Pastor Dave Larsen of Voluntown reflects on six-month stint as military chaplain

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Voluntown - posted Fri., Jun. 28, 2013
Chaplain Dave Larsen poses on base in his full battle gear. Courtesy photo. - Contributed Photo

When the Twin Towers fell to a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, Pastor David Larsen of Voluntown Baptist Church was among the thousands who responded to a call to help. “I’m a New Yorker, so when the towers fell, I had to be there,” he said. He was at Ground Zero within 30 hours of the disaster, even before the porta-potties arrived on the scene. “I dug in the ashes with my hands. It took me about a year to process that experience,” he said.

Forged by that experience, Larsen’s call to serve beyond his tiny hometown has morphed into service as a military chaplain, a call to which he responded for the third time last year. He arrived back in Connecticut just in time to speak at Griswold’s Memorial Day observances.

Larsen spent six months as a wing chaplain on an air base at an undisclosed location on the southwest Asian peninsula, not in a direct combat zone, “but not out of reach of missiles,” he said. It was his third such stint, after having served in Guam in 2008 and Saudi Arabia in 2010.

“I heard there was a need for chaplains overseas,” he said. While Larsen is older than the usual volunteer, he felt compelled to answer the call, he said. “I always felt I didn’t do my part like all the other men in my family did,” he said. When he offered his services, “The Air National Guard rolled out the red carpet.”

A chaplain’s role on an overseas military base is to provide for the free exercise of all religions, Larsen said. That includes not only the predominant Protestant and Catholic sects, but also Judaism, Islam, Bahai, Buddhism and even followers of earth-based religions, like Wiccans, Pagans and Vikings. He was charged with providing space to meet for worship, as well as spreading the word about services for various faiths. His work ranged from arranging for a serviceman to convert to Islam to making provisions for kosher meals for Passover.

The more commonly-understood role of the chaplain, however, is counseling, and it’s a crucial one for maintaining morale. Larsen calls the chaplain “a black hole. When you go to the chaplain you can say anything. We have 100 percent confidentiality.”

One common challenge for service personnel is maintaining long-distance relationships with family members back home, Larsen said. The danger involved in military service, coupled with the geographic distance, can strain marriages and other family relationships. “They’re hard to maintain and even harder to repair,” he said. “That’s the cost of being the strongest nation on earth, a democracy that senses it has a global mission.”

The chaplain’s role can make a positive difference, he said. “If we’re doing our job, [service members] have fewer problems. We work to keep people strong.” Counseling and education programs, along with the support of religious faith, can help offset the challenges. So can what he calls a “ministry of presence.” Through frequent visits to units, “you can feel the pulse and find the sources of problems and work to fix them.”

Relationships on the base itself have an element of superficiality, he said. “They’re a mile wide but an inch deep. You look to establish relationships, but they’re all for six months. They become a blur over time,” he said.

Larsen said that his congregation, led by acting pastor Rev. Paul Overdorff, did an admirable job keeping things rolling in his absence. “Six months is a long time, but they did so well when I was gone. They give more and do more when I’m not here. Their faith is really strong. It’s amazing,” he said.

The members of Voluntown Baptist welcomed their pastor back with flags, signs and an impromptu party - “that was lovely,” said Larsen. But he didn’t stay long. He and his wife proceeded to Virginia to spend a week with their grown children, then went away for some much-needed time to themselves.

Larsen said that the transition back to small-town Connecticut is “like putting on old, comfortable shoes. You’re blowing out six months of memories of people and events. It’s surreal. You think: did that really happen?”

It’s the same for the people he served on base, he said. “We’re back serving the world we came from," Larsen said. "When they needed me, I was there, and when I needed them, they were there.”

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