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Interview with Eric S. Renne, December 18, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Eric S. Renne, December 18, 2003
December 18, 2003
Born in Southern New Jersey, Chaplain Renne recounts how his love for aviation led him into the Air Force Chaplaincy. Describes life as a "rat" in the Corps at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, now Virginia Tech. Served as chaplain in both Korea and Vietnam. Chaplain Renne emphasizes how he believes that a chaplain can only serve if he is involved in the everyday life of the military.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Renne, Eric S. Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  12/18/2003 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  60 minutes

Zarbock: Good afternoon. My name is Paul Zarbock, a staff person with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Today is December the 18th in the year 2003, and we are located in McLean, Virginia. This videotape is part of the Military Chaplaincy Reminiscence Project. Today's interviewee is Lieutenant Colonel, Eric S. Renne. Eric, you said you're most frequently called Ric?

Renne: Ric.

Zarbock: Good afternoon, sir, and how are you?

Renne: Just fine, thank you.

Zarbock: I'm going to start off, Colonel, by asking you, what event or series of events, or what individual or series of individuals, led you into the ministry? What preceded it, and how did you get there?

Renne: Okay, that's an interesting question. A lot of it has to do with my-- I would say, with my upbringing. I was raised in a family that was very actively involved in church life in the Presbyterian tradition. My father was an Elder and my mother later became one within the Reform tradition, and very active-- my grandfather, as well.

Zarbock: Where was this, sir?

Renne: This was in Southern New Jersey. I was born in Bridgeton, New Jersey, but grew up in the neighboring town of Vineland. That's where I spent all of my young years, all the way through high school. And because of that nurturing and involvement, I was certainly involved in all the usual activities with our home congregation or parish. And when I went off to college at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, which is now better known as Virginia Tech, I continued my involvement in religious activities, and that encompassed a lot of things throughout my four years of undergraduate work at Tech.

Zarbock: When did you start Virginia Tech, and when did you graduate?

Renne: I began in the Fall-- September, 1958, and graduated in June of 1962. During part of my time there, well, back up a little bit-- you asked about people that influenced me. I guess, aside from local involvement at home and my involvement in the Westminster Fellowship, which was the collegiate activity at school, one of the persons who really impacted my life profoundly, was the Presbyterian Minister for Students at VPI, named Woody Leech. Woody arrived on the scene in Blacksburg the same year that I did, and we started out together, and we're still very close friends. I would have to characterize it by saying that he probably was very influential in a roundabout way in my becoming a chaplain, eventually-- or going into the ministry, not so much maybe being a chaplain. But I stayed heavily involved throughout my four years in college. I was, for a couple of years, the Synod of Virginia Treasurer, which is the statewide organization for all the collegiate Westminster Fellowships, and so I was involved on a statewide level, as well as on a local level, in those activities. And that was always something that I enjoyed, and I look back on fondly with a lot of interesting memories.

Zarbock: Am I correct that your university training was a heavy dose of science, technology?

Renne: That's correct. I started out-- well, back up a little bit. I went through high school at the time of the Soviet space business, which put us behind, if you will, as a country, and when Sputnik went up, there was this-- .

Zarbock: I'm sorry, when what went up?

Renne: Sputnik. The satellite, Sputnik.

Zarbock: For the purpose of this tape, which maybe, years and years from now, will be reviewed by somebody, what is a Sputnik?

Renne: Sputnik was the name that was given to the first Russian satellite, or the Soviet satellite, that was put in orbit. They placed it in orbit before we were able to do anything, and that created quite a stir. I remember it quite vividly. And my father was very interested in it, as well, and he would come in the morning and tell me, "I saw"-- not Sputnik, but it was a later satellite that went up-- not too much later, and he remembered seeing it going overhead, because the light was reflecting off of it, and got me up one morning early to see it go over. Maybe that ties in a little bit. I'll mention something and then we'll come back to it later, why aviation is so important. My mother always told me that the first word I ever spoke was "airplane." When I saw a plane go over in my very young years, that's what prompted that response, as I was always fascinated with airplanes, and that remains true to this day. But back to the Sputnik business. When that happened in our country, there was a lot of concern in the populace about it-- "We're behind, we need to do something," and there was a tremendous push in high school, at least that's my perception, that we needed to catch up. We needed to be more involved in a scientific way, as a country. And so many of us were encouraged to consider the field of engineering, and my mother prompted me to think about that. I was a good student, and that sounded like a reasonable course of action. And so I decided that that's what I was going to attempt to do-- study to become an engineer of some sort.

Also, in the back of my mind, I was interested in something connected with aviation, as well. I ended up going to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute-- and now added to it, and State University-- as I said before, better known as Virginia Tech, because I was interested in a particular field of engineering which appealed to me, and that is agricultural engineering. I grew up on a farm, so some of where that comes from. And if you know anything about the disciplines involved in agricultural engineering, it's kind of a collection of a lot of the other engineering specialties-- especially civil, electrical and mechanical. It's kind of a-- a jack-of-all-trades, I guess, that might be one way to describe it. And that appealed to me as something that I wanted to explore.

And so that kind of narrowed my choice of where I was to seek my education, and it came down to three-- I applied to three universities. Rutgers, primarily because my uncle who was the Montana State University President, my father's brother, that's where he had graduated from, and as soon as I applied to them, they almost immediately accepted me. I think that was influenced a lot by my uncle's reputation. Rutgers was never high on my list. And West Virginia University offered the same program, and I applied to them but was never seriously interested-- and also then to VPI. My mother and I took a visit to VPI in the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. I was fascinated and really struck by the beauty of the campus and a lot of other things that I saw at the time. And we felt that this was a good choice, after we looked over a number of things and met with the Admissions people and went through all the usual stuff that you do. And you have to remember that Virginia Tech, at that time, was a much smaller institution than it is now, and we're talking in the neighborhood of 5,000 students, whereas now it's 25,000-plus. So it's a different ballgame altogether. But still, I was very favorably impressed and decided that it was going to be my first choice.

Of course, things worked out, and I was accepted there and entered in the fall of 1958. I was somewhat aware, but not as aware as perhaps I should have been, of the military system. Virginia Tech and Texas A-and-M are the only two universities in the country that are senior military colleges, as well as being a co-ed and civilian university, where you have a full-time military corps within the student body. And when you're in that type of program, it's essentially the same as being in one of the academies. A lot of people don't understand that and what's involved. Back in those days, because of the then-current law, and Virginia Tech being a land-grant university, every able-bodied male had to take ROTC as a mandatory requirement for your first two years. And to do that at Virginia Tech, you had to be in the Corps and to be part of that lifestyle while you were there. After two years, you could opt out of that, if you wanted to.

So I was automatically into that. It was a much more rigorous involvement than I realized, going in. But I learned to deal with it. The first year is called your "rat year," and-- if you know anything about VMI or the plebe system in the military academies, that's what we went through for nine months, and it was quite a rigorous undertaking. But yet it was very good for me, because it taught me a lot of things, in terms of, not only discipline, but in terms of being responsible for yourself. And the first year, your total responsibility is for yourself, and you learn how to manage your time and do things, and then as years go on, you begin to take on other responsibilities. Of course, as part of this, I was in the Air Force ROTC, which was one of my goals-- to go into the Air Force-- because I really wanted to become a pilot. I had flown a few times in my youth, just along for a ride with some friends in a private plane. I was fascinated with that and wanted to pursue that. So that was, at the outset, was one of my goals-- to become a pilot in the United States Air Force.

