By Andy Steiner Photo By Tracey Brown
If you ask her father, he’ll tell you that Rebekah Savage Montgomery ’96 was destined for a life of service.
“It’s how she was wired,” says Phillip H. Savage, a retired attorney
and civil rights activist who was an associate of Martin Luther King,
Jr. “And it’s also how she was raised. So that’s just the kind of person
Rebekah turned out to be.”
Montgomery, now an Army National Guard chaplain on active
duty, is grateful to have been raised by parents who infused her with
a sense of social responsibility. It gave her life a sense of direction—a
spiritual backbone, if you will. “I grew up in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition, where social justice and serving the community are a big part of how we view the world,” Montgomery says.
Her parents predicted that Montgomery’s service inclinations,
combined with her academic ability, would eventually lead her to a
medical career. But this is where her story takes a gentle turn. Though
she entered Macalester pre-med, Montgomery soon decided to study subjects that truly drew her interest. Eventually, she decided to major in religious studies.
During her senior year, Montgomery joined classics professor
Andy Overman on an archeological dig in the Black Sea region of Russia
and Ukraine. She discussed with Overman her desire for a career
of service, and he suggested she apply to Union Theological Seminary in New York. She did, and after graduation that’s where she went.
In 2001, Montgomery was a Unitarian Universalist minister
working as a hospital chaplain when she heard that the World Trade
Center had been attacked. As the world slowly came to terms with the
disaster, Montgomery decided to do something to help her country and the military personnel who serve it.
“I realized I had a lot of skills to offer, including a strong impulse toward service, which is how I view the role of a military chaplain,” she says. She contacted all branches of the military, and the Army National Guard called her first. Says Montgomery, “It was a total leap of faith.” She was ordained in 2002 and commissioned in September 2003.
While doing hurricane relief work in Florida early in her army
career, Montgomery met Captain Travis Montgomery, a civil affairs
officer with the Army Reserve. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to date anyone
in the military,” Montgomery laughs now. “I struggled with the idea of getting serious with Travis. Turns out it was a good decision.” The couple married in 2005.
Montgomery was deployed to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2006,
spending a year with one brigade, then volunteering to stay on six
months with the next brigade. As one of three chaplains assigned to
serve the religious needs of 3,400 soldiers stationed across Afghanistan, Montgomery led multi-faith services, provided counseling, led scripture studies, and officiated at memorial services. “My task force was stationed all over the country,” she says. “Because there were only three chaplains on duty, we’d rotate. I’d go down range for a week or two, then I’d switch places with the next guy and head back to our headquarters in Kabul.”
Even though military chaplains are noncombatants, that doesn’t
mean they’re removed from the horrors and hardships of war. Montgomery
recalls one incident in which three young soldiers were killed
and their entire battalion grieved. Montgomery, too, was devastated.
“As chaplains, we can get overwhelmed by the grief and sorrow we’re
exposed to,” she says. “To put it plainly, I was struck down by my
emotions. That night I assisted in a dignified transfer of remains, and
in that moment I thought, ‘What if this were my son or husband?’
For the first time in my military career I was overcome by grief and
I cried.” She calmed herself by retreating to her tent and calling her
husband, then stationed in another part of Afghanistan.
“As a military chaplain, it’s my job to keep one hand in the fire,”
she later realized. “I need to witness and feel the suffering and cruelty
that the people I serve with are also feeling. If I don’t let myself
feel with them, how can I possibly do what I’ve been charged to do?” When she returned from her service in Afghanistan, Montgomery was awarded the Bronze Star.
Inspired by Montgomery’s caring ministry, innate cheerfulness, and “unfailingly positive attitude,” her commander, Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Bruce Farrell, nominated her for Military Chaplain of the Year, a distinguished service award presented by the Military Chaplains Association. She subsequently won the award, which was presented in July 2009.
“Rebekah has energy, good personal skills and good Army staff
skills,” says Farrell. “She’s a positive person with the courage to face
work problems. This nation requires people in the military to face
some pretty rough stuff. A good chaplain—and that’s what Rebekah is—acts as a kind of shock absorber for the daily stresses of military service. She puts a human face on a not-so-human organization.”
Seven years in, Montgomery has no plans to end her military
commitment, though she is happy to now be residing in her hometown
of Bethesda, Maryland, where her parents and sister also live.
She and Travis have two children, 3-year-old Genevieve and 1-yearold Thane.
Montgomery was recently named program manager of the Army
National Guard Strong Bonds Program, an Army program designed
to help service members and their families strengthen relationships
challenged by deployment stresses. Having delivered their son during
his father’s second deployment, she understands the strains caused
by military-enforced separation and hopes that her program—which
runs weekend retreats for military families—can help others going
through similar situations.
“I have unending respect for the spouses and family members of military service members,” she says. “It may be the soldiers who raise their hands and take the oath, but it’s really their families who serve.”