Celebrating Asian-American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month
Chaplain born to troubled home utilizes his personal adversity to help strengthen Military Families
Story by Staff Sgt. Chad Menegay, Ohio National Guard Public Affairs
COLUMBUS, Ohio. (05/23/19)
Military service is thought to change people. It is described as immersive, prolonged and tightly regimented. Many young people join for structure and to straighten into adulthood. Military life can be difficult, demanding and dangerous, but it can also be exciting, challenging and fulfilling. Over the course of a military career, people develop in unique ways. For every long-serving Soldier, there is a season and a time for every change.
When Maj. Nicholas Chou, the 73rd Troop Command brigade chaplain, looks back on his 27-year National Guard career, he sees a series of transformations. Chou, a family man who has been married 16-plus years and has three children, said that he joined the military for stability, having grown up in a dysfunctional, abusive home.
“As I approached adulthood in my senior year in high school, I looked at the military as a way to get away from my family,” Chou said. “I saw things happen in my home that a young person shouldn’t have to see, with verbal and physical abuse.”
Chou’s father is Taiwanese-American and immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. The family was relatively isolated, Chou said, because his father was the only member of his family in the United States. Plus, he had no siblings, and his mother was an only child, so he had no cousins in the United States.
It’s as if Chou was looking for a family in the form of the military. He joined the Army National Guard the day after his 18th birthday. Chou was not a Christian when he graduated high school; he came to faith in Christ when he was 20.
“I was looking for a better life, and I just assumed that once I got away from my family, things would get all better, but I discovered that it wasn’t getting better. I was trying to find happiness in the wrong places and making poor decisions in my own relationships. I started to feel discontent, and, because of the background I grew up in, I realized that I didn’t really know how to live, and that I needed to learn to live all over again. I feel that’s when God began to work on me.”
Chou said that military service was a part of the change coming over him. He would take his Bible to trainings and use the time to read and reflect.
“One of the things that I appreciated about annual training is that it took you out of your normal daily routines, and it gave me an opportunity to reflect on my life from a different perspective,” Chou said. “Those annual trainings early on in my military career were landmarks of growth for me.”
Chou would read his Bible during his personal time at his bunk, and Soldiers would walk by and start conversations. Soldiers began coming to Chou with questions about their personal lives. Bible study sessions naturally grew from this.
“Before you know it, I’ve got a lieutenant coming to my Bible study or a captain, and here I am a noncommissioned officer, and it’s like ‘wow’ people are drawn to this,” Chou said.
Lt. Col. Phil Buxton, commander for the 155th Chemical Battalion in Kettering, Ohio, said he remembers many Bible studies out in the field or sitting out on the grass in front of their armory.
“It was early on in the start to my Christian walk,” Buxton said, “and Nick was into his faith early on in his military career when he was enlisted, which I always found inspirational.”
Chou moved to Michigan and completed seminary at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. As a chaplain, he has been able to relate to young Soldiers who came from dysfunctional homes.
“A lot of times, what I saw with these young kids is that they see in the military a family structure that maybe they didn’t have,” Chou said. “A huge trend was that these kids come from difficult home lives, or they’re just trying navigate the transition to adulthood.”
Chou said that throughout his 27 years of service and many years serving as a chaplain, one of his favorite assignments was when he was the Ohio Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion chaplain.
“That was fun because these young kids were fresh off the street,” Chou said. “That was awesome because it’s kind of like being a basic training chaplain. There’s high attendance in chapel services, and the recruiters were supportive of that. You’d have 95 percent participation, and some of these kids, that might be the first time they’ve ever attended a religious service.”
A number of Soldiers come to Chou in crisis. Chou said he sees that as a blessing, as an opportunity to serve that person.
“There’s a Chinese proverb that says ‘crisis equals danger plus opportunity,’” Chou said. “I see that as these crises moments, these crossroads that we face in life often can actually be opportunities to truly grow and to mature. I see Soldiers who face crises and come out of them stronger.”
Chou has been on two deployments to the Middle East, and it’s put some strain on his family, leaving his wife, Sarah, to manage their three kids.
“My wife is incredibly supportive,” Chou said. “As a chaplain, there are a lot of demands that go outside of your normal work day, whether that be emergencies that we respond to or just a lot of weekend work. There are times where I’m doing something three, four weekends a month, so I try to balance that out, take time off when I can.”
When he’s on deployment, however, he has little opportunity to help manage his household, which he lists as his No. 1 hobby outside of the Guard. So, on his 2017-18 deployment with the 371st Sustainment Brigade, his family faced a crisis.
“You would think as a chaplain, we would have a good support system, but we didn’t,” Chou said. “We had set up a plan A for a support system, and it really fell through, and we didn’t have a good plan B. It was very difficult for my wife. When people say, give me a call if you need anything, it really doesn’t mean anything.”
Chou said that people need to proactively reach out to families who are in a deployed service member situation.
“We came out of that deployment realizing that we needed to do more, to invest in developing true connections with others,” Chou said. “Now we go to small group meetings within our church, where we meet at a church member’s house.”
Chou’s deployment experiences have helped him better understand the hardships Military Families go through. His main role now is to strengthen Military Families. He oversees the Ohio National Guard’s Strong Bonds Program, a chaplain-led Army-wide program that seeks to develop strong relationships for military families, marriages and even single Soldiers.
“It’s basically relationship education,” Chou said. “Typically these are done in the form of weekend events where we bring them into a nice hotel or resort and work to build relationship resiliency.”
Chou said that the Ohio program has grown to 13 events this year and serves over 1,500 Soldiers and family members.
“Seeing Soldiers who have been impacted by some of the programs that we offer such as Strong Bonds and seeing how that has strengthened a family in some way, that is most rewarding,” Chou said. “A lot of Soldiers are under stress, and, if you think about the sacrifices that we make, Soldiers don’t get a lot of positive military experiences very often.”
After Action Review comments from attendees describe the Strong Bonds events as a learning experience with materials, fun and laughter that helps develop communication skills to enrich personal relationships and helps people become better versions of themselves.
“The family is the foundation of society,” Buxton said. “I think (Chou) understood that he needed to try to show something different than what he grew up in. He wanted to show the ideal way that God says that a family should be, sharing with one another, loving one another, growing together.
Chou is clearly making a strong, positive impact on individual Soldiers and their families. He has come a long way from the 18-year old high school graduate looking to escape his family. One might see it as ironic that a kid who grew up in a troubled home is now devoting his life to strengthening families. Others might see it as fate. Others might see it as part of God’s plan.
“God uses our experience to help shape our worldview and help shape how we will lead to make an impact in other people’s lives,” Buxton said. “He’s taken (Chou’s) hard upbringing and showed him the pros and cons, because what he’s doing now is he’s showing families what God has done in his life in Strong Bonds and putting an emphasis on the care of your family.”