The engineering took a change. After my first year in engineering, I wasn't so enamored with it. I just could not get as enthused about some of the curriculum that was required, and I struggled with a couple of things and said, "If I don't like what I'm studying, how am I going to like if I fall back on this as a profession?" because the Air Force wasn't guaranteed at that point; that's what you're shooting for. And so, I began to look around, and said, "What else can I get into that'll help me toward a degree? Because I need that in order to meet the requirements for the Air Force." Because I was definitely planning-- the more I saw of the Air Force, the more that I wanted to be part of that. And so, about halfway through my second year, I changed curriculums and went into agronomy. Now a lot of people don't know what agronomy is, but basically it's soil chemistry and science, which goes back to my agricultural background. I had met some people who were in that particular field of study, and I was interested in what they were doing. I met some of the faculty and talked with them, and decided that would be a good field of study for me, because of some of the natural things that I found in it. So I made the change and ended up majoring in agronomy, and that's what I got my Bachelor of Science Degree in, and it was a lot of chemistry and other things, which was a good pill to swallow, but I was successful in being able to do that.

Zarbock: But all during those four years, you're still in this cadet status. Is that correct?

Renne: Yes, right.

Zarbock: What did that require of you?

Renne: Well that's 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week, and that meant we got up for an early morning formation, every morning. And you have to appreciate that Blacksburg's 2000 feet above sea level, in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and out there on a winter morning, at six o'clock in the morning, we're standing in formation. Particularly I remember, as a rat, when upperclassman would come out--and it's pitch dark and we're standing at our selected spot--because we had to be in place before they even came out-- and they'd come out with flashlights to look at our shoe-shines in the middle of the darkness, to make sure that they were up to snuff. A lot of things that were irritants at the time, but yet you learned to deal with. Yet when you look back on it, even though the first year is very challenging and very demanding, it's probably one of the best years, in terms of developing friendship and developing respect for yourself and what you can do. And yes, my cadet experience was very formative in my life, I think, as I look back on it. I may just regress a little bit about it. I was part of N Squadron, which was one the ways the units were designated in the Corps at that time, you had companies or squadrons, whether they're Air Force or Army. And I happened to get into a squadron-- you're arbitrarily assigned to a squadron-- which had the reputation of being not so hot. Some even called it the party squadron, because the upperclassmen didn't take cadet life very seriously. There were a lot of negative things said about it. What was interesting, is that our class, as we began to bond together, a number of us decided that this was going to change someday, that we would accomplish something, and we'd no longer be looked at with smirks by other members of the Corps. And you have to realize that the Corps of cadets at that time was about 2,500 strong. So we're-- it was almost 50 percent of the student body. Some things I remember very distinctly. It was a tremendous feeling of pride, once you began to identify with it. When we would march onto a football field as a corps of cadets and form up, or in parades and other things, you'd begin to see the size and everybody involved, and it was a very emotional and significant event, and things that I remember very fondly.

Zarbock: For the record, how many people in the squadron?

Renne: About 130, 120, 130. I don't know, wait a minute-- thinking back, sometimes we got up close to 150, in the beginning. Of course, we lost people along the way. It wasn't everybody's cup of tea.

Zarbock: And it was called N-Squadron?

Renne: N-Squadron, yes. And we had N, O and S that were part of what we called the 4th group. We had two battalions and two groups, which made up the regiment at Tech at that time. There were some interesting experiences throughout that time, but it's a real bonding kind of thing, and I think you'll find that when you talk to people who graduate from VMI and The Citadel and others, that that's part of what happens, or they want to happen in that first year. And that was true for me. The second year, you begin to take on some responsibilities. I was asked to assume some responsibility within the squadron, minor roles, and got selected for promotion to PFC, and a number of us were. But I remember we were really proud, because they did that about twice a year, and I was part of the first batch that was picked in the Fall of my Sophomore year, and you get to wear one stripe on the bottom of your blouse sleeve-- you're proud about those things, that you're moving up. That year was successful, and then at the end of the second year-- everybody changes rank at the end of the year. So actually, the rat year ended in late May-- you were no longer a rat, then you became an upperclassman, because then you were a sophomore, at that point, cadet-wise, and no longer had to go through all the rat traditions. They still have some things at Tech, now, but the Corps discipline is a lot different from what it used to be, and I'm not deriding that, but it changed. We had to do such things when you're a rat-- you had to wear a white cloth belt that had to be perfectly clean all the time, as well as the brass buckle on it had to be absolutely shiny and no scratches, and you're checked for that all the time. And you always had to walk within six inches of the right-hand side of the sidewalk, or along the curb, and you always had to look straight ahead, you had to greet every other cadet, every other person that you met. If you didn't, you were subject to disciplinary measures. It went on and on and on.

Zarbock: The greeting could be "Good morning," "Good afternoon."

Renne: Yes, right, but you always had to greet every person, and you were expected to know everybody within your squadron or company, by name, and call them by name-- and if you didn't call 'em by name, when you met them, whether it was in the hall or whether it was outside, that was subject to demerits or rat sticks, as we called it, and there were punishments for that kind of thing. But it was good in the long run. By the time we were juniors, we began to make an impact on what was happening within the squadron, because we began to take on more and more leadership roles and we were a force. Then, in my junior year, we had a couple of senior cadets who were the leaders-- the commander of our squadron and his executive officer were really interested in making this a much better unit, and we had progressed up from the bottom. We were no longer bottom feeders, shall we say, and we were delighted that we were making progress, but we wanted to do more. But we also realized, until we took over the reins in leadership, there was only so far that we would go. And at the end of May in 1961, when we were then given the leadership of our particular company-- I had first been selected to be a flight leader, a Cadet 2nd Lieutenant-- and so, I would have the responsibility for about, oh, in the neighborhood of about 50 to 60, that would be part of my flight. And that mainly had to do a lot with our marching formations, and of course, I would be the flight commander for that, as well as other activities. We had three flights in each squadron, and I thought that's what I was going to be when we came back at the end of the summer and started the fall--well, it was quarters, then; we were on a quarter system, not a semester system. But during that same summer, I had my first active duty experience with the Air Force, because I had been accepted into their advanced ROTC program, which is what I wanted.

And in the summer of 1961, I and all of my fellow classmates, went to summer camp, which for me, was at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. And there, I don't know, there was probably a couple of hundred of us from schools throughout the southeast who were thrown together for four weeks, and in a pretty demanding environment. We were a bit annoyed, chagrined, even angry, because they took those of us who came out of VPI and the Citadel and VMI, and threw us in with what we called the civilians, who were the students who had also had ROTC, but did it at a civilian institution. They had none of the kind of rigorous background that we did, and we were all treated like "rats" again, even though here we were, rising seniors, and we're saying, "Hey, we did this for a year, and now we gotta do this again?" But the cream rises to the top, is one way to say it, and we ended up not only surviving that, but doing very well, because it was very interesting that as time wore on in that four-week encampment, overwhelmingly, all the leadership in the various units in the camp turned out to be guys from the military schools, and it was just kind of a natural for us.

I'm not trying to say that we were better than the others, but we had already had so much kind of training along these kind of lines that it was just kind of a natural. And it was a very good experience. Eglin was a fascinating place for us to go to, because it was not only a huge base in terms of area, but they did so many interesting kinds of things research-wise, there. And they would take us around and show us a lot of these things that were happening there. At the time, there were even Active Duty B-52 bombers stationed there, that were sitting on alert. And that was part of one of the orientation visits. We went out and visited the flight line and saw atomic weapons for the first time-- they're being loaded on airplanes; they were sitting alert, as well as a whole lot of fighters there that were undergoing various kinds of testing. There's the Air Force Armament Lab, where they test a lot of new systems. A lot of the things that you see today that were employed in the recent conflicts in Iraq and otherwise; that's where they're first tested, at the Eglin Range. So it was a fascinating place--aside from some of the discipline they put us through--it was a good place to understand something about what the Air Force was like.

