.“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” — Jeremiah 29:11, a Bible verse that guides the Ellwein family
T.J. Ellwein found the perfect place to do his Eagle Scout project: Chaplain’s Hill at Arlington National Cemetery, the place where freedom, faith and family come together for the former Rapid City teen and his parents.
T.J. Ellwein, 18, is the son of two South Dakota National Guardsmen currently serving in Washington, D.C. His mom, Sgt. Major Dianne Ellwein, is responsible for managing and training the 843 Army National Guard chaplain assistants across the globe. His dad, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Fred Ellwein, is the commander of one of the most historic U.S. military bands: the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. Their jobs take them to the cemetery on a regular basis.
Ellwein wanted his Eagle Scout pro-ject to honor the military service of his parents and others, but the freshman pre-medicine major at Liberty University also wanted it to reflect his deep Christian faith. That led him to Chaplain’s Hill, a scenic spot in the cemetery containing the gravesites of military chaplains, where almost 400 dirty and damaged gravestones were in need of cleaning and restoration.
Ellwein organized a crew of more than 40 volunteers to scrub algae, precipitation stains, dirt and bird droppings from the stones the week before President Obama’s 2009 Memorial Day address, and he later built two rotating brochure racks for the visitor center at the cemetery, which gets more than 4.5 million visitors each year.
The project earned him the 2010 Eagle Scout Project of the Year award for the north-central region of the U.S. He also is one of four Boy Scouts nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation Spirit Award, won last year by the pilot who landed a plane on the Hudson River.
“He made us so proud,” Dianne Ellwein said. “Both projects were done to serve those that had paid the ultimate sacrifice. We were fortunate that T.J. was able to do this at our nation’s finest resting place for fallen comrades.”
Chaplain Lynn Wilson said T.J.’s parents have made the South Dakota National Guard proud.
The Ellweins lived in Rapid City from 1992 to 2004, where they were active members of First Assembly of God Church. Fred was a school band director, and Dianne worked as the state chaplain assistant for the South Dakota National Guard at Camp Rapid. They moved to the Washington, D.C., area when both were offered new opportunities with the National Guard.
“She’s just top of the line. She’s been a great asset to our state. We’re all very proud of her,” Wilson said. “Together they make quite a couple. We’re very proud of both of them.”
Fred and Dianne, both 50, have been in the National Guard for 29 and 31 years, respectively. They met as graduate students at South Dakota State University, when Dianne was serving as a National Guard recruiter and Fred brought two of his friends in to sign up.
“I tease him that the other two signed up for four years, but he got a life sentence,” she said.
Her role at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., is to advise the director of the Army National Guard, Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter (also a former Rapid City resident) on religious support to guarantee the free exercise of religion for soldiers and families. She is also senior adviser to the Army chief of chaplains at the Pentagon.
“My job is one of infinite variety. I have been blessed to have taken part in many military ministry missions,” Ellwein said.
She has been tapped to read Scripture during Easter Sunrise services at Arlington and was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Ford Funeral Operation when the late president’s body was transported to D.C. for services.
Her job also takes her around the world. She recently visited ministry teams in Kosovo, and last month participated in Alaska’s 50th anniversary of Operation Santa, a mission and ministry effort where National Guard soldiers collect gifts and food to deliver to children and families living in remote island villages.
“We flew into remote villages that you can only reach by plane where Eskimo children had never seen Santa before,” Ellwein said. “These villages are so isolated. I met 17-year-old kids who were so excited to see Santa for the first, and maybe the last, time in their lives.”
She has visited Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to counsel with the “compassionate caregivers” who care for soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is also a frequent visitor to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she enjoys visiting with injured soldiers and their families, and Arlington National Cemetery, where the duty is much tougher, she said.
“With this war — I don’t think it could be done without chaplains. We’re reaching out all the time helping soldiers put their lives together,” she said. “I’m so blessed to be serving two things I just love: God and country. I have to pinch myself,” Ellwein said.
The Ellweins live just outside of Annapolis, Md., which means a 2-1/2-hour commute, one-way, on some of the most congested roadways in the U.S.
With two challenging jobs and three busy children – T.J., Katie, 17, and Austin, 9, — they often miss the simpler traffic patterns of Rapid City, she said, and their small-town roots are obvious, as well.
“We’re kind of the country bumpkins out here. … They know right away that we’re from the Midwest,” Ellwein said.
They miss Rapid City and plan to return to South Dakota when their service in D.C. is done.
“The people we love the most are back in South Dakota, and we plan to retire there,” she said.
But they have no regrets about the move to the nation’s capital and the rewards it brought. That decision is reflected in the Bible verse from Jeremiah 29:11 that Ellwein attaches to all of her e-mails: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
“That’s the verse that Fred and I focused on when we were deciding on whether or not to leave South Dakota,” she said. “When we were struggling to know what to do, we focused on praying over that Scripture.”
The Scripture has delivered everything it promises, she said.
“We had to put all our faith and trust in God. And he has taken such good care of us,” Ellwein said.