By Cheryl Magness
The Rev. (Lt. Col.) Derek M. Wolter has been named 2021 Chaplain of the Year by the U.S. Air National Guard. The honor, also known as the Samuel Stone Award, is named after a Puritan minister who arrived in the American colonies in 1633. Stone helped found Hartford, Conn., and served as a chaplain in the Pequot War — the American colonies’ earliest recorded chaplain.
Wolter, a chaplain for the Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing in Madison, Wis., says the best part of receiving the award is the recognition it brings not to him, but to the military chaplaincy. “I’m thankful that my commander … appreciates the chaplaincy enough to have nominated me,” he said. “Individuals receive awards, but teams win them.”
Wolter graduated from Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon, Wis., in 1985. He attended Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne (CTSFW), and was ordained in 1989. He served LCMS parishes in Wisconsin and Minnesota and spent two years as an LCMS missionary in Russia, where he served as coordinator for Orphan Grain Train, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization. He said it was never his plan to become either a missionary or a military chaplain. “Man plans, God laughs,” he added with a smile.
Wolter found the unpredictability of his time in Russia to be energizing. “Life in Russia in the early ’90s was a little sketchy, a little dangerous, but never dull,” he said. As he considered what to do next, a friend from the seminary suggested the military chaplaincy. “I laughed out loud,” Wolter said. He told his friend, the Rev. Dr. Mark Nuckols — a U.S. Army chaplain — “I’m not a military person. I don’t have that kind of discipline.”
But at Nuckols’ urging, he decided to call an Air Force recruiter. “I said, ‘Uh, you don’t need any chaplains or anything, do you?’” Within four weeks, he was at a MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) center. “Not long after that, I raised my hand and took the oath,” Wolter said.
Wolter was commissioned as a military chaplain for the Air Force Reserve in 1996. He later transferred to the Air National Guard. He served two six-month deployments to Kyrgyzstan — one in 2009 and one in 2012 — and a third, to Kuwait, in 2021.
In December 2020, shortly before Wolter left for Kuwait, a member of the 115th Fighter Wing died in a training accident in Michigan, and Wolter provided chaplaincy support. His commanding officer, Col. Bart Van Roo, cited Wolter’s care for his wing after the accident and his deployment to Kuwait as key reasons for the award.
Wolter says that it is crucial to have LCMS pastors serve as military chaplains.
“You don’t take your pastor or family with you on deployment. Chaplains go where people serve and experience all the same things they experience. A military chaplain understands what those who are serving face every day.”
When asked what Lutheran chaplains, specifically, bring to the military chaplaincy, Wolter said, “Word and Sacrament. Last year, in Kuwait, I communed people on Easter who hadn’t had the Lord’s Supper in almost a year. Sacramental, liturgical worship is not readily available for those who are deployed. It becomes really important for people to have access to that.”
In addition, Wolter said, Lutheran chaplains have the opportunity to bring God’s Word to people who may not have ever heard it. “Most of the people I encounter are not Lutheran,” he said. “Once they get a taste of the pure Gospel, they want to hear more.”
Wolter is grateful for the support of the church.
“Because of the way LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces (MAF) highlights the military chaplaincy, the wider Lutheran community has supported me and my family every time I’ve been deployed. As soon as MAF finds out I’m being deployed, I’m on their radar. Anything I need, resource-wise, is sent out immediately. When I am overseas, they keep in regular contact.”
Wolter adds that “there is not always a lot of camaraderie in the chaplaincy. It can be daunting and lonely. But MAF keeps emphasizing, highlighting and making people aware of the work we do.”
Wolter said CTSFW’s Military Project, directed by Deaconess Carolyn Brinkley, has also offered support.
“Deaconess Brinkley reached out to me soon after I deployed to Kuwait in 2021. She supplied copies of Lutheran Service Book for use in worship, CDs of Lutheran worship music and pocket devotionals to distribute as I visited the units.”
The Rev. Craig Muehler, director of MAF, said the award was a testament to Wolter’s “pastoral heart and above-and-beyond care for all his personnel and their families.”
“We are very proud of Chaplain Wolter and of all our LCMS chaplains who serve faithfully and take care of our troops and their families,” Muehler said.
Wolter is also the director of spiritual care at Lutheran Home and Harwood Place in Milwaukee and an LCMS Specialized Pastoral Ministry contractor and endorser.
Posted on May 27, 2022