While we were there, we got our first jet ride. Each of us was taken up in a T-33, which is an early jet fighter, a trainer version of it, and got to have a little stick time. I remember we went over-- out over the Gulf of Mexico, and the pilot was pointing out where I could see the sharks in the water down there, because it was so crystal clear. We did a number of things. And of course, that was quite an experience, and it was the highlight, I would say, of the camp when you get your first jet ride, and that was quite an experience. We later flew-- one day they took us, loaded us up in the C-47, and we went out and flew for about an hour, and all of us got a chance to sit in the cockpit and fly the airplane for a little bit. The C-47 was a very easy plane to fly, a very forgiving airplane, and we all got a chance to do that. We did a lot of other things there at Eglin, which were fascinating and just reinforced my idea that this is what I really wanted to do-- was to be a pilot.

Zarbock: But you probably weren't 21 yet, were you?

Renne: No, I wasn't. I was 20, that summer.

Zarbock: That's a heady experience, flying in a multi-engine aircraft.

Renne: Yes.

Zarbock: Getting into a jet aircraft.

Renne: Yes, it was.

Zarbock: Having people call you "sir," I guess, would-- .

Renne: Well, but it was interesting and I enjoyed it, and came back from that thoroughly charged up, that that's what I wanted to do, to be a pilot. And I entered the fall at Tech, and as soon as I got back, why, there'd been a change in the rank-structure, and they came to me and said, "We want you to step up and be the Exec Officer," which means the Number Two in command of the squadron. You have to understand that people find this kind of amusing nowadays, because the Exec Officer, under that system, was charged with maintaining the discipline of the entire squadron. So I was the meany for the year, because I had to enforce the discipline, much like in the Navy, the Active Duty Navy where the commander is the CO, and the Exec Officer is the one who cracks the whip. And that's what I did for a year, and I think I did it very well.

Zarbock: Curiously enough, a parallel to what you say, in prisons, it's the Deputy Warden who is "the man."

Renne: That's right.

Zarbock: Well, so, there you are, you're the meany.

Renne: I was. But what was very interesting is that we were now-- and I said "we"-- our class was now in control. There was not nearly as many of us, because a lot of them had dropped out and didn't elect to become ROTC participants or to stay with the Corps. But we had come a very long ways, and I guess one of the proudest moments that I have of my cadet life, is one of the final dress parades in May of my senior year. We were selected as the outstanding unit in our group, and then it was also announced that we were the outstanding marching unit in the entire Corps-- out of 16 units, we were the best. And they have a ranking-- you go through all kinds of competition and ranking systems, and our goal was to be Number One. Well, we fell short by one. It ended up we were Number Two in the Corps, but we really prided ourselves that we had come from being 16 to Number Two, in the course of four years, and a real sense of satisfaction later came, when we found out that the same squadron that we had trained and developed the next year, was Number One. So we said we did a good job, and that's the way it is. And that ranking has to do with academics, with sports, with marching, with inspections, a whole lot-- all these things with it, to make it up. And so it's not just something that happens easily when it's so very involved all the way through. So that was neat. But during my senior year-- as part of the Air Force program-- the Air Force had, back then, what was called FIP-- the Flight Instruction Program. And so we went out to the airport at VPI, and we learned to fly. And Uncle Sam paid for 40 hours of instruction. That was a unique experience. And Virginia Tech has its own airport. And so we learned to fly, and-- .

Zarbock: Military aircraft or-- ?

Renne: No, these are-- you start out in a Super Cub, which is a tail dragging airplane and which is-- I remember sort-- well, back up a little bit. The airport at Tech, which is still being used today, the old runway, which they don't use anymore, is now for parking, was a fairly wide runway, and the field actually had been used to do initial training for pilots in World War Two, some of the beginning screening, shall we say, of who was able to fly, did some early training. In fact, my instructor, the man who instructed me the most, had trained some of those people, and his name was Fred Broce. I remember Fred; he was from West Virginia. A delightful guy, and calm and cool.

Zarbock: How do you spell his last name?

Renne: I think it was B-r-o-c-e, I think it, Broce, I think. And Fred stayed calm as a cucumber, no matter what the situation was. And we experienced a lot of interesting things. But I remember the first time I tried to take off--I mean, he'd taken me through it a couple of times, and now I'm gonna try to take off the first time, and here you got this stick and, tail's dragging, and you start to engage the power. And of course, if you know anything about how a propeller-driven piston engine plane works, you have to compensate for the torque of the propeller with your foot on the rudder, and it's learning that coordination of how to do it. Well, the first time you try to take off, you start going-- [laughs] I'm going like this-- all over the runway. Good thing it's a wide runway, because it's-- it's either too much or too little, and back and forth. And finally, he straightened out for me, and we took off. And it was just really-- "Oh, my word, what are we doing here?" But after two or three times, you begin to get the feeling, and realize it's not that difficult, and you learn to get ahead of it just a little bit. And what seemed like an impossible thing, then became, at least to me, really-- rather easy. After we had about 10 hours in the Super Cub, we graduated into a Cessna 150, which is tricycle gear, and it was like going from the Model T into the Cadillac-- it's so different. That was much easier to fly than the Cub. But it's the advantage of learning. If you can fly the Cub, you can fly anything. And so I believe that because, not that it's that terribly difficult, but the skills that you learn in doing it, then give you the confidence to do something else. And so it was a delight. And this went on over a course of several months, where, depending on your schedule, when you had a chance, and when the weather was right, and you could go out there and it was scheduled to be instructed.

A lot of people will say, "Oh, the first time I soloed; that's the greatest moment." I never saw it that way. You're so busy; the first time he lets you solo, you go up and around and-- take it around the pattern, and come back down and land. To me, one of the greatest thrills of my life that I still remember, is the first time that you're allowed to leave the airport on your own, and you go off and go do whatever you want for the next hour and then come back. What a tremendous sense of accomplishment and freedom, as you fly that airplane and-- I'm going back there when the time's up, but I'm gonna go out here and just do whatever you want to do, whatever maneuvers, and look around. Learning to fly down in southwest Virginia is inherently beautiful country, and looking at the mountain ridges from about 5,000 feet-- only about 3,000 above the ground, at that point-- it was just a delight to see that, and to fly around and go over here and check that out and fly over here, and then come back and do this. That was a tremendous thrill, and I thoroughly enjoyed that.

So I successfully completed my flying there, and was very determined that I was going to be an Air Force pilot. And so, got my commission and my degree, and was all set to go to Flight School. Because they were taking us in different increments on to Active Duty, and I was slated to go somewhere-- January to March of 1963, is when I was supposed to report for Active Duty-- but it wasn't determined when I graduated, so I had about six months to find something to do, shall we say. And I returned to my home in southern New Jersey for the summer, and it was hard getting a job-- couldn't find anything in my field. I have my degree in agronomy. Nothing was going to work out.

I ended up doing just labor for a concrete mixing factory. A classmate of mine in high school was also there, and his father-in-law owned the plant, and so we were able to get a job and work there. And that was kind of interesting. But I was just not doing anything more than be an assistant foreman-- and doing good hard labor for the summer, much as I would have done on the farm. As the summer went on, we took a trip one weekend, this high school buddy of mine, and we went back to Blacksburg for the weekend, because I had a couple of classmates that were still in summer school, and we went back to see them.

