaplains for their next role.

Personally, it wasn't too long ago she fulfilled a goal, which was 15 years in the making.

While stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy, in 1993, she said she really wanted to skydive but decided to give parasailing a try first.

"Circumstances found my 'would-be' instructor in a body cast from a paragliding accident," she said. "That changed my mind."

Later, on a deployment in Germany, she and a group of friends were going to go skydiving until an intelligence officer suggested they not use that particular company, she said.

Chaplain Willis actually put down a deposit on a skydiving trip in 1998 while on temporary assignment to Monterey, Calif., but the weather was overcast.

"I was really disappointed," she said, "but I knew it was going to happen someday. I just didn't know when. I did wonder, however, if God was trying to tell me something, and I just wasn't getting it."

Then she turned 35 and was going to celebrate with a jump, but one of her friends told her mother, who started crying, so she didn't go.

Finally, in July 2008, she performed a tandem jump in Virginia. For this trip, she said she didn't tell anyone except the friend who was jumping with her.

"Because of the build-up to this moment, I wasn't nervous," said the chaplain who would be jumping out of an aircraft attached to a more experienced skydiver. "I was trying to not be overly excited, 'more cool-like,' but I was terribly excited."

As the airplane began to reach the necessary altitude for the jump, Chaplain Willis said her heart started to beat faster yet, when she looked outside and saw the clouds, it was really calming to her.

"At the jump zone, we did a rocking motion, counted to three and jumped. It was awesome," she said. "It was like stepping into nothing, but everything. People think it's like a roller coaster sinking feeling, but it's not. It's as if God has you in his hand and is gently bringing you down."

"The only thing that was jarring was when the parachute opened; it jerked you backwards," she added.

Since that first jump last year, Chaplain Willis has surpassed the tandem stage and has jumped on her own about five times and has no plans to stop in the future.

"I actually want to do acrobatics," she said. "I'm far from that, but that's my goal."

As for her family, especially her mother, she said they pray a lot and jokingly refer to her as an adrenaline junkie. She likes to ride fast motorcycles, too.

From her days as an enlisted Airman to her calling from God, Chaplain Willis' life has been a journey of change, and she can relate to many about-facing challenges. She reminds Airmen to always remember to seek out help if needed.

"I encourage you to come see the chapel team because life happens, and we're here," she said.