Toledo, OH -- It is the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth. There is no further or more remote deployment military personnel can be sent on. Operation Deep Freeze takes Air National Guardsmen 2400 miles south of New Zealand and is a scientific operation, not a military one.
But the Air National Guard has two unique assets at its disposal that are necessary to the success of the United States Antarctic Program; the special ski-equipped LC-130 transport aircraft from the 109th Airlift Wing in Schenectady, New York and the Air National Guard Chaplain Corps.
"We can provide something unique," said Maj. Pete Drury, Chaplain at the 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton, Ohio. "We can provide what a full civilian or a full military person can't."
Drury was one of three ANG Chaplains selected to be sent to the bottom of the world for this very special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once a Chaplain has completed a mission there, they will not be selected again.
"One of the cool things that an ANG Chaplain can provide is that we understand and can accommodate the secular person and the person who has a non-religious spirituality," Drury said with a characteristically broad smile. "Because a non-religious person still has spiritual needs. We have a unique capacity to provide that."
The Antarctic Program's mission is to not only expand knowledge of the continent itself but to also further research on climate changes, space, and many global issues of scientific importance. The remote and diverse community is made up of civilians, government officials and employees, scientists, graduate students, contractors, and military personnel.
Even though caring for and catering to the many different needs of the community may sound like a challenge, it's a challenge that Drury relishes. And the town of McMurdo doesn't disappoint in presenting that challenge. Comprised of approximately 850 citizens, the townspeople of McMurdo come from all types of non-religious and religious backgrounds.
"We're not just there for the ANG folks who are flying the LC-130s, we're there for the town," said Drury, explaining that he did not wear his uniform six out of seven days a week. "The people who go to Antarctica aren't your usual demographic. You get to work with, I think, the most interesting and eclectic people on Earth."
Drury recounted stories to explain just how eclectic and interesting the people really are in McMurdo. When he first arrived, a support worker from the town was showing him around, helping him get acclimated to his surroundings.
"I told him I wanted to know where everything was around town. So he's pointing out 'these people are in this building, that's the electrical shop.' And all through the conversation he's talking about Socrates and Plato, history, science and philosophy. It's almost a university feel."
It was summer for the six weeks he was "on the ice" and Drury didn't see a sunset until he was back in New Zealand. But snow rarely melts in Antarctica, not even to give way for a run.
"I did a half-marathon on the ice shelf. I did a 10k the first week I was there," said Drury proudly. "When the ice starts to melt, it gets slushy. But not like it gets slushy in Ohio. It's a dry slushy, it's more like running in sand."
The "summer" in Antarctica might be hard to imagine for people living in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly when you remember that's the holiday season. Not only did Drury provide over a hundred counseling sessions, weekend services, and guaranteed the free exercise of religion for all faiths represented, he also provided holiday services.
"Over the holidays they get a big boost in morale. That's the second part of what we do, providing for other religious traditions," Drury said. "The Jewish community said they had the best Hanukkah in 20 years. We were featured in the BBC's 'Hanukkah in Antarctica.' One pilot mentioned that this year's Hanukkah was the next best thing to being home."
Providing for other religious traditions and non-religious spiritual needs of military members is something the Guard Chaplains do every day they wear a uniform. But because he has a civilian side himself, Drury found he was well prepared to provide for the non-military needs as well.
"That comes from being in the Air National Guard. The military provides the awareness and the mindset on how to do the neutral part. The civilian side helps us better connect with the civilian population," Drury said. "We have a unique niche that provides this. This is a time when we really hit our stride."
Drury said that while military members are accustomed to the idea of privileged communication, a civilian is not. They are not readily familiar with the non-religious counsel a chaplain can provide.
"A civilian needs to be told 'You can talk to us in complete confidentiality," said Drury. "But once they find that out, they talk about whatever they need."
In a stark, unforgiving, and austere environment like Antarctica, a chaplain's counsel can be in high demand. The harsh reality is that on an island as big as the continental United States and Mexico combined, with limited medical facilities, the danger of injury or even death is ever-present. Bereavement and grief counseling are part of what the chaplains are there to do.
But the landscape can provide a certain dazzling beauty as well. Drury spoke reverently about the Chapel of the Snows, the southernmost facility dedicated to worship in the world, as being one of the most unique places he's ever been to.
"It overlooks Mt. Discovery. You look out the back and you see this spectacular Transantarctic mountain range."
Drury's time there might have been short, but it is clear he cherished every minute he was there. Drury's favorite part of the trip was being with the people in McMurdo. He couldn't speak highly enough of the people there.
"You get this amazing group, I love that. In a lot of ways, I felt like I had the easiest six weeks out of the whole season."