And while I was there, I said, "I think I want to check it out about coming back and take some courses that I didn't get a chance to take, undergraduate-wise, and take some graduate work, because I've got a quarter that I can do that in, before I report for Active Duty." And one of the courses I took was World Religions, and another one, I think, on Ethics-- and I've forgotten what all the other ones I took, at that particular time. I guess it was five courses that I took. But anyway, that's what I did; I went back, and as an unclassified grad student. I was still actively involved with the-- I no longer was a cadet, but I was a civilian, then, at this point.

But I was actively involved in the church activities in Westminster Fellowship, and still doing that. And it was also the same time I began dating the girl who eventually became my wife, and she was a student there a couple of years behind me. I'd known her before, but we had never dated until that fall. And through a number of things, I think, I began searching for what did I really want to do? I'm thinking about what's already laid out in front of me, what I began to see was a call to re-examine that, and to look at something involved with the ministry. I began to think more and more that, "Maybe I want to go to seminary." Of course, that raised a whole lot of questions. It's not unheard-of in my family. My father's brother was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and so that ran in our family. But I began to examine that, and wondered what might be involved if I were to consider entering the ministry, in terms of-- what was happening, was that I was already commissioned, I was already obligated to serve Active Duty in the Air Force, and it isn't just something you can walk away from once you've raised your hand and say you're going to serve. I was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Reserves and awaiting Active Duty. So as the Fall went on, this became more and more central in my thinking, and I decided that that's really what I wanted to explore.

Zarbock: And the year is what, sir?

Renne: This is the Fall of 1962.

Zarbock: And how old are you, now?

Renne: Just turned 22. I was born in September, so I just turned 22 when this happened. I talked with the Air Force people there at Tech, and said, "If I decide that I want to do this, what's involved here, because I'm on hold, awaiting orders." And some of them said, "If you want to do this, why don't you go ahead and serve your 5-year commitment, and then go out?" Others said, "Well, one way you can do it, is you can apply for an educational delay, and if you're accepted, then you can go off to the seminary, but you have to do it each year--" because it's based on how good your grades are, and, as well as the country's need. You have to remember, this is 1962. Vietnam is there, but it's not the big commitment at this point, as far as the country's involvement. And so, I decided that that's what I wanted to do. So in a hurry-up way, I applied to the seminary and also to the Air Force. And I decided-- and a lot of it, because of my association with the minister to students at Tech, Woody Leech, who I mentioned earlier, as well as some of my involvements in the statewide activities of Westminster Fellowship, I'd gotten to know the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond a little bit, and decided that's where I think I want to go. So I applied to Union, and also to the Air Force. Union accepted me, and then, when the Air Force got word of that, they said they would consider a delay from active duty. In the meantime, I was at home for the holidays at Christmastime, and I received orders that I was supposed to report to Craig Air Force Base at Selma, Alabama on the-- I think it was the 8th of January, 1963, to begin what is called undergraduate pilot training, UPT. I was wondering, "Okay, what's going to happen?" I've put in for this delay and all this kind of stuff, and I'm waiting. The days go by, and I'm starting to get things packed, because I've got to obey these orders. I'm not out of this yet. And a little later, about five days before I was to report, I got a telegram, and it said, "Stop, Do Not Report to Craig Air Force Base, your educational delay has been approved for this year."

So there's the first significant change--I guess you'd put it that way. So I didn't report to Craig, and it still wasn't a good job situation in my hometown, and by this time, I was having a serious understanding with my wife-to-be, though we were not engaged yet, at this point. I went down to visit her. She was from Petersburg, Virginia. Her name is Martha, by the way, Martha Moore. And while I was there, through contact with her uncle, I had an interview for a position that, at least for the time being, because I couldn't get in the seminary till the next summer, would allow me to work at Allied Chemical in Hopewell, Virginia. Through some contacts he had, and subsequent meetings with folks, I ended up getting a job there. So I moved down to Petersburg and began work at Allied Chemical in Hopewell, Virginia, and did that for about six months.

The Seminary curriculum required that you had to have a year of Greek before you could matriculate. Of course, I hadn't had any Greek. In fact, I didn't take any languages in undergraduate study-- all my languages have been in high school. I had Latin and Spanish back then, but being a technical grad, and science, we didn't take languages. So, how do we do it? Well, I got a six-week crash course, in which you take a year's worth of Greek at the Seminary. That started, I think, late July of 1963. So I reported at Union and got into that, which seemed like an insurmountable challenge. But I had a wonderful professor, and the trick was that if you stay with it every day, you can do it. And it was amazing, and I did quite well with it, and was pleased with myself, when I came out of that.

And then we started in September the actual regular seminary curriculum. Then they start throwing Hebrew at you, because in most Presbyterian seminaries, you're required to know both Greek and Hebrew. And that Hebrew was another challenge, be that as it may. But anyway, we get into this, and I started my regular seminary education. But all the time, I'm thinking, "If I go this direction, then I still want to go back into the Air Force as a chaplain." It was coming to the top, because I still had this love of aviation and airplanes, and I wanted to do something that included that in the mix. That was still important to me. So almost from the very beginning, that was where I was thinking that I wanted to go, if things would work out that way.

Zarbock: Chaplain, let me interrupt. When you graduated from the seminary, were you still obliged to spend time in the military, or had that obligation been removed?

Renne: My understanding, the way the law was written, once I had-- Well, let me back up and say: I had to be approved each year. So I ended up getting four years of delay, because I was already into one year by the time I got started. So it ended up with four years. I graduated from Union in May of 1966. I was still obligated to that point. You cannot get out of the obligation until you were actually ordained. And, of course, graduating the seminary and being ordained are two different things. Once you were ordained-- no ordained clergyman can be required to serve on Active-- that was my understanding of the law-- on Active Duty. In fact, I had another classmate who was also in kind of a similar situation. He was an Army ROTC grad, and he really had no intention, once he went through the seminary, of doing anything with it. So he resigned his commission, once he was ordained. But what I did, I kept my commission and then in the-- during my senior year of-- well, actually I started my middle year in the seminary-- I started making overtures to the department that oversaw the chaplains, the liaison that's within-- each denomination has a way they do this, because you have a certain framework within the civilian church structure, which is responsible for what we call endorsing people for military service. And I had made some overtures and contacted them. It was an interesting thing. I got married after my second year in the seminary, and I had no sooner gotten back from my honeymoon, and I get a call from a chaplain, down in Georgia-- he was part of the Reserve structure, but was Active Duty and was overseeing the Reserve structure of the Air Force Chaplaincy. He was calling to say, "How soon you coming on Active Duty?" I said, "Wait a minute, I got another year of seminary to go yet." Because he knew that I wanted to be a chaplain, and I'm in the seminary and I'm already commissioned and all this kind of stuff, and he had it confused as to what was going on. And we had to chuckle about that and say, "I'm not even finished seminary, let alone endorsed for the military yet." And yet, another part of the military, is calling to say, "How soon are you comin' onboard?" So we got over that.

But it's easier said than done, and you go through a lot of procedures-- of course, age was not a factor in my case, which it is for some of the chaplains, because I was well under the limits after just coming out of seminary right after undergraduate. I met the Board-- this was the Presbyterian agency-- we didn't have the Council as we have now. Back then we had a Department Chaplains-- I forget what the whole name of it was, but I remember them in DC, in the spring of my-- or I guess, it was in the wintertime of my senior year in seminary. And you interviewed with this panel of people who were to say "Yea" or "Nay," in terms of whether I could proceed with the business of becoming a chaplain, as far as the church is concerned.

