ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE — When an airman needs spiritual guidance, counseling or someone to talk to confidentially, they seek out the assistance of an Air Force chaplain. But where do chaplains turn when they encounter trying times?
Of course chaplains can always turn to their spiritual companions, but sometimes they need to get away and focus on their own spiritual and mental health.
Chaplain (Capt.) Benjamin Quintanilla, assigned to the 28th Bomb Wing, returned from a deployment in 2017 and realized something wasn’t right.
“I was deployed to Bagram from 2016 to 2017,” said Quintanilla. “While I was there with my team of chaplains, we responded to a suicide bombing on base. It left five people dead and wounded 17.”
Quintanilla, who has been a chaplain for about seven years, divulged that he may have suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
“I came back feeling like a different person than I was before, there was a lot of trauma,” said Quintanilla. “And so I’ve been on a journey of healing.”
Recently, Quintanilla’s journey took him to the northern region of Uganda, to a town called Adjumani. There he spent 19 days working with Tutapona, an organization that provides refugees with trauma rehabilitation.
“Tutapona is a Swahili word that means ‘we will be healed,’” Quintanilla said.
Quintanilla mentioned that during his trip he met a gentleman who’d fled South Sudan to become a refugee.
“This man was at a point where he wanted to commit suicide,” said Quintanilla. “He didn’t have a reason to live; he had been shot twice during a war and had lost everything. He went through the therapy [at Tutapona] and was able to reconnect with his faith and found healing. He is now one of the driving forces of the organization.”
While working with Tutapona, Quintanilla noticed that the refugees in Uganda have a lot in common with service members he’s worked with in regards to returning from war — battling symptoms of post-traumatic stress, trying to reintegrate and going through the process of healing.
Service members suffering from post-traumatic stress are provided with individualized therapy sessions, as well as group and cognitive behavioral therapy. There are additional treatment programs available depending on the needs of the person.
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While Tutapona provides similar treatment programs, they emphasize community healing rather than individualized treatment.
“One of the strengths of this program is community,” said Quintanilla. “They’ll bring out a community of folks, ranging from 80 to 100 people. They’ll meet for one or two hours, every day for two weeks. We should be able to do that. We have the most amazing people in our community and we should be able to heal better than anyone. If we could only overcome the barriers of shame and pride, we can heal.”
Tutapona’s community groups discuss different topics such as trust and forgiveness.
“It’s hard for people to forgive. It’s not easy to forgive somebody who has hurt you,” said Quintanilla. “Once you’ve been hurt, you don’t want to trust. When you’re battling these two things, [forgiveness and trust], it’s hard to heal.”
Quintanilla feels that we all can learn a lot about healing from an organization like Tutapona.
“The organization was created by doctors, psychologists and other mental health professionals specifically for folks that are coming back from traumatic experiences,” said Quintanilla. “They are gathering data that shows a significant change in a person’s life. You’re seeing this continual health and it’s being sustained.”
The trip demonstrated to Quintanilla some powerful moments of resiliency.
“These people have lost everything; they have very little — talk about crisis and chaos in their lives,” said Quintanilla, adding that he watched as people were able to smile again, laugh again, and that their communities had begun to heal. “Some were at one time fighting and are now fellowshipping together. That’s resiliency.”
This journey to Adjumani inspired Quintanilla both personally and professionally. He supports airmen stepping away from work from time to time to recharge and refocus.
“I thank God for this trip,” said Quintanilla with a smile. “I did a lot of reflecting on what I missed and where I need to bring my focus back into. This trip was about realigning my priorities. I want to be a good follower of my God; I want to be a good husband, a good father; and I want to take care of airmen. It has to be in that order for me.”
Quintanilla’s went on this journey not as a chaplain, but as a spiritual person. What he took away from this trip, he hopes can help everyone.
“You’re not alone, you don’t have to suffer alone. Other people have dealt with similar things,” Quintanilla said. “We don’t have to suffer in silence. I am much better today than I was back in 2017. People can heal and I’m living proof of that.”