There may not be a more valuable person at Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina, than someone who doesn’t even receive a paycheck: Chaplain David Bobbey. The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) chaplain is officially calling it quits this week after volunteering over 76,000 hours. All with his bride of 60 years, Jean, by his side.
Serving has always been in his blood, having retired from the U.S. Army after 20 years. On his way out the door from active duty, he jokes the Department of Defense felt so little of him, that his last check was only for 25 cents. It wasn’t an actual paycheck as much as an accounting error that showed up four months after retiring. The amount to produce and send the check was likely more than the cost of the stamp to mail it. Where is the check today? Still in Bobbey’s home office desk drawer. “This is all they thought I was worth after so many years,” he joked. “I’ve kept it ever since to think that just maybe, someone, somewhere is trying to figure out why the budget is 25 cents off every year.”
That humor and lightheartedness is what has endured him to so many military personnel. In a profession that has countless commanders and Airmen coming and going, Bobbey has been a constant for everyone at what used to be Pope Air Force Base.
Upon meeting someone new, he more than likely guaranteed that he knew where the person came from, but not to tell him. Then, he’ll get a serious look on his face, hand over his mouth as if in deep thought before the lightbulb goes off and he points his index finger straight in the air, signaling that he figured it out. “I know where you came from…you came from your mother.”
Most retire to enjoy less work, but that has hardly been the case for the Freeland, Pennsylvania, native.
The 86-year-old has volunteered 19 years, having traveled over 114,000 miles, conducted 28 marriages (he just did his grandson’s), 32 military funerals and 537 invocations for promotions and changes of command. Oh, and he even served as Santa for ten years at the Christmas tree lighting on Fort Bragg.
He visits all Air Force units two times a week, which isn’t easy for anyone, but especially someone who has a couple of damaged knees. He repelled many times from helicopters in Vietnam with the 101st Air Assault (now Airborne) Division. He did a 40-pound, 3.5 km ruck in full OCPs at the age of 75. He rappelled down a 70-foot tower at the age of 76, “Going down was the easiest part. The hard part was going up the stairs to get in line.”
His heart and energy have supported the Religious Services team at Pope, which received five Air Mobility Command Small Chapel Awards and two U.S. Air Force Small Chapel Unit awards during his tenure.
“God had to be involved in anything I did after retirement because I wasn’t going to get paid in the traditional sense,” Bobbey said. “Instead, I got paid in the lives touched and the people I was able to help.”
It’s a good thing too. He has saved the government an estimated $800,000, with $40,000 of it going to pay for a lieutenant colonel chaplain position each year. While his hours and visits can be counted, there is one thing that absolutely can’t be counted: the lives he’s impacted. Anytime a Veteran visits base, there’s a pretty good chance that Chaplain Bobbey not only knew the person, but remembers everything they’ve ever discussed. His brain has more knowledge and history than most can remember. He’s made his alma mater, Penn State University, proud. “I went to Penn State....not to be confused with the State Pen,” he likes to say.
While the age of Airmen has remained the same over the years, the age gap hasn’t changed the impact he’s had on so many. U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christian Sharpe and his wife, Jessica, can attest. “We call him our honorary ornery grandpa,” Sharpe joked. “We love him, and he’s done more for us than I can count. He reintroduced us to God and the church and has been a spiritual anchor for us to bounce things off whether it be religion, marriage, or life. Not to mention his terrible dad jokes, but there's always a zinger in there so he makes you pay attention until the jokes done. My wife loves that he can speak German and it really helped with her transition to the United States.”
In the 2001 movie, “Pearl Harbor,” Col. James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin) stated, “There’s nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.” Chaplain David Bobbey is a living example of that quote.