I explained my background, and what my interests were, and what I'd thought qualified me to be considered for the chaplaincy, and I also asked, "I would like very much if I could meet with your approval to be endorsed for Active Duty as soon as possible." Normally there is a civilian experience requirement of two-to-four years within most traditions. But after they thought it over, they came back to me at a later date, and said, "Based upon our interview with you and your prior commission, which you still have--and all this--we're going to recommend that you could be brought on to Active Duty as soon as possible." I thought, "Oh, that's nice." I was delighted, but I didn't realize that I was the only one they had ever done that to, and allowed to matriculate into the Air Force that quickly. And so, that was quite a feather in my cap, I guess you might say, at that particular moment.

Zarbock: Well, I'm sure you've pondered that decision, on their part, frequently. What do suppose were the significant factors in changing what had been a, really, a policy?

Renne: I'm not sure. I think they felt my maturity and my limited military background already had equipped me in a way to be able to serve. Now, you also have to remember that we're talking 1966, and Vietnam is now much more prominent on the horizon. I mean we're actively involved in that whole business, and so there's a need for chaplains, and they felt that I was qualified and ready to serve. I might say, if it hadn't been 1962 when I first applied for my educational delay from Active Duty, I probably would have not have gotten that, I don't think. If it'd been a year later-- if it'd been '63 or '64 when I made that first initial application as a student then, too-- it was as a reservist to go on educational delay, I probably would have been denied that, because the need for Active Duty pilots was becoming great, and they'd probably said, "No. You're already under obligation to come in, and you need to come." And I probably would not have been allowed to go to seminary at that point. I think I probably made it-- I'm just guessing-- maybe by a year, because if it had been a year later, I think the situation was changing, that the need would've been such they'd say, "You're qualified, you're ready-- we can't let you go to seminary now, you need to come serve."

Zarbock: But again it's a phenomena of-- .

Renne: Yes.

Zarbock: Of timing.

Renne: Yes, the timing was-- .

Zarbock: Was it accidental, or with great skill in mind?

Renne: Don't want to say. Yeah, who knows?

Zarbock: Benevolence, but-- .

Renne: Yeah. So I acknowledged their endorsement, and said, "That's fine." I thanked them, and the wheels started in motion for the Air Force to take me onto Active Duty. I didn't know when that was going to be. Had no idea. When I had finished, graduated from seminary, then, a month later, I was ordained. In the meantime, I was looking-- "What am I going do?" I was offered a position with another graduate student at the seminary, who had decided to take a parish in Birmingham, Alabama. He called me one day, and he said, "You're looking for a kind of limited duration parish situation?" And he said, "How would you like to come and work with me? I'm serving a church that is relocated from the inner city, out into the suburbs and the Presbytery is willing to fund a temporary position. Would you like to consider coming down here, and being my assistant for a little bit of period of time?" And that was a really interesting offering to us. So, we accepted and packed up our things and moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 1966. Believe you me, I'd been in Alabama before, but never that time of year, and it was hot in Alabama, as you can imagine, come July and August. I had spent the summer at Eglin, a few years before, in August, and I knew it became awfully hot. But anyway, that was interesting. It was an interesting experience, and I had a good parish situation, and got to do a lot of things in terms of typical ministry activities. The Presbytery had me preach at a vacant church on the north side of town, on Sundays, occasionally, while I was at the church that I was serving during the week.

Zarbock: Did you say, "a vacant church"?

Renne: Well, a pastor was vacant-- yes.

Zarbock: Oh, whew.

Renne: Oh, you're right. You got that right. That's what we call a vacancy in the-- in the parish. But I was also asked-- it was interesting-- my first chaplaincy experience, because I was out there-- this church was located right next to the airport. And somehow, the Air Guard outfit found out that I was going to be a chaplain, and said, "Hey, would you come over and do some things for us on a couple of Sundays when we have drill?" And so I went and did some brief services with the Air Force or the Air Guard guys who were stationed there in Birmingham, which was kind of my first taste of a little bit of what I might be getting into in some aspects of the chaplaincy, and right then, even before I'd actually begun.

Zarbock: Have you been sworn into the military?

Renne: Oh, I've already-- my other commission still applies.

Zarbock: Now what is your rank now, your military rank?

Renne: I'm still a 2nd Lieutenant, though along about August of that summer, the paperwork came through, and I had to go and take another physical. Then I was re-commissioned as a chaplain, as a 1st Lieutenant in the Chaplaincy, in the Reserves. So I never resigned the other-- It just changed me from the Line, because I was a Line Officer in my prior training--to a chaplain's commission. And so, in August of '66, I got the notification that I'd been moved into the chaplaincy, and I was a 1st Lieutenant in the Reserves. And about the same time, they said, "You'll soon be getting orders for Active Duty." And I guess maybe it was a week later, they said, "Lo and behold, the Air Force Chaplain's School has just relocated to Montgomery, Alabama, to Maxwell Air Force Base, from San Antonio, and you're to report there come the 4th of September, 1966." So here I am, just 100 miles up the road from where I'm going to start Active Duty, as a chaplain. So we finished up at the parish situation in Birmingham, and I took my wife back to Virginia to her home, while I went off to chaplain school in the first class that was ever to be held at Maxwell Air Force Base.

[audio turned off and on again]

Zarbock: 18 December, 2003, Chaplains' Project, Paul Zarbock. Interviewee, Eric S. Renne. Take it away, Colonel.

Renne: Okay. I started Active Duty with the Air Force at Maxwell Air Force Base. And my first assignment after finishing that school, was at Hurlburt Field, which is part of Eglin, and is where the Special Operations part of the Air Force was underway.

Zarbock: I'm sorry, what's the name of the field?

Renne: Hurlburt. H-u-r-l-b-u-r-t. Hurlburt Field. And that's still the name, today, and it's where the Special Ops for the Air Force is headquartered. We were in the early days of that. When I was assigned there, I felt very fortunate. When I came out of chaplain school, I was the only-- to the best of my recollection-- the only chaplain in my class, and there were 30 of us, who was assigned to what I would describe as an operational unit. All the other chaplains ended up going to training bases not directly related to combat, and other kinds of activities. I was very privileged. And Vietnam was now heavily part of the picture. This is the Fall of 1966. And I went to an outfit-- it was the 4410th Combat Crew Training Wing-- and we were training combat pilots in a lot of the special operations airplanes, and it was a very interesting assignment, to learn something about that and their involvement. And I, of course, had a chance to be near airplanes and be around them, and I got to fly some training missions with some of the people when I was able to make such a ride.

But I remember, my wife was horrified one day when I came back and I said, "I just few an A-1E mission out over the range, and we were dropping live ordinance" and she didn't like that too much. But that was a delight. It reinforced some of my expectations about doing ministry in the Air Force, and working with people who were involved with the mission of the Air Force and pastoring to them. I was directly involved-- we had a chapel there that was well-attended. You also have to recognize, from an historical standpoint, back in those days, for the Air Force chaplains-- the chapels were attended almost exclusively by Active Duty people and their families, which, many years later, it's the reverse. It seems like most, or in a lot of chapels, it's overflowing with retirees, rather than Active Duty. But that was--I think we had one couple in the entire congregation that was a retiree, and we thought that was kind of strange--this is for the Active Duty people.

