by Nic Kuetemeyer
180th Fighter Wing
3/8/2015 - TOLEDO, Ohio -- It is
the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth. There is no further
or more remote deployment military personnel can be sent on. Operation
Deep Freeze takes Air National Guardsmen 2,400 miles south of New
Zealand and is a scientific operation, not a military one.
But the Air National Guard has two unique assets at its disposal that
are necessary to the success of the United States Antarctic Program; the
special ski-equipped Air Force LC-130 "Skibird" aircraft from the 109th
Airlift Wing in Schenectady, New York, and the Air National Guard
"We can provide something unique," said Maj. Pete Drury, Chaplain at the
180th Fighter Wing in Swanton, Ohio. "We can provide what a full
civilian or a full military person can't."
Drury was one of three ANG Chaplains selected to be sent to the bottom
of the world for this very special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once
a Chaplain has completed a mission there, they will not be selected
"One of the cool things that an ANG Chaplain can provide is that we
understand and can accommodate the secular person and the person who has
a non-religious spirituality," Drury said with a characteristically
broad smile. "Because a non-religious person still has spiritual needs.
We have a unique capacity to provide that."
The Antarctic Program's mission is to not only expand knowledge of the
continent itself but to also further research on climate changes, space,
and many global issues of scientific importance. The remote and diverse
community is made up of civilians, government officials and employees,
scientists, graduate students, contractors, and military personnel.
Even though caring for and catering to the many different needs of the
community may sound like a challenge, it's a challenge that Drury
relishes. And the town of McMurdo doesn't disappoint in presenting that
challenge. Comprised of approximately 850 citizens, the townspeople of
McMurdo come from all types of non-religious and religious backgrounds.
"We're not just there for the ANG folks who are flying the LC-130s,
we're there for the town," said Drury, explaining that he did not wear
his uniform six out of seven days a week. "The people who go to
Antarctica aren't your usual demographic. You get to work with, I think,
the most interesting and eclectic people on Earth."
Drury recounted stories to explain just how eclectic and interesting the
people really are in McMurdo. When he first arrived, a support worker
from the town was showing him around, helping him get acclimated to his
"I told him I wanted to know where everything was around town," he said.
"So he's pointing out 'these people are in this building, that's the
electrical shop.' And all through the conversation he's talking about
Socrates and Plato, history, science and philosophy. It's almost a
It was summer for the six weeks he was "on the ice" and Drury didn't see
a sunset until he was back in New Zealand. But snow rarely melts in
Antarctica, not even to give way for a run.
"I did a half-marathon on the ice shelf ... I did a 10k the first week I
was there," said Drury proudly. "When the ice starts to melt, it gets
slushy. But not like it gets slushy in Ohio. It's a dry slushy, it's
more like running in sand."
The "summer" in Antarctica might be hard to imagine for people living in
the Northern Hemisphere, particularly when you remember that's the
holiday season. Not only did Drury provide over a hundred counseling
sessions, weekend services, and guaranteed the free exercise of religion
for all faiths represented, he also provided holiday services.
"Over the holidays they get a big boost in morale," he said. "That's the
second part of what we do, providing for other religious traditions.
The Jewish community said they had the best Hanukkah in 20 years. We
were featured in the [British Broadcasting Corporation's] 'Hanukkah in
Antarctica.' One pilot mentioned that this year's Hanukkah was the next
best thing to being home."
Providing for other religious traditions and non-religious spiritual
needs of military members is something the Guard Chaplains do every day
they wear a uniform. But because he has a civilian side himself, Drury
found he was well prepared to provide for the non-military needs as
"That comes from being in the Air National Guard," Drury said. "The
military provides the awareness and the mindset on how to do the neutral
part. The civilian side helps us better connect with the civilian
population. We have a unique niche that provides this. This is a time
when we really hit our stride."
Drury said that while military members are accustomed to the idea of
privileged communication, a civilian is not. They are not readily
familiar with the non-religious counsel a chaplain can provide.
"A civilian needs to be told 'You can talk to us in complete
confidentiality," said Drury. "But once they find that out, they talk
about whatever they need."
In a stark, unforgiving, and austere environment like Antarctica, a
chaplain's counsel can be in high demand. The harsh reality is that on
an island as big as the continental United States and Mexico combined,
with limited medical facilities, the danger of injury or even death is
ever-present. Bereavement and grief counseling are part of what the
chaplains are there to do.
But the landscape can provide a certain dazzling beauty as well. Drury
spoke reverently about the Chapel of the Snows, the southernmost
facility dedicated to worship in the world, as being one of the most
unique places he's ever been to.
"It overlooks Mount Discovery," he said. "You look out the back and you see this spectacular Transantarctic mountain range."
Drury's time there might have been short, but it is clear he cherished
every minute he was there. Drury's favorite part of the trip was being
with the people in McMurdo. He couldn't speak highly enough of the
"You get this amazing group, I love that," he said. "In a lot of ways, I
felt like I had the easiest six weeks out of the whole season."