The South Dakota Army National Guard held a historic ceremony welcoming its first woman to serve in its Chaplain Corps at the Huron armory, Jan. 6.
Chaplain (Capt.) Kelley Thury, of Mitchell, was promoted and named the new chaplain for the 153rd Engineer Battalion.
“I am just overwhelmed with gratitude,” said Thury. “Being a chaplain, being in the ministry, and caring for service members and their families, is a lot of trust to put in someone – and I recognize that. I just hope and pray that God gives me the grace to be able to do this and be of service to any service member who needs me.”
Thury’s path to chaplaincy has been a long and winding one, filled with highs and lows, all which will help her relate to various experiences Soldiers may be going through.
“Through all of the chaos, I realized I had to keep my eye on the prize and keep going,” Thury said. “Eventually that part of my journey would be over and then I could start the new one.”
Her journey began in high school, when she became involved in mission work, which ranged from reservations in South Dakota to Costa Rica and Sri Lanka.
“I never really felt the call of ministry on my life then,” Thury said. “I wasn’t thinking this was something I was ever going to do.”
While attending college, Thury went overseas again, and it was then that she felt God might have a call of ministry in her life.
After graduating from Northern State University with a Bachelor of Science in education in 2004, she felt the call to the mission field, so she started training with Youth with a Mission.
“Their motto is, ‘Getting to know God and making God known,”‘ Thury said. “How do you focus on who you are and how you can make God known and evangelize throughout the world?”
Between her degree in education and training with Youth with a Mission, Thury went to both Germany and Mexico where she served as a trainer and guide to others going into the mission field.
“Through different experiences and reasons, the door just really blew shut hard on both of those opportunities,” Thury said. “I was left coming back to states going, ‘Okay God, what in the world? Did I hear you wrong? What’s going on? What have I done? What did I not hear correctly?”
Thury was looking for something to ground her.
“I had always thought about the military in the back of my head but had never pursued it,” Thury said. “My brother was in the [129th] MPAD at the time and he said, ‘You know, you enjoy photography, why don’t you let the military train you how to do it?'”
So she enlisted into the South Dakota Army National Guard as a public affairs specialist and joined her brother’s unit, the 129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, and in 2010 was off to Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“At basic training, I had a drill sergeant who was very vocal about his faith,” Thury said. “Right before we left in-processing and were shipped out to our respective training units, he prayed over us. I said, ‘You know what drill sergeant? Let us pray for you too.’
“So I prayed for him,” Thury continued. “He was kind of the first one that spoke it out. He said, ‘Some of you are going to do certain things in the military, some of you will get out, some of you will become chaplains’ and he looked straight at me. It’s kind of when I said, ‘Yeah. I have felt the call of ministry on my life.'”
Following Advanced Individual Training at Fort Meade, Maryland, Thury would serve in both the South Dakota and then the District of Columbia National Guard as a public affairs specialist. After a couple of years, she decided to move back to South Dakota determined to pursue both the seminary and chaplaincy.
“I touched base with the officer strength manager, and after he sat down with Chaplain (Col.) David Gunderson, the state chaplain at the time, he came back to me and said, ‘Low and behold, they’ve been looking for you. They’ve been looking to fill a diverse role and you just walked into their door. Let’s make this happen.'”
Thury recalls meeting with Chaplains Gunderson and Lynn Wilson at a Strong Bonds event and talking to them both about what chaplaincy is in the military, what she really felt God was calling her to in ministry and how they might see that happening.
“Let me tell you, I was new with ministry and the military, sitting before two men who were in the ministry probably longer than I’d been alive,” said Thury. “It was just incredible to hear a lot of what I really felt God was calling me to do at the time.”
In April 2013, Thury commissioned as a second lieutenant and a chaplain candidate.
The chaplain candidate program allows candidates to follow a chaplain, be trained by a chaplain in a unit and see what military chaplaincy looks like.
“I wasn’t thrust into the ministry of ‘Here, go be a chaplain,'” Thury said. “I wasn’t thrust into a church and told, ‘Here, go lead a congregation.’ I was really led through the process by several chaplains in South Dakota. It was an incredible training experience for me because got to see how it works before having to do it. It is a great program.”
