MOAA Member, Chaplain Follows Unexpected Call to History-Making Role

MOAA Member, Chaplain Follows Unexpected Call to History-Making Role
Chaplain Lt. Col. Martha Kester, ARNG, smiles during a Passing of the Stole Ceremony at Joint Force Headquarters in Johnston, Iowa, on Oct. 22, 2022. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Tawny Kruse/Iowa National Guard)

By Kathie Rowell


Lt. Col. (Rev.) Martha Kester, ARNG, is sure God has a sense of humor. What other explanation can there be for how she, reared in a far-left antimilitary East Coast family, became a National Guard chaplain in Iowa?


As Kester said, “TKO decision goes to God.”


An Episcopal priest who graduated from seminary in 2006 after a career in youth ministry, she made history last fall with Lt. Col. (Rev.) Heather Simon of the New Jersey National Guard when they were named co-first female state chaplains in the National Guard. 


“As I just keep seeking his timing, it all seems to work out,” Kester, 55, said.


Kester, a Life Member of MOAA, had never considered joining the military until a recruiter visited her seminary campus.


“The Gulf War is kind of raging, and they're in need of chaplains, because every battalion has a slot for a chaplain, and they didn't have enough chaplains to fill all the slots. I said, ‘Well, let's walk through it and see where see where God lands us.’”


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Her concern for the soldiers fighting that war aided her decision.


“How much more important is it that soldiers have that spiritual aspect to help deal with the issues they face that the civilian world just doesn't — can't — understand? If you haven't lived it, if you haven't put on the uniform, you just can't.”


Ultimately, Kester landed as assistant rector, now rector, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Des Moines, Iowa, and attached to the Iowa National Guard.


She got firsthand experience at ministering to soldiers during war when she deployed to Afghanistan with the 334 Brigade Support Battalion, part of the 2/34th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, from 2010-11. Her goal, she said, was to offer hope.


“The point of the chaplain is that you are really that representative of God in the midst of a horrible situation,” she said.


Kester spent 13 years with the Iowa Guard before transferring to the Nebraska Guard as deputy state chaplain in 2019. Three years later, Brig. Gen. Steven J. Kremer, ARNG, asked her to return to the Iowa Guard as state chaplain.


“To be the state chaplain, you must be more than a chaplain,” Kremer said.  “You need to set the example; lead your subordinate chaplains; develop and execute training, as well as funding; ensure all soldiers have access to religious services; recruit new/additional chaplains; and provide the senior leaders of the Iowa National Guard the insight to the spiritual fitness of the force. Martha provides all these skills, as well as is an excellent chaplain with amazing abilities to listen, communicate, and support every soldier in the organization. Without question, we are blessed to have Chaplain Kester as our state chaplain.”


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In hindsight, Kester knows her decision to join the military was the right one.


“I wouldn't trade it for the world,” she said. “I think what I do in the parish makes me a better Army chaplain and what I do in the Army makes me a better parish priest.”


Kathie Rowell is a writer based in Louisiana.


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