Dawn Dimick doesn’t like the label of “first,” but it’s one that has stuck since she became the first female student to enroll as a graduate military chaplaincy student at Brigham Young University.
Up until recently, the program was available only to males who had been ordained to the priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although BYU was her first choice, Dimick enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary to pursue her career. After two semesters, she received word that the church’s Office of Military Relations changed the enrollment policy, paving the way for her at the Provo-based school.
“This has been a huge witness to me how God works,” she said. “I’m just the privileged one who gets to be in this space and continue this work that’s going on in this sphere, which is exciting.”
What is a chaplain?
Dimick joined the Army ROTC when she was 17 to help pay her way through college. As a reserve cargo specialist she worked hard for “a challenging couple of years.” A self-described “people person,” she enjoyed the collaborative and social elements of service, which were often rare in her role at the time. At times she wondered if she wanted to stay in the military in the long term.
“I felt like a wrong-sized peg trying to fit into this hole that just didn’t work,” she said.
While serving as a missionary in Russia, Dimick said she had the word “chaplain” distinctly come to mind three times. She was only vaguely familiar with the profession, but said she held the thought in the back of her mind until she returned home.
“I just went about my mission and had an awesome time out there,” she said. “I learned that I really love hearing people’s stories. ... In a way, it already had become a part of my identity in ways that I didn’t realize until I was there.”
After more serious consideration, Dimick realized that chaplaincy would provide an opportunity for her to continue her service by connecting with other people. Although amorphous, Dimick described a chaplain as being “a sojourner in life with people.”
“A good chaplain is just walking in wounds with people,” she said. “You get to be in the joys with people, and also life’s most intimate, more difficult moments. The whole point is to provide spiritual care in a way that nourishes the framework of the person that you’re ministering to, or that you’re walking with.”
Chaplains provide care to people of all faiths, helping coordinate specific rites when necessary. For those who are not religious or without a specific faith tradition, chaplains still play a valuable role of support and comfort.
“That’s almost more freeing to me as a chaplain in some ways,” Dimick said of working with people from different faith backgrounds. “You just exist in this space where you can navigate that with people and help them form their own views when faced with a really difficult situation.”
As part of the program, Dimick receives clinical experience working at St. Mark’s Hospital in Millcreek. The work is slightly different from that of a military chaplain — Dimick works as part of an interdisciplinary team along with doctors and nurses to care for patients and their families.
While doctors and nurses have a variety of responsibilities, chaplains are able to spend more time with patients, comforting them and walking them through difficult conversations.
Self-care is key for chaplains, Dimick said, as they often help people through the most traumatic and distressing situations life has to offer. The clinical experience allows her to begin to implement self-care practices and find healthy ways to cope.
Earlier this month, a patient died only a few minutes into her first overnight shift.
“It was a very intimate kind of death experience because the family let me into that space to say goodbye,” Dimick said. “It just struck me in a different way. ... This is not going to be easy to just forget about when I get home.”
Dimick said she has focused on not becoming detached from the realities of death and loss, instead allowing herself to feel strongly about it.
“The key for me has been ... when those experiences do stay with me, integrating them into who I am and allowing them to motivate me to keep going ... and giving myself the space to feel the weight of it,” she said.
If it does become too much, Dimick said it’s important to be able to share those feelings with trusted friends or colleagues.
“We all know we need to communally share it,” she said. “I see it as, again, a very interconnected thing.”
Her acceptance into the chaplaincy program has come with its fair share of obstacles, as well as chances for opportunity and growth.
While responding to a sexual assault investigation during military training, Dimick was told that a male colleague had made sexual comments about her.
“When I’m standing in front of soldiers in a male-dominated world, how many times do they see me as a spiritual care provider who can meet their needs and help them, versus objectifying me?” she said.
It illustrated to Dimick that her experience in the military would be different than most, but said she has received a great deal of support and empathy from her team and classmates.
She said she has heard from many within the ranks that they would like to see more women serve as chaplains. Although she doesn’t want to be the center of attention, she hopes being a voice will help others follow in her footsteps.
“I struggle immensely with that because I’m pretty much a behind-the-scenes kind of person,” she said. “But as I’ve been in dialogue and conversation with God, it’s been very much like I have had my own walk and journey with God. And now I’m in this beautiful space where I get to witness of that to people, and that has power.”