I was involved with various units on the base, and all the very many kinds of ministry things that I was trying to learn as a young 1st Lieutenant, and as part of a team. There were four chaplains. I-- of course I was the junior member on the team. But it was a very interesting place, though I didn't serve there very long. I was only there 18 months and then was off to Vietnam for a year, and at Cam Ranh Bay with the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing, which was an F-4C Fighter Wing, and here I went, to a wing with about 10,000 people, over against coming from a place that had about 3 to 4 thousand. And, of course, there were an awful lot of activities there.

In Vietnam, a number of us practiced our ministry in some interesting kinds of ways. We spent a lot of time out on the flight line, visiting the troops, particularly the maintainers, the guys who do the maintenance on the airplanes, as well as visiting with the pilots in the ready rooms where they're getting ready to go-- or sitting alert, because there were people launching air strikes almost all the time, on very short notice. Some of my favorite experiences-- I used to go out at night with the security people. I would ride with them, as we'd ride the perimeter and check on the welfare of the guys who were guarding this huge base. That was always a very interesting experience, to spend all night going around with one of the supervisors, and getting to see these people and talking with them and listening to their problems and being involved in a variety of ways, and offering what kind of ministry support and pastoral experience and help that I could on those occasions. Saw some interesting things and did some very interesting things.

But that reinforced, in a way, that that's what we needed to be doing as chaplains. We needed to be out there where the people were working, and what it was they're experiencing, and how could our ministry be relevant if we weren't doing that? I couldn't go hide in the chapel as some chaplains were wont to do. And so, that year went by very quickly. Came back from that duty, and I wanted to be located on the East Coast. Ended up on an assignment that wasn't exactly my first choice. I was a site rider for two years, as we called it, where I visited small Air Force units from Virginia to New York-- radar stations and fighter interceptor units that were sitting alert. I had about ten of these units to look after, and I was traveling all the time. I had to spend two to three days at each place, every month.

Zarbock: How would you travel, by the way?

Renne: The government supplied a car, a GSA vehicle that I drove. We lived on the Jersey Shore, right outside of Ocean City, New Jersey. I visited units from Virginia to New York. That was an interesting experience, because in the standpoint of these small, isolated units-- they had about 100-- the radar squadrons had about 130 people assigned to them, a permanent party who worked there, and I used to enjoy going in the middle of the night-- I'd go up and visit with the guy who's working and maintaining the radars, because it was a very lonely duty, at times. I really got to know a lot of people, and spent, what I felt, was quality time with them, listening to them and helping with their situations, because it was monotonous at times, and at other times very demanding. And so they ran the gamut, in terms of all sorts of problems and issues that came into play. Interesting time. From there I went to one of the bases I asked for, and I got what I wanted. The next summer, I said, "I want to go to a pilot training base." And so we ended up the next assignment, after two years site riding, at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, which is in Del Rio, Texas, right on the border with Mexico. This is where they do undergraduate pilot training, much like what I would have gone through if I'd gone to Craig-- it would've been the same kind of experience, only this time I'm there as the chaplain, instead of as a pilot. This is where they take brand new pilots and teach them how to fly. They first start to fly in a T-37, in a Tweet, as it was called, which was a twin-engine Cessna jet, and then they evolved into the T-38. The fighter version of that is the F-5, but it's a plane that's still flying today, a very good airplane. The pilots spend a whole year of intense training there, and if they're successful, they graduate and get their wings when they come out of undergraduate flying training, and then go on for specialized training. So the three years there, over three-- just over three years at Laughlin, was a very good experience, culturally, as well as being involved in a different way. You're not identifying with a unit as much there, because the students are coming and going-- though we chaplains had quality time with every pilot class. There were hours in their curriculum that were allocated for us to do things with.

We had a coffeehouse ministry there, at Laughlin, and we called it the Glass Menagerie. We had our own particular room in the base rec center that we had decorated, and we would have various kinds of programs there. It was an outgrowth of what was originally called a Moral Leadership Program in the Air Force, and we had our own spin on that. We spent some quality time with all the pilot classes that went through there-- a number of hours. And I think we did some good things and got them to think about a number of things as part of their growth and maturity. It was a good experience. In addition to that, the chapel was very heavily involved in all the usual kinds of parish activities, and we were very much a part of that. There were three chaplains there, two Protestant and one Catholic, and it was a tight working relationship, and it was very good. We enjoyed it.

Went from there after we left Laughlin, to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, down in Hampton, Virginia, and spent-- oh, what was it?-- about three years there, just over three years. And it was interesting, as that base changed from being home to a C-130 outfit along with a headquarters type for the Tactical Air Command, to becoming home to the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing, the first operational wing of the F-15, as it came into the inventory, and totally changed that base from top to bottom and gave me an opportunity to begin to get involved with the operational Air Force again, like I hadn't been able to for awhile, in a different kind of way, but particularly with the flying part of it, which I enjoyed. It was different from the standpoint I was on a large staff there. I was kind of in the middle of the pack seniority-wise, of 9, sometimes 10, chaplains, assigned to that base.

I had some unpleasant experiences there, because the senior chaplain was really a misfit, and that's the way I was characterized there, which later hurt me, but that's another story. He really didn't understand, I think, what I thought we needed to be about. One of the things that I feel very proud about, and I think I helped change some things in terms of what's happening-- then, maybe not what I did, so much but I've seen it change in the Air Force. While I was there, I took Air Command and Staff College by seminar on the base at Langley with other people, and part of the requirement of that, is you have to write a position paper. And I wrote a position paper on what I called Mission Ministry, and I was advocating a significant change in the way the Air Force chaplaincy does ministry, with operational units.

Zarbock: What was the change that you advocated?

Renne: Basically, the way the Air Force at Langley operated at that time, was that all nine, the whole staff, of chaplains was assigned to the support function. And I felt that we needed to break certain chaplains out, and have them assigned directly to the Flying Wing and to the operational squadrons, and that their primary responsibility would be to provide ministry-- to do ministry with that particular fighter squadron-- and all the people involved with that would be your principle function, rather than doing day to day parish ministry at the chapel, and this mission ministry whenever you got around to it. That's what my position paper advocated. I felt that we were missing the lessons that we'd learned in Vietnam and other places, about what we needed to be doing. While I was there, a guy who was on the chaplain staff at HQ TAC, named Charlie Caudill, was in charge of readiness, and he also saw things a lot like I did. He was trying to get the Air Force Chaplaincy really involved in a lot of these JCS exercises.

Zarbock: "JCS" is-- ?

Renne: Joint Chiefs of Staff. These are combined forces-- Army, Navy, Air Force war exercises that took place in different places, and whether the chaplain's to be involved in this. And you'll remember, we're at peace now, the war is over and [chuckles] everybody's trying to forget it. And Charlie saw the need, and I was delighted to what he was providing, in terms of leadership. I was just a Major at the time, and Charlie was a, a Full Colonel, on the staff. And due to my contact with him-- twice I was deployed in significant positions of leadership out in the field, on some major exercises, for a number of weeks, at various locations, where we did this. That was the highlight of my time, I think, at Langley, because some of the stuff that was going on when I was back there, was not very enjoyable in terms of what I thought we needed to be doing, or beneficial to me, in terms of my future, because it was just a bad situation. But Charlie was pushing for this and even [laughs] to the extent that maybe it rubbed some people wrong, but he saw what was going to be needed, and I'm glad that he was there to be able to do that. And we began to pick up on that, and as I said, I had an excellent time on a couple of major deployments where I really got to do some field ministry that I thought was what we needed to be operating.

