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Garrison chaplain looks back fondly on two-year joint base transition

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Life can take unexpected turns, even for men of the cloth.

When Chaplain (Col.) Gary Studniewski returned from Iraq in 2009 at the end of a deployment with 555th Engineer Brigade, he was prepared to move on from Fort Lewis. Instead he made the promotion list to colonel and was named garrison chaplain of the soon-to-be Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

A month later in February 2010, Studniewski found himself leading a prayer to bless the new joint base.

"My prayer likened us to a marriage; we are two unique individuals coming together. We're not trying to lose any individuality, but we are trying to build a new strength," he said. "We prayed that the good Lord would make something new happen here - a new creation out of two distinct cultures and way of doing things. And by golly, I think we've seen that happen over the last couple of years."

Studniewski left JBLM two weeks ago to be the command chaplain for 5th U.S. Army, or Army North, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Studniewski took time before he left to process the many changes the installation experienced. He has helped create and expand many programs to help Soldiers, Airmen and their families and supervised the migration of religious services and meetings among three JBLM chapels undergoing major renovations. The chapels routinely provide space for family readiness groups and military units as well as religious groups.

"Don't say ‘no' to anybody, that's my philosophy," Studniewski said. "If somebody wants to use a facility, find a way to say ‘yes.'"

The renovations at Lewis Main Chapel, Evergreen and Four Chaplains' Memorial Chapel have cost approximately $7 million; major projects like these would not have happened without the support of the entire garrison command team, from JBLM Commander Col. Thomas Brittain to the many of the directorates, Studniewski said.

"We can be very thankful that we've had such a we have a wonderful team, not just religious support team but garrison team, that keeps our religious support facilities functional and available to a wider community, not just people (who) are religious," he said.

But Studeniewski is proudest of the expansion of youth ministry services at JBLM on his watch. The program, Club Beyond, gives young people a safe, supportive place to discuss religion, make friends and have fun, he said, which is vital to the community.

"If you want resiliency in our future adult population and military population, don't you want to make sure our kids have a great foundation established on lasting values and principles to chart out their life course with?" he asked rhetorically.

For the chaplaincy, those values are rooted in religion, but their main purpose is to support service members and families - religious or not.

"It doesn't matter if they are atheists or what they are, the chapel exists to somehow support them because values, like Army values, apply no matter what religion you adhere to. The chaplaincy helps instill those moral values in military communities," he said.

While Studeniewski has been an Army chaplain since 1998, he started his military career as an artillery officer after completing ROTC in college. He loved the Army, but knew firing big guns wasn't his calling.

"Something inside me told me this isn't the way you're supposed to spend the rest of your life," he said.

He entered the seminary to become a Catholic priest and was ordained in 1995. He spent three years in a civilian parish before rejoining the Army, with his bishop's permission.

"I was first called to priesthood, then the second call, a call within a call, was as an Army chaplain," he said. "It's so wonderful in life when you know that you're doing what you're called to do."

Before joining the garrison team, Studniewski was skeptical about being a part of the "administrative" side of the Army, but he learned quickly the hard work required to run an installation.

"In this place it's just amazing having to work on garrison staff. With all of the demands, it's like you're asking me to do what? With what you're giving me? Time after time they've risen up," he said. "It's the incredible professional work force, (with) family, community members and military behind it, which of course makes this possible."

To get things done, commanders and their staffs have to be in sync, help each other to clear paths and and anticipate demands. Studniewski credited the JBLM commander with enabling him to get things done despite limited resources.

"Colonel Brittain has been absolutely supportive of everything that I've asked. He's had to be creative because money is tight," he said.

Brittain expressed his gratitude while awarding the departing chaplain the Legion of Merit on June 19.

"Thank you for your leadership, involvement, personal and professional friendship," Brittain said. "(Studniewski) worked for every family member, service member and retiree. This is a small way to say thank you for your service."

Studniewski said he will take with him to Texas many fond memories of JBLM and its people, but is glad to leave the rain behind.

"What will I miss? That spirit," Studniewski said. "It's been more prevalent here for me than prior assignments."

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