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Guard medic finds new calling in ministry

Future chaplain makes impact in local community as well

1st Lt. Denise Denniston, a Washington National Guard Soldier in the Chaplain Corps Candidate Program, is also a youth ministry leader at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tacoma. /Tyler Hemstreet

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Away from the hustle and bustle of her daily life in Washington, Army National Guard Soldier Denise Denniston had a lot of time to think during her one-year deployment Iraq in 2008.

Denniston, at the time an enlisted combat medic attached to an Army field artillery unit, enjoyed her duty treating Soldiers' wounds, but yearned for an even more meaningful job.

"I started really reflecting on my life," said the 27-year-old, who grew up in the Lewis County town of Toledo.

She thought of her father, who she said lost his faith in God while serving in the Army during Vietnam.

"Seeing all the horrors of war can sometimes really make you wrestle with who God is," she said. "(My father) had no one to mentor him and guide him (spiritually), to my knowledge."

Denniston wanted to make sure that wasn't going to happen to other Soldiers under her watch. Throughout her deployment, the Soldier would routinely lead prayer groups with other Christian Soldiers before her convoy security detail would venture on missions outside the wire.

"We started seeing more people come into the prayer circle with us," she said.

And although she was still treating physical wounds throughout the deployment, she was also helping Soldiers with any emotional or spiritual troubles they were having.

"I definitely did a lot of pastoral stuff," Denniston said. "I believe God is a god of relationships."

After she returned from the deployment, Denniston set the wheels in motion to become a chaplain. She earned direct commission into the Chaplain Corps Candidate Program and is now on the fast track to becoming just the third female chaplain in the Washington National Guard.

"My goal is to be able to be by Soldiers as they wrestle with tough questions of faith," Denniston, now a first lieutenant with the 96th Troop Command, said.

In addition to taking classes at Fuller Theological Seminary in Seattle to earn her master's degree in divinity, part of the process for chaplain ordination in the Presbyterian faith includes a pastoral internship at a local church. Denniston leads bible studies and is the youth ministry leader at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tacoma.

"That's the beauty of serving in the National Guard. You get to live out a life in and around your community," said Denniston, who lives just down the street from the church.

The Soldier has helped build a passionate youth program - consisting mostly of children whose parents don't attend the church - that will have life far beyond her tenure, said Heather James, Westminster's lead pastor.

"That to me is the sign of a great leader," James said.

Denniston has also put a face on the Guard's presence in a community where not too many are familiar with today's Servicemembers.

"She's really showed me the incredible relationships Soldiers have with one another in the military, and she's brought that same excellence into the civilian sector," James said.

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