Zarbock: Where were you deployed, sir?

Renne: One time, I was down in North Carolina, out of Seymour Johnson. We had Solid Shield '77. We worked out of there, and we were involved when it was the Air Force and Marines and Army-- involved in a number of places from Seymour all the way down to the coast. I remember spending Easter Sunday on what's called Radio Island, right there at Morehead City, right outside of Morehead, on just a sandbar, out there. And you're from Wilmington-- and I remember flying over Wilmington in a helicopter on part of that exercise, when we coming to Fort Fisher, and coming up through there. But got to do some very interesting and meaningful ministry with the troops in a lot of different settings, and across services. I was ministering to Army and Marines and Air Force in a lot of different environments, and said, "This is what we need to be about, because when something happens, we need to be doing this, and it's going to happen one of these days-- even though people are trying to put their heads in the sand." Then, later, it was another one at Bold Eagle '78, down in Florida. I was back on the Eglin Reservation again, for about five weeks with this exercise, and I was the senior chaplain for a good bit of that time, and coordinating and arranging a lot of different things in that whole exercise. That was a delightful and meaningful experience, and again, working with Joint Services and doing all that. This is the early days. Now, it's expected, and it's kind of the norm. But this wasn't so, back then, 20, 25, 26 years ago.

Came back from that, and then, because of some of my daughter's needs, particularly the one who was deaf, we were then given an assignment in Hawaii. We moved to Hawaii, and I was at Wheeler Air Force Base-- which has now gone back to the Army; it's no longer Air Force. But in some ways, that was kind of a pull-back from the operational Air Force, because we only had one little small flying squadron there, of observation planes--O-2's. I did get to go fly a few times with them, and had some delightful experiences. But we didn't have many Air Force people there. It was mainly a housekeeping-- kind of housing-- area, for the Air Force people that were stationed at Hickam AFB, which was about 15 miles away. But it was a delightful place to live, and we were very close to the Army and got involved with the Army on a number of activities. But it was more of a parish ministry setting, than an operational one.

From there, we came to Washington, again, because of medical and educational needs, and I was at Bolling Air Force Base, and then, Andrews. Even though Andrews is an operational base in terms of-- of flying, it's not your typical one, as you can imagine, because of all the VIP things, even though I was fortunate to be the chaplain to the 1st Military Air Lift Squadron, which is the-- the squadron that does all the VIP stuff. But I was longing for the operational side of things, because that's where I felt I was most effective at my ministry, and what needed to be done.

After two years at Andrews, the Chief of Chaplain's office said that I needed to go overseas again, but I was not in the position to take my family. So I took a second remote and I went to Kunsan, Korea, with the 8th Fighter Wing, which is an F-16 wing. So I was back in hog heaven, if you will, and delighted to be back with an operational wing. I had a wonderful ministry experience with the fighter wing at Kunsan, which is about 3,000 people, and had three other chaplains and I was the senior chaplain at that point, and had three other chaplains under me. It reinforced my conviction, totally, about the operational kind of ministry that we needed to be involved in. It's the only way we could be relevant to the people that we were serving, if we were really involved in understanding what it is they're doing.

I remember, the first week I got there, I went in to see the Wing Commander, and said-- his name was Colonel Ed Pratt-- later became a 3-Star. I said, "Would you object if I came to stand up briefing?" Which was held every day, at four o'clock. And I said, "I'd like to come and see what's going on." And he said, "No, you're welcome, I'm delighted", and he was really pleased to hear that I wanted to know what was happening, because I said, "How can we, as a chaplain staff, provide effective ministry to this wing if we don't know what's happening operationally? The regular staff meetings don't tell you that." But this, the Stand Up staff meeting every day-- .

Zarbock: Is it a stand up?

Renne: It's not really stand-up; you're sitting down, but it deals with the operational aspects, and that's where I saw exactly what we're doing, flying-wise every day. Who's flying? What's doing? What's happening? What the schedule was, what the problems were-- as you'd hear wrestled around the table. I was always invited to be part of that. If I had something that I needed to address or to bring up-- I was always included, which was-- you're part of the team, and that's one of the uniqueness, I think, of the chaplaincy, is that you're part of that whole picture, if you choose to be, and are allowed to be and usually will be, if you put your foot forward on it, and you're respected and appreciated for that. But as I said, there's no way that we can provide, as a staff, provide effective ministry to this wing, if we don't know what it's doing. And if we sit over there in the chapel and play church, we're missing out on what's happening here. And I think we did that well, for the year that I was there with them. Unfortunately, a lot of other-- my fellow chaplains, I think, at the time, didn't see it that way and they-- they would rather play church.

After that, I came back, and I was stationed in a very different kind of assignment. I finished my career in the Air Force-- I was the senior chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery. And that's what I finished doing, in terms of being in charge of all the Air Force funerals that took place there. But during my time there, the Gulf War broke out, and of course I dealt with some of the final aspects of that. But what was very pleasing to me-- and, and "pleasing" is the right word to use, because of the uniqueness of the Gulf War situation-- there was a demand for the chaplains of all the services to be heavily involved with people in a remote situation. And the Air Force really found itself, I think, [chuckles] in a difficult position at the beginning, because we really weren't equipped. They weren't thinking that way, that we need to be that involved, but then, that will require, that was the only way you could do it. And we had people over there-- and had some who did a good job and some, you know, frankly, who didn't. But as I say, this is the norm, and ever since that time, when I've seen-- I've been retired ten years now-- but what I've seen now, there's been quite a change in the way the Air Force goes about doing its ministry. And it's along the lines of what I would have liked to have seen happen a long, long time ago, and I feel a sense of gratification that it is going in that direction, and I hope it keeps that way.

Zarbock: But you were a pioneer, weren't you?

Renne: Well, there were others but I, I like to think...

Zarbock: But you were a contributor.

Renne: I like to think I was-- I was, to some degree, yes, in, in some of that. Part of what-- part of it, I attribute to, to my Line Officer training in ROTC, and other experiences with the Air Force, which, and I've advocated for years that the chaplains need to, to be involved in some of those other aspects of their training, to learn what the Air Force is about, because if they don't know that, then they can't be effective or relevant in their ministry. We had a period in the Air Force where they downplayed or de-emphasized chaplains pursuing what's called professional military education, at least that's what it used to be called, which are the kinds of courses and things that the line officers take, and said, "Oh, no, all you need is the chaplain stuff; you don't need this other thing." And I-- I said, "No, I think we're wrong. We-- we need to know that." Because I found it very meaningful when I was involved in some of those things, and some of the discussions I had with the line officer types, I learned from them and they also learned, "Hey," you know, "the chaplain, he's got something to say, and he's a player in this, too." Because some of them thought that we just hid in the chapel. I think I changed some, some heads on that. But since that time-- in fact, just as I was getting out of the Air Force, a whole new change was coming, and they were going to require the chaplains, now, if you were going to get promoted, you've got to have some of this stuff behind you, after we've gone through this whole period where, where we said, "Don't."

So I was pleased to see that, because I think that's the way we have to be. I'm not saying the chaplain's got to be a line officer. That's not what it is, but you need to understand the institution, and what, and understand how it works, and be knowledgeable on a day-to-day basis, if you're going to be effective in terms of your ministry. If not, you're-- you're out to lunch, and no wonder that the people don't come to the chapel on a Sunday morning, because you're saying something that nobody wants to hear, and if you're not out there-- .

Zarbock: I guess the word is "irrelevant," isn't it?

