JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas –
"Sometimes, when you volunteer, it's not about the pay; it's about what drives you from the soul."
That statement pretty much sums up retired U.S. Air Force chaplain Col. Paula Payne's life mantra. Yes, she is retired. No, she is not done serving her country. Payne's life of service began in 1981 at St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, where she was working as a secondary and adult education teacher.
"After work, I saw an Air Force member on the street in uniform and asked him if an Air Force base was on the island," Payne said. "He said there was an Air National Guard Base, and I asked, 'what is that?' because I had never heard of the Air National Guard before," Payne said. "He said, come on over, and I'll show you."
The Guardsman was a member of the 285th Combat Communications Flight, which had just established itself in May of 1980. He showed her the base and introduced her to the unit commander. The commander informed Payne, she would need to prepare for enlistment by running and exercising.
With that advice and the idea of joining the Air National Guard, Payne went home.
"I thought and prayed about it," she said. "I told my father that I was thinking about joining, and he replied, 'I hope they treat you better than they treated me," Payne said.
Payne's father, Sgt. Percy Howard Payne was a member of the Tuskegee Airman during World War II. He could not believe she wanted to join the Air Force. Serving at a time when the U.S. military was racially segregated, Percy Payne found himself denied leadership roles, as black Soldiers were denied entry into the officer's corps. Frustrated with a system that denied advancement based on race, Percy Payne left the military at the end of World War II. Despite knowing how her father was treated, Payne decided to join.
"There was something that was driving me," she said. "Not everybody is called to wear the uniform, but I knew that I was called."
After five years of being in the Guard, she left St. Croix and returned to the states. Payne moved to Washington, D.C., to continue her education.
She then decided to join one of the local Guard units because she still had one year left on her enlistment contract. Payne wanted to join the 113th Fighter Wing, based in Washington, D.C.
Col. Russell Davis, then 113th Fighter Wing commander, wanted to interview her.
"Col. Davis asked me why I wanted to come to the unit," Payne recalled. "I told him I was working as a teacher and that the family I was living with was in Arlington, so I was joining the unit to finish out my time. He asked, 'what is your education?' and I told him I have a master's degree."
Payne recalled how Davis sent her over to the National Guard Bureau because he felt being at his unit would hold her back. "Guess what? They put me on orders right away as an Active Guard Reserve member." Payne said.
Payne was an administrative specialist at the ANG's Chief of Chaplains Office. She was the first enlisted person to work in the office. It was while working there that she felt called to serve as a chaplain herself.
She said the chief of the chaplain's office called her one day and said she was going to seminary school, and the Air Force would pay for it. Payne could not believe it. She was overjoyed.
After her first year in seminary school, she received her direct commission to second lieutenant.
Payne went to chaplain candidate school then to Charles Town, West Virginia. Payne belongs to the United Methodist Church. To become a pastor in her denomination, members must first become an elder.
It took her nine years to become an elder there. Once she became an elder, she officially became an Air Force chaplain. It was 1992, and Payne was now a first lieutenant. Without knowing it, she had become the first African American female chaplain in the Air National Guard.
Payne later moved to New Hampshire to pastor a church while also earning her doctorate at a Boston University. "I was the first woman pastor in the church there and the only African American in the parish," Payne said. Despite the cultural differences, she got to know the people, and they got to know her. After some time, she felt at home there.
While pastoring in New Hampshire, 9/11 happened. She had been in the church for five years, her 13th year as a pastor. She was drilling at Joint Base Cape Cod when the towers fell, and the Pentagon was hit. Her commander told Payne if she needed to leave to be with her church with everything that was happening, she could. "I do need to go back home," Payne told her commander. "They are going to need me." When she returned to her church, it was full of parishioners praying for the country and the attack victims. She knew that she had made the right decision.
Before long, the Air Force had issued deployment call for experienced chaplains. Payne volunteered and deployed to Ramstein, Germany. By this time, Payne was trained in polytrauma and clinical pastoral education.
"Because of my training, death and dying did not bother me," Payne said. "A lot of people can't handle it, but I could, so I felt called to deploy," She deployed back-to-back. When she was at Ramstein, she became the reintegration chaplain helping wounded warriors learn how to cope with having to leave the military and return to civilian life with a new set of challenges. From Ramstein, there was a request made for Payne to go to Iraq to be the senior chaplain at Balad Hospital.
"I do not know who put in the request, but I was the senior chaplain of Balad Hospital," she said. "It was an absolute privilege." After Iraq, she was stationed at Dover AFB, Delaware, in Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and assigned to work with the families of the fallen.
"I found that even the doctors and nurses who were Guard and were on deployments always had a different approach to speaking to people," Payne said. "The experience as a pastor in the local church and working with families, doing funerals, and preaching at hospitals helped to polish me up before I went on deployment. When I got to my deployed duty station, it was a different approach. We are all doing the same thing. We all serve, but there is something more that you get out of working in the community and being in the Guard."
Payne retired in 2011 and moved to North Chicago, Illinois, to live with her sister. In 2014, they decided to move from North Chicago, Illinois to San Antonio to be closer to a military community.
Today at 69 years old, Chaplain Payne serves as a colonel in the Texas State Guard at the Air National Guard's 149th Fighter Wing one weekend a month.
The 149th Fighter Wing chaplain, Major Victor Pagan, is very thankful that Payne decided to continue serving. "The experience she brings working with people and the good advice she gives makes her a valued part of our team," said Chaplain Pagan. "We can always count on her reliability and productivity, and everything she does is done with a sense of joy."
When she called the State Guard to volunteer her services, they asked her why she wanted to join. Payne's answer was, "because you might need me; and when you do, I'll be ready... Sometimes, when you volunteer, it's not about the pay; it's about what drives you from the soul," she said. "What drives me from the soul is serving God, country and people while having the privilege to wear this uniform."