It still gives the Rev. Matt Friese chills when he recalls the morning of Sept. 22, 1995, when 22 Americans and two Canadians died after their Boeing E-3 Sentry jet crashed on takeoff from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, during a training mission.
Friese was with the wife of a church member who was on the plane when she was brought into the commander’s office.
“She was informed about his death, and I was also with her during the time she went to pick up her 6-year-old daughter from school,” he said. “I will never forget her running across the lobby calling ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, we prayed that Daddy would be the first off the plane.’ The mom said, ‘Daddy was with Jesus and he will not be coming home.’ It still brings tears to my eyes.”
As a pastor and full-time chaplain with the Wisconsin Air National Guard, Friese has seen his share of tragedy throughout his two tours in Afghanistan, Antarctica and Kuwait, but the desire to serve and witness God’s healing love to others is stronger than the heartache experienced. His recent tour as wing chaplain at Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem Air Base with the 128th Air Refueling Wing from Milwaukee occurred less than a year after he began serving as pastor of Pleasant Prairie Baptist Church.
“I started at Pleasant Prairie Baptist Church in the fall of 2016, was deployed in July of 2017 and returned in July of 2018,” he said. “The Kuwaiti people were friendly and kind and overall it was a great environment to be in. On the air side, there were three chaplains and three assistants; I was the lead for the air base and they directly reported to us.”
Helping stressed troops
While overseeing several thousand troops, Friese helped soldiers through the stresses of deployment, issues back home, illnesses, relationship problems, depression and loss of life.
“When life happens on the other side of the earth, it is extremely challenging when you leave home because ‘Murphy’ shows up — and the dishwasher, washer or dryer suddenly doesn’t work, or there are other home maintenance issues that, if the member was home, would be taken care of,” he said. “Now with the deployment, the one at home has to hire someone to help, and the extra expenses and stress are difficult.”
One of the more devastating issues affecting troops are the “Dear John” letters, and Friese has walked with many soldiers through the anguish of learning that what they thought was true love was not true.
“The Dear John letters are extremely painful,” he said. “And then, there are other stories of great faith. There were others who had situations like that, and I was able to counsel the member here and the spouse back home on multiple occasions. That is very rewarding for me, but one of the most rewarding aspects of that is knowing the little people — who will never know me or see a picture of me — would have the opportunity to grow up with mom and dad, and that is an enormous impact in the life of kids.”
One of Friese’s responsibilities as a military chaplain is to assist the troops in being resilient and to be able to bounce back from life’s experiences. The Air Force teaches its members to use the four pillars of Comprehensive Airman Fitness — mental, physical, social and spiritual — to help build and sustain a resilient workplace and community.
“I can help challenge people to reflect on their lives and where they are going,” he said. “There is a great opportunity with the chapel to support members and international members holding weekly church services, holidays, special events, memorials and transition ceremonies for the fallen.”
Friese received an Outstanding Achievement Award from Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella Jr., USAF Commander, for the dignified transfer of seven fallen heroes as they transitioned through the area of responsibility at Ali Al Salem Air Base. He also oversaw continuous on-call support, coordinated critical care with 16 helping agencies, supported counseling of 460 Airmen and helped avert four suicides, as well as overseeing personnel through traumatic and life-shattering events for airmen and those at home. He also developed a spiritual care model that included mentoring Air Force, Army, coalition and civilian members, as well as much more.
When Friese left for Kuwait, he resigned his position at Pleasant Prairie Baptist, as he wasn’t sure how his life would unfold afterwards and whether he could devote enough time to the church, his family and his role as military chaplain.
“I was concerned that I could meet the needs of the church and my family, but I knew God would take care of the church and he did — with the interim pastor, Dave Dryer — but he handed it back to me when I came back in January of this year,” he said. “It is awesome to be back, and I have no doubt that God has called me to be the pastor of this church. I just have to say that when military are deployed, most are concerned about who will care for their family when they are gone. But for me, knowing that Pleasant Prairie Baptist cared, and took care of my family, spoke volumes to me. The sent me care packages and reached out to my wife, Noelle, and our kids. We are so happy to be part of the community and we are selling our home in Oak Creek and moving down to the Pleasant Prairie area.”
Friese will remain with the 128th Air Refueling Wing for the next four to five years, but his chance for another deployment will not be for another few years, unless world events change drastically.
“We are a single-income home, as my wife stays home and home schools our five youngest kids,” he said. “By remaining in the military, our medical and financial needs are taken care of so I can still be part of the Pleasant Prairie Baptist community. I am so thankful for our church, the love for me and my family, and I am excited to be able to invest in them and the community. I am in partnership with other pastors in the area, and when we get down there and the situation holds, I will be getting involved with them.”
If you go
What: Pleasant Prairie Baptist Church
Where: 12323 Green Bay Road
Sunday school, 9 a.m. (all ages)
Sunday worship service, 10 a.m.
Wednesday prayer meeting, 6 p.m.