By Grayson Hester
Leah Botona Boling woke up the week of June 21, 2021, to discover something she’d never experienced before: In her country of origin, the Philippines, she was trending on social media.
From one Pacific Island, Hawaii, to another, Boling was making headlines. As well she should.
Three days before – on Juneteenth, June 18 — she had prematurely received an email informing her she had been selected for a historic position. Because of the recently-designated federal holiday, she should not have received the message and, therefore, could not tell the news to anyone except her husband. One long, arduous weekend later, the announcement became official.
For the first time in U.S. history, the position of Director of the Air National Guard Chaplain Corps was to be filled by a woman. For the first time, it was to be filled by an AAPI (Asian-American Pacific Islander) person. For the first time, it was to be filled by a person of color. For the first time, it was to be filled by an AAPI woman. And that woman’s name is Chaplain (Colonel) Leah Botona Boling.
“I do not believe in happenstance or luck,” Col. Boling said. “It has to be God-ordained for me to be here right now. God has put me where I need to be.”
And where God has placed her is the highest-ranking full-time position in the chaplain corps.
To put it in perspective, Charlie Reynolds, the CBF Associate Endorser for Military Chaplaincy, said: “There are only eight active duty chaplain generals in the entire military — three Army, three Navy and two Air Force. If Leah Boling, in her position as the senior chaplain for the Air Guard, were in the Army or Navy, she would be a general.”
The significance of this cannot be overstated, especially considering she is one of three CBF-endorsed military chaplains who are equivalently ranked. This sets CBF apart as likely the only endorsing body to boast this achievement.
“It speaks to the expectations we have of our chaplains, those high expectations we hold them to,” said Renee Owen, Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministries Director and Endorser for CBF. “And of the excellent manner in which they’re living out their call as military chaplains.”
The realization of these expectations describes Col. Boling and has since she was sworn into service in 2002. It was not lust for power or hunger for recognition that directed Boling’s steps into the military. It was, instead a simple, yet profound, desire to help people in a field with which she had little familiarity.
“Believe it or not, I had no idea what a military chaplain looked like,” she said. “There were no military members of my family except for one uncle who served in the Philippine National Police. That was the only military I knew.”
Growing up in a staunchly Southern Baptist household, she had understood the idea that military service and service to Christ were incompatible and that chaplains would, in effect, minister with a “gun in one hand, the Bible in the other.” She had also internalized the belief that women could not serve in ministry.
Thanks to CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), however, she would soon discover that chaplains are the only Air Force job members who do not carry guns and that women can not only serve in ministry, but do it, according to her rank, as well as or better than any man.
“When I was exposed to CPE, my eyes got so big, ‘Ooh, I like this environment,’” she said. “When I got introduced to military chaplaincy, it was the same: ‘Ooh, I like this, too! Tell me more.’”
Upon moving to America from the Philippines, Boling initially served as a hospital chaplain. But in the days following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, she felt a deep sense of need that swiftly redirected her call to the military. This eventually led her to serve as, at the time, the only woman in the Hawaii Air National Guard Chaplain Corps. But she felt no call to shatter glass ceilings or even to climb the ranks. She simply felt called to help. “I was happy, not reaching for more.,” Boling said. “It was just me doing what I’m supposed to be doing, which is serving my guardsmen.”
That unwavering commitment to service guided Boling through promotion after promotion, year after year, until she reached the rank of colonel in March 2021, 19 years after her swearing-in. Acquiring that rank also opened up another opportunity — that of director. And, in keeping with the trajectory of Boling’s unorthodox career, it arrived in the most unusual of ways.
Initially, she had not applied for the position in the first round. But the military did something it rarely does: It reversed a decision. “A miraculous thing happened: The board had to disqualify the whole process,” she said. “It was a series of miracles for me to even qualify, that it took this long for them to come up with another board to interview me, and then for me to be selected.”
She submitted an application to the newly-minted board in June. She interviewed. She got it.
And with that, Leah Boling shattered yet another glass ceiling. All 108,100 Air National Guard members, divided into 90 wings across all 50 states and four territories, now have as their Chaplain Corps director a Filipino-American woman. Boling sees her gender and her Asian ethnicity not simply as identifiers, but as intrinsic to the job she does and as assets that help make her the best person for it.
In a white male-dominated world, of which the military is but one-part, different approaches aren’t simply desired — they’re required. Too often as an accessory to, and not a corrective of, evils like racism, the U.S. military needs voices and perspectives like Boling’s to reorient itself toward more just aims. “I’m able to bring to the table a female perspective, an immigrant perspective and all my experiences,” Boling said. “Often, in various scenarios, I can say that I’m the only one who experienced that. There’s only one Leah Boling. That’s in me.”
From an intersectional perspective — a term coined by Black legal scholar Kimberlee Crenshaw — it is not solely her identity as a woman or her identity as a Filipino person that defines her. It is both of them. And then, within that, it is the way these identities multiply and intertwine.
Embodying this concept, Boling references her experiences growing up in the Philippines as readily as she does her experiences as a woman.
“From the Asian side, we think community-wise,” she said. “It’s more team-focused. My decision affects the community, affects the team.” She cites a Filipino practice of a whole town coming together to literally and physically move a community member’s house by carrying it upon their shoulders. It is called bayanihan. Helping each other move into better environments was an act of communal love, an act that is etched into her memory and character alike. “We’re all in this together, to care for this one family,” she said.
As far as being a woman is concerned, Boling said she would bring a more motherly approach to decision-making and leadership. “To enhance the motherly side, the caring, loving and nurturing part of her would come out, ” Boling said. “When I have to say something about policies, it would be nurturing, not so money-driven or solely operationally-focused.”
And it is in being a woman, a Filipino woman, a woman of color, that Boling cites the central importance of her promotion. In a time where violence against AAPI people in this country is skyrocketing, where falsehoods against AAPI people dominate headlines, and where brown people often get excluded from the Black-white binary of discussions about white supremacy and racism, representation matters. Visibility matters.
None of this is lost on Boling. When interviewed, the very first thing she had to say was this:
“How can I share my story so that somewhere a young girl, a young woman — especially a person of color, an Asian person — can say, ‘Ah, I can do that, too,’” she said. “Representation matters.”