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Called to serve: SD National Guard welcomes first female chaplain

The South Dakota Army National Guard held a historic ceremony welcoming its first woman to serve in its Chaplain Corps at the Huron armory, Jan. 6. Chaplain (Capt.) Kelley Thury, of Mitchell, was promoted and named the new chaplain for the 153rd Engineer Battalion. Courtesy of the South Dakota National Guard1 / 3
Chaplain (Capt.) Kelley Thury, of Mitchell, S.D., and her family are congratulated after she was promoted and named the new chaplain for the 153rd Engineer Battalion back in January. Courtesy of the South Dakota National Guard2 / 3
Chaplain (Capt.) Kelley Thury during a ceremony back in January where she was promoted and named the new chaplain for the 153rd Engineer Battalion. Courtesy of the South Dakota National Guard3 / 3

MITCHELL, S.D.—Kelley Thury's solid calling into the ministry began with a look and a nod.

In 2010, Thury enlisted in the South Dakota National Guard and attended basic combat training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. During basic, her drill sergeant prayed over the group and said each one would go on to different fields — some would leave the Guard, others would stay in, and yet others would enter the Chaplain Corps.

"He looked right at me and did a little nod," Thury said. "I said OK and sought it out."

Thury, a captain in the S.D. National Guard, was recently welcomed as the Guard's first female chaplain and is serving with the 153rd Engineer Battalion in Huron. The previous chaplain had been promoted and it was just a natural progression for her to be assigned to the position, Thury said. As a Mitchell resident, her central location also played a part in her assignment.

"They've been very welcoming," said Thury, who is humbled by her appointment, but said it was in the works for a while.

As it happened, when Thury returned to South Dakota in 2012 after serving in the District of Columbia, the S.D. National Guard was actively exploring how to diversify the state's Chaplain Corps. After she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 2013, Thury began training in the Chaplain Candidate Program.

She shadowed other chaplains in the state, attended seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D., and had other training through the Guard.

"The Chaplain Candidate Program is an amazing experience to gain not only military training, but to gain ministry experience as a chaplain in the Guard," she said.

Since she took over the Chaplain position with the 153rd, Thury said with a smile, "I learned that I didn't learn enough."

Her job isn't only limited to one weekend a month. She often gives emotional support, crisis intervention, marriage counseling, and more over texts and phone calls.

"They call and say, 'This happened, what do I do?'" Thury said. "Our heart is to serve and make sure soldiers are taken care of."

On drill weekends, Thury performs a church service. Throughout the month, she provides religious and emotional support for soldiers, regardless of their faith, and advises the unit commander on the same.

Although she may handle a variety of issues, Thury has learned she must also point soldiers to other professionals for problems she can't handle, such as mental health issues.

Prior to enlisting in the National Guard, Thury earned a degree in education at Northern State University and spent several years in mission work domestically and overseas. But the work began to feel less fulfilling, and she wondered whether she'd made a mistake entering ministry work.

"I came off the mission field really questioning what the Lord wanted me to do in my life," she said. "I really felt out of control and was looking for something to really ground me, so I said, 'Military.'"

She enlisted in the 129th Mobile Public Affairs Attachment with the S.D. National Guard as a public affairs specialist. Thury welcomed the move to become a chaplain. She treated it as an opportunity to connect with all soldiers and guide them through difficult situations, particularly helping female soldiers learn how to navigate the military.

Thury said many soldiers — male and female — see her as a mother or sister figure and a person easy to approach. Female soldiers particularly find her easy to talk to, considering Thury has learned as she went how to find balance among family, work and the Guard with help from her husband, family and friends.

Over the last several weeks, between her day job as a bereavement coordinator with AseraCare Hospice in Sioux Falls, Thury has been working on a plan to visit each unit within the 153rd during drill weekends.

"The attempt is to visit each unit and not necessarily have one-on-one time with each soldier, but to have face time with each unit," she said. "I don't want soldiers to ever think, 'I didn't ever see a chaplain.' I don't want them to think they weren't supported."

Thury said she loves her day job and raising her family, and she has no plans on leaving the National Guard anytime soon. She sees retirement from the military in her future.

"I'm doing something in the Guard that I absolutely love," she said.