JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Finding your True North – your authentic self, your purpose, your beliefs – can be a struggle for many today. And, in an Air Force where there’s been a large increase in suicides in recent years, helping people find and appreciate their own, unique selves is a calling for Chaplain (Capt.) Portmann Werner and the service’s chaplain corps.
“Life is full of struggles, and we could all use some support along the way,” said Werner, a member of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center’s Chaplain Corps Division and a mentor and proponent for the True North program.
True North is a resiliency program that embeds providers and spiritual leaders within squadrons and groups to strengthen mental and spiritual health, two of the four pillars of Air Force resiliency. It was started by Air Force Special Operations Command in 2010 to normalize help-seeking behavior, optimize performance and increase resiliency and is now available at 16 installations.
“When a person has direct access to someone they know will listen and cares, simply put, it works,” Werner said.
Before joining AFIMSC in 2021, Werner was assigned to one of the True North installations -- Ramstein Air Base, Germany -- where he was a cross functional team chaplain for the 693rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group.
During his time there, Werner spearheaded several activities that helped Airmen connect and strengthen their spiritual resilience, like a month-long “Soul Food” lunch discussion that brought Airmen together to discuss the powerful role spirituality and religion can play in peoples’ lives.
But it was in early 2020 that Werner put together what he considers his most important event.
“COVID-19 created major challenges for a program centered around bringing people together — I had to find a way to safely bring people together to have fun and relax,” he said.
Werner built a radio transmitter and used the side of a windowless facility to project movies.
“With the approval of a medical doctor, we established a monthly drive-in movie experience where Airmen and families could safely come together to watch a movie,” Werner said. “It’s one of my proudest career moments.”
One of the methods the True North initiative uses to decrease negative and violent outcomes for Airmen and their families is offering team-building opportunities that expand or strengthen their support networks, like physical fitness education, leadership training, and family and single retreats.
The underlying message is that they are not alone, Werner said.
“We did some tandem skydiving to remind them that even when they feel like they are falling, someone has their back and is ready to help them and guide them,” he said.
Chap. (Capt.) Lauren Hughes worked briefly alongside Werner in 2018 at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado.
“I co-led my first-ever single Airmen retreat with Chaplain Werner and it was a very good experience. He’s truly a great leader,” Hughes said.
Because of his reputation and experience with the program, the Chaplain Corps College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, requested that Werner teach a course for future chaplains and religious affairs Airmen who will serve in True North or group chaplain positions at installations.
“There are a lot of professional communication, funding, emotional intelligence and career development skills involved,” Werner said. “Ultimately, if the chaplains walk away knowing how to care for their religious affairs Airmen and in return the RAAs know how to care for their chaplains, then the needs of their respective locations will reap the benefits.”
At AFIMSC, Werner is known for his innovation and high energy.
“He helps keep our focus at the tactical level where it needs to be, and how best to support them,” said Chap. (Col.) Theadore Wilson, AFIMSC Chaplain Corps Division chief. “He runs our Management Internal Control Toolkit program and has increased the pass rate and the average scoring of our Chaplain Corps in the field by breaking down every question in the assessment and teaching them what specifically needed to be uploaded into MICT.”
That’s not all Werner is pushing forward.
“He’s also been working with Air Education and Training Command and AFWERX – an innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force – on a project that targets our newest and youngest Airmen called ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ which focuses on positive psychology that emphasizes wise decision making,” Wilson said.
While luncheons, movies and other activities are important mediums for bringing people together, Werner places greater value on the support networks they create.
“Everyone needs someone to talk to and to feel heard,” he said.
Listening also helps Werner find a baseline where he can connect with someone and relate to them, even in some small way.
The chaplain said he finds it easy to connect with people from all walks of life by being an open book.
“I’m a giant nerd,” he said. “I will talk video games, board games, card games, Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Star Trek, Serenity and Babylon 5 to anybody that wants to. Otherwise, I prefer to listen and learn about what other people are passionate about.”
Werner knows the healing power of conversation and connection firsthand.
“Honestly, talking to people when I am hurting is always the quickest way for me to bounce back,” Werner said. “Usually that means talking to God, but if I need to talk to someone, I always have my fellow chaplains and my own personal chaplain, my wife, Chap. Jessica Werner, to lean on.”
“Everyone has struggles, but not everyone has a built-in support system like I do,” Werner said. “That’s why access to chaplains and programs like True North are so important to the Air Force and to the mission.”
(Editor’s Note: If you’re thinking about suicide, are concerned about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24 hours, seven days a week across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veteran Crisis Line.)