When soldiers grapple with the stress of war, the heartache of separation and the haunting of uncertainty, the candle that lights their bruised spirits oftens goes by the title of chaplain.
And in Kuwait, one of those spiritual healers is Army Capt. Bill Kim of Andover.
"Hello, back in Andover, I'd like to come home some time to visit when I have the chance," the Army Chaplain deployed in Kuwait serving in Operation Enduring Freedom cheerfully said thinking about his childhood home.
His life has taken him across the country and around the world as a chaplain, with an intimate view what of war can do to faith and mind.
Kim, who turns 35 on Friday, was raised in Andover and graduated from Andover High School in 1997, where he was on the gymnastic team and served in the Yearbook Club. He then attended UMass Amherst, where he joined ROTC.
He was commissioned and joined the reserved and received an educational delay of deployment so he could become a chaplain. After receiving his master’s degree studying seminary at Duke University in 2006, Kim went into active duty.
“I’ve been on several assignments overseas, and I’ve been Kuwait since begin of this year,” Kim said. "I had deployments prior to that. From 2006 to 2007 I was in Iraq and then stationed all over the world the last several years.”
Healing the Spirit
Kim’s spirituality and patriotism may run in his blood. His father served in the U.S. military after immigrating here from South Korea and became a pastor.
As nurses and doctors heal wounds, as a chaplain, Kim heals spirits.
"The Chaplain Corps has three mission goals: to nurture the living, to care for the wounded, and to honor the dead,” Kim said. “We provide any kind of care for soldiers. We check on the morale of soldiers and offer them counseling sessions, we help them deal with stress of daily life, and we provide counseling to families too."
Soldiers don't have to be Christian to receive Kim's counseling. In fact, they don't have to be religious at all.
The most common issue Kim finds among soldiers is the life they put on hold.
"The trend seems to be separation, especially for first-time deployments," Kim said. "Even for single soldiers, it’s a huge adjustment period. They're constantly on the job, 24/7. "
And as life at home goes on without them, troops sometimes see difficulty keeping relationships going, Kim said, which can add to homesickness and stress.
"I find out what's causing the problems, think of maybe possible reasons they would be homesick, and I offer them means to contact family," Kim said.
Chaplains are not immune to heartache. As Kim is in Kuwait, his wife Sarah and 4-year-old daughter Shana are home in Colorado waiting for him.
Counseling soldiers is very emotionally involved. And sometimes it can be intense, with emotions so strong near the battlefields. This has made Kim have to toughen and rely on the support services system in the military for guidance.
“When I began, I was thrown into the fire, deployed in Iraq during the surge, and it was emotionally exhausting,” Kim said. “The learning curve was quite steep. It was as we say a trial by fire.”
How does that not consume someone who spends every day trying to heal spirits in a setting as emotionally intense as war?
“It’s who I am, why I went the chaplain route,” Kim said. “But one of the things senior chaplains advised is to continue to have sympathy but know your boundaries."
One memorable moment for Kim was in April of this year.
"When we received news of the Boston Marathon tragedy, I held a candlelight vigil," Kim said. "We had a night of remembrance. Being from the Boston area, I was asked to lead the candlelight vigil. Really hard day for anyone from that region."
When Kim deployed to Iraq in 2006, the Iraq War was in chaos. The war had stretched longer than anyone had expected, American support for the war has diminished, and the political firestorm led to one party taking control of both chambers of Congress after campaigning mostly against the war in Iraq.
What followed that year was a troop surge that tested both military resolve and troop morale.
In media coverage and government reports, we hear that the situation on the ground in Iraq has vastly approved in recent years.
“What I noticed at least is, yes, morale has actually gone up,” Kim said. “The Army has made great transition to finish the war, especially with the Iraq side ending. For the most part soldiers are staying positive."
Now, troops in Kuwait are training security forces and forming bonds.
“It is all about the partnership and building relationships, especially with Kuwait, which we’ve had since the Gulf War. We’re partnering with Kuwaitis in order to train together,” he said.