IOWA: State's first woman chaplain heads to Afghanistan

August 4, 2010

Editor's note: This story was updated Friday, Aug. 6.

The Rev. Martha Kester, a chaplain and 1st lieutenant in the Iowa National Guard and rector at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Des Moines, Iowa, is scheduled to leave Aug. 9 for a 12 month deployment to Afghanistan.

Kester, who is the first female chaplain in the state of Iowa, and also the first to be deployed, joined the National Guard in 2006.

While attending Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, Kester said she became close friends with a fellow seminarian who was a retired gunnery sergeant. She shared with her friend that if she were ever to join the military she would choose to be a chaplain.

However, Kester said, she thought she was too old to join.

During a break from class, Kester happened to run into a recruiter who had been on campus talking to students. The two struck up a conversation and Kester learned that the age limit for enlistment had been increased to 40, she said.

Reflecting on this chance encounter Kester said, "I don't believe it was a coincidence, God had a plan for me."

Kester joined the National Guard at age 38, and received her direct commission after graduating from Trinity. After serving the required two years of parish ministry, Kester became a chaplain in January 2009.

St. Luke's Church called Kester as its rector on July 25, 2009. Kester served the church as assistant prior to the Rev. Robert Elfvin's retirement and then as priest-in-residence. Kester will assume her duties as rector at St. Luke's upon her return from her deployment in Afghanistan in the fall of 2011.

"St. Luke's has been amazingly supportive," said Kester. "It's hard to find churches that will support a chaplain in the armed forces, because they know they'll have to be without a priest if that person is deployed. A lot of chaplains actually lose their job when they're deployed."

(Chaplains are not covered under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, which guarantees reemployment for deployed troops.)

Dioceses throughout the Episocopal Church work with chaplains returning from deployments to ensure that they have continued employment.

"Iowa is fortunate to have 10 chaplains, because a lot of other places have a hard time finding reserve chaplains, because churches don't want to share their priest with the National Guard or the concern from the priest's perspective that they’ll lose their congregation if they are deployed," she added.

Kester said she is committed to serving all soldiers, and is especially glad to be available to other females in the military for support.

"I can prepare somewhat, but I have never been deployed before," said Kester when asked if she knows what to expect in Afghanistan. "I have a lot of excitement to see how God will use me in the life of the soldiers and also in my growing relationship with Him."

Kester, who as a chaplain is a noncombatant in the military, will rely on her assistant, Specialist Seth Ohloff, who will help her set up chapel and run prayer groups. Ohloff also will provide security for Kester, who cannot carry a weapon.

After leaving Des Moines, Kester's battalion will head to Camp Shelby, near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to prepare for mobilization to Afghanistan later this fall.

Kester said she'll know more of what her needs will be once she gets to Afghanistan, and at this point is asking only for prayers.

She promises to keep in touch and regularly blogs on St. Luke's website.