By Norris Burkes May 28 2024

Do you know anyone whose last name appropriately describes them?

Such names are called an aptronym because their name “aptly” matches their job or personality in a humorous or ironic way.

During the years I served as an Air Force chaplain, I knew a few chaplains fittingly named. For instance, Chaplain Grace was a Universalist minister whose theology extended grace to all. And Chaplain Love was a caring and popular Catholic priest.

But it was 2nd Lieutenant Friend, who tried a little too hard to become his aptronym, that really made an impression. I met him 35 years ago when I began my career as a 1st Lieutenant.  

He was a “Chaplain Candidate,” a seminary student, who is granted the rank of 2nd Lieutenant for a 90-day trial period. The program provides on-the-job orientation for potential chaplains.

“Just try it,” candidates are told by recruiters. “You can quit anytime without further commitment.”

But if candidates don’t show the aptitude, the USAF can jettison the “butter bar” with little cause. In other words, the candidate can be “fired.” (The single gold bar of the 2nd Lieutenant rank resembles a butter bar.)

During his short summer stay, Friend was given the opportunity to preach in the chapel, make ministry visits on a busy flightline (airport) and make hospital calls to sick airmen.

Friend made his aptronym known all over base, introducing himself as a “Friend of Jesus.” He was, as vets say, “Living the Dream.”

Yet with all his responsibilities, he sought more recognition.

One summer day, he approached our boss with a question.

“Is there a way I can earn a medal while I’m here?”

“No, we don’t give out medals to candidates,” said our Senior Chaplain, a full-bird colonel (the rank below general).

The request must have sounded a bit self-centered because the boss asked his chapel staff for feedback on Friend.

“He told me that parishioners think he’s the best chaplain on base,” I said, “and they wish he was preaching every Sunday.”

Our staff priest volunteered that Friend had interrupted flight line staff meetings with his tardiness.

Finally, the chaplain assistants chimed in. “He thinks chaplains should be able to carry guns like other officers.”

“I’ll talk to him about that,” our boss said. “He should know that the Geneva Convention classifies chaplains as non-combatants so we can neither train with, nor carry, weapons.” (Chaplain Assistants remain armed in combat zones to protect their chaplains.)

Sadly, I’m not sure Friend got clarity about the weapons training prohibition. That’s because one day, he returned to the chapel office with a blue-yellow-green ribbon on his chest.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“It’s a Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon,” Friend boasted. “I stopped by the range, and they invited me to qualify.”

Before I could respond, the boss bellowed from his office.

“Lieutenant Friend! Get in here.”

I don’t know what our boss said. Perhaps he quoted Jesus’ words in Luke 14:11, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled….”  Or maybe he made his point with James 4:10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”

I can’t say, but I do know the boss delivered some not-so-friendly-fire on the candidate’s written evaluation. Sometimes the best spiritual lessons don’t come in lectures.

A few weeks later, the colonel brought that eval to the Base Headquarters for the commander’s signature.

“Is this report true?” the base commander asked. “Did your candidate really say and do all this?”

“Yes, but I think he deserves another chance next summer,” said our boss, always full of grace.

“Not on my base,” said the commander.

And with that final word, our chaplain office became…

Wait for it.

You know I’m going to say it.

Our chapel office became forever Friend-less.


Epilogue – Fifteen years later, I was scolded for nearly the same thing as I helped security cops on a training mission load their magazines with blanks. Fortunately, I was a commissioned chaplain, not a candidate.

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