Working the overnight shift at the chapel at Ramstein Air Base in Germany is a challenge, but Chaplain Katie Osweiler is thankful to be helping refugees from Afghanistan on their way to new lives free of the Taliban.

“There are a lot of U.S. citizens I’ve met who are just trying to get home,” Osweiler said. “Then there are people whose husband or brother or father was an interpreter, and those people are taking their families out of Afghanistan because they’re afraid the Taliban would know they’re from the family of a person who was helping the U.S. military. Many other people have had to leave family behind, and they’re very worried about them.”

Ramstein is a major hub for evacuees in the wake of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. About 27,000 people have been flown to the base, and roughly half of these are still there.

Osweiler, a reservist who lives in Brussels, Belgium, arrived at Ramstein in early August to begin her annual 24 days of duty. But this year, with the Afghanistan withdrawal, her tour was extended another three weeks.

“Our boss sat us down and said we had guests arriving,” Osweiler said. “He said we’d be working the chapel in 12-hour shifts, and you, you, you and you are doing the night shift, so go home and take a nap. … Of course, we continue to care for the spiritual needs of our airmen. It’s important for people to know we are not neglecting the military members but taking care of our guests in addition to our personnel.”

“People are so thankful that we’ve provided these spaces for them to pray, and for everything they need to do as we help them until they get to their final place of safety.”

Osweiler, 42, grew up near Dayton, Ohio, as the daughter of an Air Force pilot whose wife was Lutheran. She studied at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, where she met her husband, Victor, an Air Force acquisitions officer.

Osweiler graduated in 2007, was married the next year and was ordained in 2017. In Brussels, where her husband has retired from active duty, Osweiler accepted her first call—assistant to the rector at an Episcopal congregation. She also contacted the ELCA’s Bureau for Federal Chaplaincy and asked about working in that capacity through the reserves.

“They were very happy to have a reservist living in Europe—that’s rare—and a female chaplain at that,” she said. “I was all sorts of these magical unicorns, so I joined the military at 41.”

Osweiler said that her two years in Niger, a predominantly Muslim country where her husband was stationed, are proving helpful to her in her current role.

“We’re responsible for our guests’ prayer tents, and we make sure they’re clean and their prayer rugs are tidy and that everything is facing the right direction,” she said. “We have an imam on staff, and he’s really helped us learn to do what’s respectful. We’re very culturally sensitive to people and their religious practices and needs.”

Staff at the Ramstein Air Base chapel play the Muslim call to prayer over loudspeakers five times daily, per Islamic custom. Osweiler has the call stored on her phone for easy broadcasting.

“I just love it,” she said. “People are so thankful that we’ve provided these spaces for them to pray, and for everything they need to do as we help them until they get to their final place of safety. I can’t, obviously, interact with all of them. But I smile at the ones I meet—with my eyes, since I’m wearing a mask—and some people just want to talk, to tell their stories. I’m there to listen. I feel the genuine thanks of all of those people.”

Steve Lundeberg
Lundeberg is a writer for Oregon State University News and Research Communications in Corvallis.

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