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Serving the US Air Force with a DTS Education

John Tillery (ThM 87)

Currently, I am the Wing Chaplain at Aviano Air Base in northern Italy supervising eight Active Duty members, two Reservists, and twelve contractors. I know, I know, it’s tough being able to drive to Venice for lunch but someone has to be here, right? However, if you know anything about U.S. involvement in Libya and around the world, our base continues to be on the pointy end of the spear. It is my job to insure that all the religious needs of the base community are taken care of, advise the leadership on religious accommodation issues that come up, and to provide what is called Spiritual Fitness training to the entire base population. What an opportunity! I have a built in platform to teach the truths of God even to those who say they are agnostic. The words of our God are universal and have value to everyone regardless of his or her individual faith background or lack of one. Truly, I will not deny that working within the political environment is challenging, but the love God talks about in the Bible does open doors even within the darkest of hearts.

Since my six years at DTS, I believe God prepared me for the chaplaincy through five years of pastoring in Fairbanks, Alaska and five years in the Middle East, where I helped my friend and DTS grad, Imad Shehadeh, establish the Jordanian Evangelical Theological Seminary and served as the pastor of the International Church of Amman. Our desire was to stay in the Middle East and work with the people there. But God often has different plans, doesn't He?  God shut some doors and opened others, and I was able to get into the Air Force just two months before my age would have kept me out.

For the past sixteen years, as an Air Force chaplain, I have had both wonderful opportunities and challenges. The former has allowed me to serve both God and country, to share God's love to others, to travel around the world, and to continue my education with a master’s degree from Boston University, a master’s degree from Air University, and a doctor of ministry degree from Oblate School of Theology. The latter has seen me embroiled in the current culture war of our nation, as well as dealing with the aftermath of the Long Wars: Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, etc. One of the greatest honors of my life to date was also one of the hardest—I was able to be the escort officer for my nephew, Joshua, an OH-58 pilot, who was shot down in Iraq. 

What a great honor it has been to be available to the families, friends, and colleagues of those who have given their lives for our country. Even those who have no belief in God turn to chaplains when sorrow enters their lives—this is when the Holy Spirit will often open their hearts to hear the truth of God and feel His unending love. DTS has given me the tools to offer them the hope that they need and to direct them to the only truth that will give them everlasting life.

My fondest memory of DTS involves nearly the same space, Chafer Chapel. I remember standing in awe at the little fountain located next to it when I first stepped foot on the campus in August of 1981. It was also there that my wife, Barbara, and our three daughters would come and meet me from time to time for special surprise visits; and when graduation day finally arrived, after each of the seven times they circled it, the girls would let one helium balloon go, with a note of thanks to God attached to it—a special memory that all of us treasure to this day.

Then, there were the daily Chapel sessions. I wish I could have fully appreciated then how much of a blessing they actually were—not that I skipped or didn't enjoy every one of them; it's just that they became normal. As it turned out, our daily Chapel sessions were truly unique: the singing, the intense spiritual atmosphere, the phenomenal digging into the Word of God at the highest intellectual level but always offering a practical bent. What an honor it was to be encouraged and built up by Walvoord, Prof, or Ryrie, and a myriad of other speakers—I must have needed the extra instructions because I crammed a four-year degree into six! 

I am confident that I am a better person because of my teachers. Being raised in the kind of home I was, you can bet I needed to observe how men were supposed to act and love others. Watching my professors deal with life issues in real time and observing first-hand how academic faith met the rough and tumble facets of life has helped me through innumerable experiences in the past as well as in the Air Force today: counseling broken relationships, handling the unexpected deaths, teaching the importance of a faith in God, etc. For example, when Dr. Richard Seume showed up unexpectedly at the hospital when my wife was undergoing a surgical procedure, I experienced first-hand how much it meant to me—that one event has made me a much better pastor and chaplain as I experienced the value that type of selfless concern means to others.

How can you learn to teach the truth well without being taught the truth well? I strongly believe that it was my education at DTS that allowed me to steer a clear course while attending other institutions of higher learning. Much of my thinking has been put to the test, but with the solid biblical foundation underneath me, I count myself as blessed having maintained a solid grip on the truth of God. At the time when hours were precious and scarce, I didn't like having to read so many books from authors that had alternative viewpoints, but throughout my ministry the knowledge gained from them has helped me guide and help others find the truth God alone provides.

Finally, when I came to DTS, I was still a baby Christian, only six years old. For the next six years God gave me the opportunity to experience being a part of a healthy family; to make lifelong friends and brothers; to gain more academic discipline; to walk by faith and not by sight; and to be the recipient of many of His miracles and blessings. The instruction and teaching I received fed me in such a way as to make up for the years of the locust, my past. I can never repay the DTS family for what they provided for me both spiritually—through solid biblical teaching and leadership—and financially, for without the scholarship program I would never have been able to attend, let alone graduate!

To read an article on John Tillery's story published by the Air Force, click here.

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