With the chaplain candidate program going well and Thury attending Sioux Falls Seminary, she and her husband had two children.
Thury was diagnosed with post-partum depression and the remaining path to chaplaincy seemed to be an uphill one.
“It was a boomerang,” Thury said. “And quite a struggle trying to balance all of those plates, meeting all of the requirements. I was really feeling God calling me to be a voice for Soldiers, for service members. I had to keep going. That this too shall pass.”
Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course was the next stop on Thury’s path.
CHBOLC is a 12 week, four-phased direct-commission, special-branch school at Fort Jackson.
“We essentially go through basic training again,” Thury said. “I literally went through the same training and same lanes, only this time without a weapon.”
Faith, family and perseverance would see Thury graduate from CHBOLC in 2014 and from seminary with a Masters of Divinity in pastoral care and counseling in 2016.
“I could not have done this without my husband and the rest of my family supporting me in various ways,” Thury said. “He was working full time, sometimes two jobs, taking care of the children, from one child to three, all within four years.
“The trust and love he has for me and the support he has had continue to amaze me and I couldn’t do it without him,” Thury continued. “I couldn’t have chosen a better person.”
Thury also credits retired Chaplin Gunderson as providing her with support and encouragement.
“He is amazing,” Thury said. “He was the one who really had those one liners that always kind of stuck with me. ‘To be present with Soldiers.’ ‘To perform and provide.'”
On the civilian side of life, Thury works as a bereavement coordinator for AseraCare Hospice in Sioux Falls.
“When people come to the end of their life, they have the option to elect hospice service,” Thury said. “Hospice services not only provide for a patient while they’re living, but once that patient has died, 13 months following that patient’s death, family members who have elected it will have follow up with bereavement.”
Thury provides bereavement care and counseling with family and loved ones of people who have died. She also conducts community support groups, memorials and funerals, if they so choose.
“I also do pre-bereavement, when a person is alive to establish relationship, and helping them grieve appropriately and walk through that part of that journey of their life,” Thury said. “Like any counselor, we love when people come to an awareness of themselves. They’re aware of who they are and where they are in life and how they can continue in their journey of life and continue in a positive and healthy way.”
On the military side of life, Thury is now the chaplain for the largest battalion in the SDARNG, the 153rd Engineer Battalion.
“Having the first female chaplain is really awesome, especially in the Engineer Corps where having females in the Engineer Corps hasn’t been a long-standing policy in the U.S. military,” said Lt. Col. Trent Bruce, former 153rd commander. “Integrating females into the Engineer Corps in itself is historic, but as a chaplain as well, is amazing.”
While Thury was aware early in her journey to chaplaincy that she could potentially be the first female chaplain in the SDNG, it wasn’t something she was seeking out.
“I’ve never seen myself as a female chaplain,” said Thury. “I’ve just seen myself as a chaplain and I’m here to serve how God has called me to serve.
“Because of my approach, because I am a female, some people may see me more in a mother role and may be able to approach me better than a male chaplain,” Thury said. “Maybe they see me as a sister…whatever they need, I will put that hat on for them and hopefully meet their needs and be a ministry of presence for them.
“As a woman, I have gone through probably anything any other woman in the Guard has gone through…and we’ll just leave it at that,” Thury continued. “I’ve had a lot of females that have come to me and have been able to talk to me about things as a female, as a mom. The balancing act… I’ve been there, I’ve done that. I walk through it with you.”
Thury’s focus is now on getting in front of Soldiers.
“How can I get out and meet as many people as I can and say, ‘Hey, I’m your chaplain…whatever you need, you let me or your command team know and we’re here for you. You don’t have to do this alone.”
Mental health awareness and supporting new recruits and the noncommissioned officers that train and oversee new recruits are also areas Thury hopes to focus on early in her chaplaincy.
“Being present for Soldiers, however they need that,” Thury said. “Just building relationships, being a ministry of presence that if and when a Soldier or service member needs a chaplain, hopefully there’s a relationship built and we’re able to walk them through it.”
(Staff Sgt. Austin Pearce and Capt. Chad Carlson – SDNG Public Affairs Office)