THULE AIR BASE, Greenland --
Despite freezing temperatures and near isolation, the 821st Air Base Group Chaplain Corps has blazed the trail for Air Force Space Command by adopting innovative programs and inspiring hope for Airmen stationed at Thule Air Base, Greenland.
Capt. Matthew Gallo, 821st ABG installation chaplain, is one of just two Airmen working at the chapel at the remote location, which rests more than 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
“We don’t have resources readily available,” he said. “It typically takes two to four weeks for our mail to arrive. We also don’t have roads connecting us anywhere off base. The remoteness of the installation has positively affected our ministry in the sense that it strengthens our community, sense of fellowship and sets up a more caring atmosphere. Camaraderie is contagious here.”
Going on its 60th successful year of operations, Operation Julemand reaches out to four Greenlandic villages and provides gifts for the villages’ children. The members of the Thule community raised $23,000 to support the operation this year.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this alone,” he said. “We partner with Denmark and their military; they’re able to transport us to the villages so we can interact with the children as well as communicate with the leaders of the villages to build trust and stronger strategic relationships. This past year, the Canadian military also played a huge role in helping us secure funds to make this operation as successful as it was.”
In 2018 the operation provided gifts to more than 250 children in local Greenlandic villages; gifts consisted of books, toys and clothing. The largest village was Qaanaaq, with a population of around 640 people.
“The biggest way to impact the most children is to go to the capital where there are more children,” said Staff. Sgt. Steven Whitley, 821st ABG noncommissioned officer in charge of chapel operations. “We’re reaching out to Nuuk [the capital of Greenland] and creating a donation registry for the children living there so we can broaden our reach. The chaplain corps here doesn’t necessarily have any ties with Nuuk, but we wanted to spread joy to the children in orphanages there.”
Although the Nuuk initiative is inspired by Operation Julemand, which started in 1959 at Thule AB, it is a separate operation started by the 821st ABG Chaplain Corps to further their reach.
“Seeing the kids, their reactions and how loving they are is rewarding,” he said. “Being able to bring joy into another life is really humbling and special.”
The 821st ABG has also blazed the trail for Air Force Space Command, being the first in the command to start the white rope program, where Airmen act as an extension of the chaplain corps.
“Our white ropes are here to lead group and chapel events,” Whitley said. “We really like to get them involved with their units so they can keep an eye on morale and be someone who Airmen can trust and go to if they need someone to talk to.”
To become a white rope, Airmen sit down and speak with the chaplain corps and discuss why they’re interested in becoming a white rope.
“We’re aiming for Airmen to be able to use this program to grow as leaders and followers,” he said. “Anybody can learn and grow from the white rope program, its great exposure for young Airmen.”
The 821st ABG chaplain corps also started the Faces of Space program, inspired by the Air Education and Training Command’s former program First Faces.
“We resurrected and recreated an old AETC program and tailored it to fit AFSPC,” Gallo said. “We tell stories of Airmen overcoming adversity. We videotape these stories and use them to inspire others across the installation by broadcasting them on our TVs.”
Previous stories have included Airmen overcoming alcoholism and coverage of weight loss journeys.
The 821st ABG chapel is open 24/7 so Airmen working shifts can use the sanctuary, multi-faith room, instruments and other amenities offered by the chapel.
“We pursue a family atmosphere and strive to bring people together,” Gallo said. “From our leadership to our lowest ranking Airman, everyone here is incredible and keeps us moving forward.”
Regardless of the desolate environment, the chaplain corps inspires hopefulness.
“The enemy has a name and its name is hopelessness,” Gallo said. “We’re all about doing whatever we can do to bring people closer to amplify our community and our Airmen’s sense of belonging to a team. Purpose really helps people pull through pain.”