Renne: That's right. And so I was-- I'm pleased to see that happening. And now, because of the constant deployments we've been having for a lot of reasons, I think that is really going to-- to sink in.

Zarbock: What does it feel like to have the world catch up with you, with the idea?

Renne: [laughs] Oh, well. As I say, I-- I don't claim all of it, by a long shot.

Zarbock: No, no, no.

Renne: There were some other people. But I-- I'm glad to see that at least we have moved in that direction, and I hope that it stays there. But that's where the emphasis needs to be and the, the rank and file in the Air Force will appreciate and support what the chaplains do, in a much more gratifying way, and-- and, in an important way, than what they were doing before, which people respected, but I felt, many times, was irrelevant, because we really weren't paying attention to what the active duty needed. We were, in fact, in many cases, there were too many chapels where I saw the staff was catering to the-- to all the needs of the retiree population, and I said, "That's not what we're here for," and, and probably the retirees should be going to civilian churches, and involved there. But that's not the case. In many places, you've got them packing the chapels with the retirees.

Zarbock: But you've heard the cynical remark that a good idea has many fathers; a bad idea is an orphan.

Renne: [laughs] That's an interesting way-- yeah.

Zarbock: Well, you were one of the fathers of a good idea.

Renne: Oh, I like to-- I like to think so.

Zarbock: And the data are there. You said, and did, and experienced, and tried to show others what you really felt.

Renne: And I-- I feel gratified when some of the guys who are still on Active Duty or just recently retired and told me, face to face, how much they appreciated what I advocated, because they got to experience some of those things and recognize how important it was. I remember one-- a short deployment I was on-- one I didn't mention, before. When I was at Bolling, I did get to go on one deployment down to Central America. I was in Honduras for a brief while when we were busy, busily involved with the Nicaraguan problems, and-- and the like. And I got down there, and I found out that the previous chaplain who was there, ahead of me-- there was just a couple of us down there at a time- he'd spent his time just sitting in a tent, and hoping people would come to him, and [chuckles], and I got there, and as soon as I got there, I said, "Where are we going tomorrow, and who can I fly with tomorrow?" The C-130 missions that were going all around, and, and taking supplies and stuff to the various people. And they were surprised I was asking this. But I said, "That's the only way I'm going to get to-- to know what's happening, and-- and to be with these folks." And so, every day I was flying, I was out with a C-130 Mission, and visiting people all around the country that we went into-- and as a side thing out of it, we got to fly down to Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal when that was still our, our base, and got to spend a night down there with a group, and came back, and we flew the length of the Panama Canal. It was a just a nice little side benefit, and delightful to look at the Canal from 3,000 feet, and follow it from the Pacific, up to the Atlantic, and then fly back up to Honduras. But that reinforced, for me, the importance of getting out and knowing what was happening with your people, and experiencing what they're experiencing, so that you can identify with them.

One other thing I guess I'd like to say about the-- the chaplain's uniqueness-- it is a specialized ministry, but I tried to, and it just came to light, recently. I had an email from a, like, back-up. I stumbled into a, a lady in the Exchange at Fort Myer, and it was a Sunday morning. I'd just come from where I serve a military retirement community on Sunday mornings, and I had my clerics on, and she said, "Are you a retired chaplain?" I said "Yes." She said, "What service?" and I said, "Air Force," and she said, "Oh, okay." She said, "My son is thinking about maybe going to the seminary, and he's wondering about maybe the chaplaincy, and would you communicate with him if he emails you?" And I said, "Sure," and gave her the email address. And he's at Davidson, which has always been a pipeline to the Union Seminary at Richmond, where I went-- and that's where he was thinking of going. And so, he was in contact with me and I emailed him back, and I tried to describe what some of the uniqueness that I saw in the Air Force Chaplaincy.

And I said, one of the things that I've come to really appreciate-- and I knew it when I was in it, but then, when, when you leave it-- and I served the parish for about five years on a contractual basis as an interim, after I retired, I think-- you're not part of a team anymore. And I really missed that identification with a unit that I experienced so much, particularly in Korea, with that unit, where you'd sit down at a staff meeting, and whether it was a Wing Staff or who-, whatever, group staff meeting, and you're a full-fledged member of this team, and you're discussing the problems in the base and what, how you're dealing with it, and you're part of it and you're respected and your input is important, and you have a say in what's going on. In a civilian parish, nothing like that exists. You're busy taking care of your little group of folks, and you only see 'em on Sunday, basically, or a few here and there, but you're not part of this picture that's going on every day, where in the Military Chaplaincy, you live and work and play with these guys; you're there. Uhm.. ball games, I'm at their ball games, or maybe sometimes, I was even playing in one, or this kind of thing, and, and you're, you're totally invested in this.

And just like when I was in Thailand for "Cobra Gold '87" for a month, when, out of Korea, we deployed down there with an F-16 squadron, and the flight surgeon and two of the pilots and I kind of became a team. The four of us, we always went together, everywhere we went, and we explored Bangkok and other things, together. But it was a togetherness of people of different backgrounds and faiths that you can't find anywhere else, and yet we all had a tremendous liking and respect for one another that just made it really stand out as a unique experience.

And-- and I guess, to add to that, that's one thing about the chaplaincy: it allows you to be broadened, in terms of your faith experience and your understanding of spiritual dimensions across a lot of borders, shall we say. And that, to me, you-- you gotta be a richer, and what shall I say?, a richer and-- and a wiser person, after going through all that kind of thing. And so, even though I'm out of the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition, I like to consider myself even broader than that-- that as a Chaplain, you're ministering to a lot of people, or you're helping them find experiences they can identify, even if it's not part of your tradition or anything associated with it. I mean, you're an enabler, you're the guy that's trying to find those kinds of things, and, and help them. And if you see yourself comfortable in that, it can be tremendously rewarding and-- and beneficial. And so, I take a lot of satisfaction, that I was able to do some of that, and feel very privileged to, to have had that chance, and wish I could have had even more years. But as I ended up, I had almost 27 years of Active Duty, and they went by in a flash. [laughs] Wish I would've had more.

Zarbock: But it's been a long trip-- or has it been a short trip, since the first day that you said, "Airplane"?

Renne: [laughs] Oh, it's long in some ways and short in another. It went by in a-- in a hurry.

Zarbock: Would you do it again?

Renne: I would. And the Air Force is a-- a unique place to do ministry, though I-- I see some of the uniqueness, too, of, of the other services, and the Navy fascinates me, in terms of the opportunities the chaplain has in the Navy, to serve in so many different kinds of ways, whether it's a, on a ship at sea, or whether it's with a aircraft carrier, or whether it's at an air station on land or with the Marines out in the field, or whether a Marine Air Station or with the Coast Guard. I mean, the-- the Chaplaincy in the Marine Corps-- I mean, in the Navy, right now, is tremendously [laughs] opportunistic, I guess you might say, in terms of what-- what's there. But it has been a-- a wonderful experience, and I-- I treasure it. I'm still involved, in terms of my work with the Military Chaplains Association. I'm still looking to recruit chaplains when the opportunity arises, though there are some-- people have misconceptions about what it's about, and I-- I try to clarify that, whenever I have the opportunity. But it is an interesting and very fulfilling ministry. If you see it that way, and want to be involved in leading people and providing spiritual nourishment, and, and guidance to them, in a variety of settings, and I would hope that we can continue to do this, in spite of some of the challenges that I see coming down the, the road, in terms of the whole business of the chaplaincy. But I, I hope it's with us forever.

Zarbock: Chaplain, thank you.

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