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From Vermont to Antartica (and Back)

By Julie Shea | 158th Fighter Wing | April 11, 2020

Vermont Air National Guard —

Ms. Julie Shea Interviews Chaplain Lee

Close to midnight on January 7, 2020, Chaplain Esther Lee arrived at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Chosen to be part of the support staff for Operation Deep Freeze (ODF), in her own words, Lee “hit the ground running” and met with military members and civilian workers in the brisk, sunny morning of January 8.

Assigned to the 158th Fighter Wing, Vermont Air National Guard, Chaplain Lee was stationed in Antarctica for nearly two months and provided services in the Chapel of the Snow for multiple denominations, including Protestants, Catholics and members of the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS), all from very diverse backgrounds in education, profession, race, ethnicity and region.

She also hosted Wednesday Night Spiritual Fitness and Mediation, attended Tai-Chi, celebrated the Chinese New Year and supported other community activities in order to provide a “Ministry of Presence” to the 1,200 service members, research scientists and civilians that are stationed there.

Initial Operation Deep Freeze operations began in 1956, and the mission currently features more than 100 buildings at the McMurdo Station, which is run by the United States Antarctic Program, part of the National Science Foundation. The New York Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing holds the sole responsibility for delivering personnel and supplies to the station, by way of 10 ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules’, the only aircraft of its kind in the world that can take off and land in the snowy and frozen conditions of the Arctic.

Upon her return to Vermont, Chaplain Lee spoke with the 158th Public Affairs office and discussed her Operation Deep Freeze experience.

Q - Thank you for your time. To start, please introduce yourself, where you are from and how long you’ve been a member of the Vermont Air National Guard.

A - My name is Chaplain Esther Lee, AFSC 52R3. I immigrated from South Korea with my family and became a member of the VTANG [Vermont Air National Guard] in 2007 until 2009, and then came back in 2012. I always wanted to join the military. My family used to live in the Lake George area in Upstate New York. I explored joining the Army first, but I didn’t like it. Instead, I joined the VTANG which was closer to home.

Q - Please briefly describe what Operation Deep Freeze is, where it occurs and how long you were there.

A - I chose to be a part of Support Staff for Operation Deep Freeze (ODF). I was chosen to be the chaplain for both military members and civilians for the duration of Dec. 31, 2019 to Feb. 22, 2020. Every year, three chaplains are chosen to be a part of Support Staff and our main work “station” is at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Prior to ODF, I had not participated in a deployment.

Q - How did you first hear about the opportunity to participate in Operation Deep Freeze?

A - I went to Deputy Wing Chaplain’s course and that’s where I heard about this mission.

Q - What were your primary duties there? Did you have a daily routine or was every day different?

A - I provided a variety or religious support: Sunday Service with communion, Wednesday night Spiritual Fitness and Meditation, pastoral care and counseling for military and civilian personnel, crisis intervention and response, and emergency response to causalities, accidents or incidents. I provided memorial services, small group meetings and programs, and kept access to the Chapel of the Snow open 24/7 for reflection and mediation.

I enjoyed worksite visitation and daily interaction with the nearly 1,200 population there, and had fun volunteering at the Galley Bakery. I provided moral and spiritual support to the Army, Navy and New Zealand Kiwis’ cargo handlers during offload and reload. I engaged with the Coast Guard’s Icebreaker crews and Ocean Giant crews. Towards the end of my time there, I had the opportunity to provide a Worship Service at the South Pole for 64 personnel.

Q - Tell us about the Chapel of the Snow. What was that like?

A - Acting as the “visible reminder of the Holy,” Lee explained that the Chapel of the Snow “continued to be utilized by many. It is a serene place where they can retreat from daily noise, drama, and stress.”

She continued by saying, “people continued to ‘drop-in’ to use the chapel for personal quiet time. Many came in for a peaceful reflection and/or mediation. They utilize the chapel for solitude, quiet reflection, mediation, prayer, worship and programs.”

With time, “more people [opened] up to the chaplain. Ministry/spiritual guidance/counseling took place at the chapel, but also the laundry room, dorm lounges, day room, coffee house and break time at the Galley.”

As the solo “Chaplain on the Ice,” Chaplain Lee became a familiar face and “venting outlet” for work-related issues, as well as family, finance and relationship concerns.

Q - Did you have any significant events you needed to respond to as a chaplain while you were deployed to Antarctica?

A - I was the third rotation chaplain, which means I “close-out” the season for the 2019-2020 mission. Usually, the third rotation is the business rotation, due to vessel operations.

(Chaplain Lee was still acclimating to Antarctica when Staff Sgt. George Girtler from the 109th passed away in the afternoon of January 12. Below are transcriptions from her Weekly Reports:)

“I was notified right after lunch. I was with the medical team at the Clinic. I provided Last Rite prayer at 1500. He was 37 years old. His family was notified of his death today at 0600. It was a very sad 24 hours and a solemn dignified transfer took place today at 9:07am. I am planning to have two memorial services… Civilians expressed condolences, which brought some healing between military and civilians in some level.”

“I visited the flight line (Willie Field) twice within 24 hours, and made myself available after the shocking news of SSgt George Girtler’s death. Many were still in shock and didn’t know how to respond to the news. SSgt Girtler was on the Maintenance Team. I saw many tears roll down their cheeks, and all I could do was be with them and comfort them. I went around and visited as many as I could... On the ride back to McMurdo from Willie Field, no one spoke any word. One serviceman softly sobbed.”

“It was a very busy 24 hours. The overall morale is somber. The reality of losing a friend/coworker/Airman did not fully hit yet. People process their grief differently.”

Throughout this time, Chaplain Lee was in communication with a chaplain from the 109th and their director of psychological health who was “more than willing and ready to provide any extra support or counseling via video/phone.”

Q - Any other distinct memories from Operation Deep Freeze?

A - About a week after she arrived, during a routine visitation to Scott Base, Chaplain Lee offered words of encouragement and strength and recalls watching as an engineer took pictures of a whale coming out of the water.

Similarly, she was “excited to see how BBC Frozen Planet II is filming around McMurdo Station over the next few weeks” and also saw “the USCG Polar Star Ice Cutter on 08 Jan. It was so amazing to see the big red giant ship!”

Q - So, we heard you had quite the experience baking in the Galley at McMurdo Station:

A - “I [transitioned] myself from the Chaplain on the Ice to a Baker on the Ice on Thursdays. I packed and wrapped 400 grab and go cookies and snacks…” During that particular visit, Chaplain Lee made five pie shells, assisted with making loaves of bread, made her own loaf of bread and made desserts.

According to Lee, “it was a great time to get connected with people and get to know them on a personal level.”

One week, she made 140 pizza doughs, wrapped 750 grab and go’s and assisted in baking 70 loaves of bread. Chaplain Lee worked in the galley kitchen as “Baker on the Ice” every Thursday until her departure.

Q - What was your favorite memory from this experience?

A - My favorite memory was to “walk” and be with people in their darkest, loneliest and saddest time and offer hope, love and peace. Sometimes people do not want “answers or solutions.” They just want someone who hears and sees their pain, hurt and scars without any judgement. They just want someone who understands their pain, hurt and healing process. It was a very meaningful deployment.