Retired chaplain followed call through three military branches

  • Published
  • By Caroline Clauson
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David Williams ultimately became Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s longest-serving chaplain.

In November, he hung up his hat in three different shades of military service, leaving a diverse legacy united by a faithful journey to ministry.

“He has truly been a citizen-Soldier and a minister on both sides, both in and out of uniform,” said Chaplain (Col.) Kim Bowen, 88th Air Base Wing chaplain. “He has served us impeccably.”

Always faithful: Joining the Marines

Following in his father’s trail, Williams left his childhood home in Cincinnati after high school and enlisted in the Marines Corps as a military police officer. After boot camp, he was assigned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.  

“When I went into the Marine Corps, I had no idea I would ever leave,” Williams said. “I thought I’d spend my life there. You think it’s going to be exciting and fun and adventurous when they show you the videos.”

Soon, what Williams had perceived as his permanent landing slowly focused into a runway for a new direction and growing commitment to his faith.

About 30 miles away from Camp Lejeune’s main area was a little outpost called Sneads Ferry Gate, he recalled. As military police, the Marines would stand duty there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. – three days on, one day off.

“When you were at the gate, you were miles from anyone – no air conditioning in the North Carolina sun, no heat in the winter,” Williams said. “You were out there all by yourself 12 hours a day at the back gate with your police radio and maybe a magazine. That’s life changing. It really gives a man a lot of time to think.”

Although Williams grew up in the church, close mentorship from leaders within the Navigators ministry during that time anchored him in what would become a lifetime of similar spiritual care for servicemembers and beyond.

“I remember thinking one day after Bible study, ‘These guys are really serious,’” he said. “They wanted me to memorize verses of the Bible. Sure enough, after memorizing more and getting involved in the Navigators, it transformed my life. I am where I am today because of their commitment to disciple me as a young Marine just moving my way through the world, who had no idea what the future would be like.”

Always ready: Answering calls as a Coastie

After four years on active duty and two in the Marine Corps Reserve, Williams enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1989 and began his first assignment up the road in Cleveland, where he served as a coxswain piloting small boats.

Williams joined Search and Rescue, foreshadowing his later transition to a less-literal saving mission. His unit conducted over 500 interventions on a dangerous Lake Erie, winning the Coast Guard’s Meritorious Service Award that year.

While he served a special assignment, Williams finished his degree in human resource management, opening the doors to receive his commission as a search and rescue Coast Guard officer.

But even as the new ensign’s goals seemed to solidify, his priorities shifted, he said. Tackling ambitious career milestones, Williams was bringing even more enthusiasm and energy to his local church.

His pastor recognized his gift, offered him opportunities for leadership and planted the possibility of full-time ministry in his mind.

“Jesus was working in me long before I was working for him,” Williams said. “His commitment to me is what sustained me through all these transitions in life.”

Williams followed what he considers a conviction from God, trading his nine years of active-duty service for the Coast Guard Reserve so he could attend Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and become a pastor out of uniform.

Aiming high: Landing in Air Force ministry

Although Williams spent a brief stint in Civil Air Patrol as an eighth-grader, he finally found a long-term home in the Air Force, combining two calls.

“I was motivated to become a chaplain by a ‘calling or passion’ from God to join my ministry with the military to work and serve the spiritual needs of men and women in the military – and in particular, the Air Force,” he said. “I really didn’t think the Air Force would approve my application or be willing to accept my age and years of service. It was by God’s grace and a long and lengthy application process I was finally approved for transfer to the Air Force Reserve as a chaplain.”

In 2007, Williams became an individual mobilization augmentee chaplain for 88 ABW and steadily served there until his retirement, even as he pastored Hamilton West Baptist Church.

“As a pastor, I am a shepherd to the members of my congregation,” he said. “As a chaplain, I serve as a spiritual shepherd and counselor and also an adviser to leadership. All chaplains are pastors; not all pastors are chaplains.

“A chaplain serves along with the rest of the Airmen, so if the unit is running, the chaplain is running. If the unit is eating, sleeping or performing drills, the chaplain is with them.”

In his role at Wright-Patterson AFB, Williams served and mentored 14 reserve chaplains and enlisted members and led personal-growth classes and chapel worship services for Airmen and their families, both on base and at special services whenever needed.

“I really loved the Air Force Chaplain Corps mission statement that says a chaplain is to be a ‘visible reminder of the Holy,’” he said. “Military life will test a person’s religious beliefs more than many situations our Airmen face serving and defending our country. Chaplains provide the presence of God both in pastoral care ministry and counseling to those of faith and even to those of no particular faith connection. Wherever our Airmen go, the chaplain will be there.”

Strengthened by strands of service

Even after serving in three distinct branches through several different career fields and on both the enlisted and officer sides, Williams celebrates the consistent purpose of his work from a bird’s-eye view. 

“I’m often asked: What’s the difference between the branches? Well, the military is the military; there’s still a lot of saluting and order,” he said. “But I like being in uniform and what it stands for. That’s part of the reason I’ve done this for so long. I like the country we live in. And I want to make sure that I give a contribution to keeping it the free nation God has given us.

“The needs of people in every service are the same. Each faces different challenges and situations, but every person has a spiritual side that affects the other parts of life. Everyone goes through unexpected life events and needs support from a chaplain or other helping agency. I found my best role was coming alongside individuals as they walked through difficulty, helping them to see the bigger picture, make good choices, and know that God loves them and wants the very best for their life.”

And while others marvel at the variety within Williams’ service, the chaplaincy at Wright-Patterson knew him for his fixed and knowledgeable commitment.

“David has been the continuity of this team,” Bowen said. “And every time someone new came on and they wanted to know the complexity of Wright-Patterson, we sent them with Dave.”

Williams sees and others have benefited from his 38 years of military service – not as a mismatched collection of uniformed odd jobs or cognitive dissonance – but as a singular, growing mission refined by exposure and guided by a commitment higher than him. 

“All my years of military service in the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard together prepared me to be a better chaplain,” Williams said. “I have lived and walked many of the same paths our Airmen do. My knowledge of military life and the stressors that come with it helped me to connect to Airmen and their families. I relied on my experience as an enlisted man myself to connect with people.

“I have been deployed, I have stood duty on main gates, I have carried a pack and rifle for miles and miles. I have endured the heat of the desert and the cold of the Arctic Circle. I believe God used all these experiences to make me a better chaplain to all.”