Chaplain, Soldier, Student

May 11, 2012 by Tom Dellner

The remarkable story of psychology student Captain Kenneth Okeze

Captain Kenneth Okeze is an extraordinary human being. A deeply religious man, he immigrated to the United States from his native Nigeria to do missionary work, reaching out and ministering to drug addicts on the streets of Los Angeles, California.

Okeze also pursued his formal divinity studies, eventually earning a BA from Summit Bible College. His future was beginning to take shape. But it would have to wait.

Okeze decided to enlist in the U.A. Army. He saw an opportunity to provide spiritual support to service members. But equally important for Okeze was the chance to give back to the country that he believed had given him so much opportunity, so much hope.

Captain Okeze is now stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, a chaplain in the 113th Combat Stress Control Unit. He’s also enrolled as a student in CalSouthern’s Master of Arts in Psychology degree program and is continuing his studies while deployed.

CalSouthern recently caught up with Captain Okeze by telephone. Following is just a portion of his remarkable story.

 

Kenneth OkezeCalifornia Southern University: Can you please describe the role of a chaplain working in combat stress control?

Captain Kenneth Okeze: The chaplain provides special emotional and religious support to casualties and military staff in the combat zone. I am part of a combat stress control unit which is a behavioral health medical detachment with a team of psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, psychiatrist doctors, and behavioral health specialists, in addition to a chaplain.

 

CalSouthern: What are some of the most common sources of stress that impact service members?

Capt. Okeze: Relationship issues are common. Deployment puts a great strain on service members’ relationships with spouses and other family. It might be surprising to learn that financial issues are very common, too. And of course, combat exposure—dealing with the emotions that combat invokes: responding to injury, witnessing friends being injured or killed—is enormously stressful.

 

CalSouthern: How is the chaplain’s work coordinated with that of the psychologists and other mental health professionals in theater?

Capt. Okeze: A chaplain needs to recognize when a soldier’s problem extends beyond our training, in which case it is our responsibility to refer the solder to a psychologist or other mental health professional. We facilitate the introduction and initial conversation, to minimize the stress of the referral and to help the caregiver do his or her job as effectively as possible.

 

CalSouthern: Is there still stigma attached to a service member seeking help to deal with mental or emotional issues?

Capt. Okeze: Unfortunately, yes, although I believe it is getting better. I do have soldiers come to me in secret out of worry that they will be seen by their commanding officer as “weak.” But things are improving. The military is working to ensure that those who seek help will not see their military careers suffer as a result. Also, soldiers are being educated to see mental health support not as a sign of weakness, but as a form of training that will make them stronger, more effective soldiers. Also, commanding officers are increasingly understanding that we are there not to send their soldiers home, but to prepare them to be ready for combat or to effectively deal with stress so that they can better do their jobs.

 

CalSouthern: What are some of the highlights of your deployment in Afghanistan?

Capt. Okeze: I know that I have given hope to combat-exposed soldiers who were struggling with feelings of hopelessness. Others have had suicidal ideation, and I believe I have helped some service members decide not to take their lives. It’s been a blessing and I believe God has sent me here to help these soldiers. We—chaplains—are privileged that some service members are comfortable enough with us that they will speak when they will not speak with anyone else. It is a great privilege that comes with a great responsibility.

 

CalSouthern: May we ask why you chose to come to immigrate to America from Nigeria and what ultimately led you to enlist in the army?

Capt. Okeze: I came to the U.S. as a religious worker, a missionary. I settled near Los Angeles and did a lot of outreach work, especially among drug addicts. I also enrolled in college to study divinity.

I enlisted in the military, not only for the opportunity to provide spiritual support to service members, but also as a way to pay back the country that has done so much for me and that has given me so much hope for my future.

 

CalSouthern: You are continuing your studies while on deployment. Has that been as challenging as it sounds?

Capt. Okeze: In order to succeed in life, there’s always a price to be paid. Our work hours can be long—12-, 14- or even 18-hour days—but eventually you have some free time, and then I can get to my laptop and do my schoolwork. Maybe I sacrifice a little sleep or the opportunity to have a bit of fun, but I know I am doing something of great benefit to my future. I also like the example it sets for some of the younger soldiers over here who watch me study. I encourage them to do the same. I tell them that if they have the time to play around and be on Facebook for hours, they could be doing something to better their future.

Also, my schoolwork makes my deployment go faster and keeps boredom from setting in. I look forward to it and find myself thinking about my next discussion board post or assignment. Then, I do my work when I can. Next thing I know, a week has gone by. Now I’m in my deployment’s 15th week—it’s gone by relatively quickly, and I know that having my studies to concentrate on has helped me get through it.

 

CalSouthern: What has your experience at CalSouthern been like?

Capt. Okeze: It’s been great. I have had experience with an on-ground university and with another online university and I’ve never found the kind of support I get at CalSouthern. Faculty and staff treat students as being part of the family. If I have an issue or question, I’ll send an email and then, when I wake up the next morning, I’ll have received an answer. At my other online school, it would sometimes take them two weeks to solve a problem. CalSouthern has been a blessing. My mentors support me when I struggle and celebrate me when I succeed. It’s given me the morale support to continue on despite the challenges I face.

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