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Desert Storm: Palomaria finds his purpose

Maj. Alexander Palomaria, 366th Fighter Wing deputy chaplain, displays his scrapbook of Desert Storm-era articles and photos, Jan. 13, 2016, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. For Palomaria, Desert Storm was the confirmation he needed to become a military chaplain. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica H. Evans/RELEASED)

Maj. Alexander Palomaria, 366th Fighter Wing deputy chaplain, displays his scrapbook of Desert Storm-era articles and photos, Jan. 13, 2016, at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. For Palomaria, Desert Storm was the confirmation he needed to become a military chaplain. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica H. Evans/RELEASED)

A scrapbook of Desert Storm articles and photos lays open on a table at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Jan. 13, 2016. Maj. Alexander Palomaria, 366th Fighter Wing deputy chaplain, used scrapbooking as a way of coping with the war. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica H. Evans/RELEASED)

A scrapbook of Desert Storm articles and photos lays open on a table at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Jan. 13, 2016. Maj. Alexander Palomaria, 366th Fighter Wing deputy chaplain, used scrapbooking as a way of coping with the war. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica H. Evans/RELEASED)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho- -- While many of the senior service members in today's Air Force served during Desert Storm, not all experienced the smoke-filled air from the burning oil fields, rather the despair and uncertainty of those left at home, waiting anxiously to find out if - and when - they'd join the fight.

Restricted to a 100-mile radius and required to report for duty every weekend, a 20-year-old private first class in the Army National Guard signal corps out of Montgomery, Alabama, was ready to go at a moment's notice. After being measured for desert uniforms and chemical gear, his unit was prepositioned and ready for deployment, filling his spare time with wandering thoughts and mixed emotions.

"A lot of things go through your mind," said Maj. Alexander Palomaria, 366th Fighter Wing deputy chaplain. "I had a lot of patriotic feelings inside me, because as a young 20-year-old you're indestructible; but I would also say I would integrate my feelings of fear, of the unknown, and of leaving loved ones behind."

Still living at home and attending college, he not only had to deal with his fears, but his parents as well. His brother was also on standby in an ANG unit, adding more stress on the family in an already difficult time.

In order to cope with all the different emotions and stressors, he turned to friends, family and his spirituality to get him through.  By journaling and scrapbooking he was able to visualize and feel what others were going through.

"Every day I would read the Montgomery Advertiser - our hometown newspaper - and I would clip out the articles; I would go to the store and buy Time Life magazines and then I would also journal and write down my thoughts and feelings," Palomaria said. "That was my self-care."

Through all the uncertainty of Desert Storm, one thing became clear for Palomaria. After a chance encounter with a chaplain at the young age of five or six, he always had an interest in chaplaincy but his defining moment was at church the night the war began.

"[Palomaria] was on my staff as a youth minister intern and the night the war started we decided to release early because many of our youth had loved ones who were already deployed," said Pastor Keith Waldrop, Palomaria's childhood pastor.

The ironic cancellation of church during a time of need was Palomaria's lightbulb moment.

"I saw mothers crying, I saw fathers shaking their head [and] I saw teenagers that were indifferent," he said. "When I saw people leaving, I prayed to God and I said 'Lord, how can I help these people,' and that's when it dawned on me  that the Lord was allowing me to have these experiences to see the human emotion of what happens during war to pursue becoming a chaplain."

After affirmation, Palomaria set out on a path to chaplaincy. While working to complete his Master's degree he went into a chaplain candidate program and worked the summers for the Air Force, eventually joining as an active duty member in 1998 and becoming a licensed chaplain.

"Desert Storm confirmed the path God was leading [Palomaria] on and he hasn't looked back," Waldrop said. "I think when today's generation of airmen speaks to [Palomaria] they are hearing the voice of wisdom and experience as a veteran of the Gospel and the military."

In a time of gloom and hardship, Palomaria's devotion and heart of compassion for people brought him to where he is today, Waldrop explained.

"I was humbled by the experience of Desert Storm because I questioned whether I was weak, whether I was strong enough," Palomaria said. "It prepared me to be a better leader today, even to the point of deciding to answer an even higher calling to become a chaplain."