Brother Chase Wilhelm, 32° tells the Supreme Council of his honorable service trip to Ukraine where he bravely helped bring Ukraine refugees to safety.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of The Northern Light.
“When you pray, you’ve got to move your feet.” That was one of the simple lessons Brother Chase Wilhelm, 32°, was taught in seminary. It turned out to be a lesson he took very much to heart—and one that would change the lives of an untold number of Ukrainian refugees for the better.
A Veteran, Chaplain, and Scottish Rite Freemason
To really grasp the importance of Chase’s story, it’s first necessary to understand a little about this very humble, incredibly sincere, and sometimes emotional man. Brother Chase, now 39, took the opportunity to join the lodge when he was 18 years old. He’s a third-generation Mason but by a very interesting set of circumstances.
Aware of his Masonic heritage, he petitioned the lodge where his grandfather had received his first degree and the same lodge where some 20 years later, Chase would have the opportunity to raise his grandfather. “He received his first degree before he went off to Korea and did not complete his until I completed mine,” Chase recalled. Since that time, both his stepfather and father have also become Masons.
After graduating from college, Chase joined the army, serving in Afghanistan as well as Poland and Eastern Europe. Having witnessed the positive impact a chaplain had while counseling a battle buddy going through some deep trauma, he began to feel a call toward the chaplaincy.
“The moment that clicked in my heart was seeing the power of what it means to be a chaplain and to be able to help nurture and foster someone through the dark night of their soul.”
Chase soon left active duty and enrolled in the seminary. He currently serves as deputy command chaplain in the Army Reserve. “In the Army Chaplain Corps, we have three values,” he says. “It’s to nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. And those three values, uniquely enough, I think, fit nicely with our understanding of what we do as Freemasons.
“I reflect on what faith, hope, and charity actually are. What does faith actually mean for me as a Brother? What does it mean to have faith enough to nurture the living? What is truly charity? So the Army chaplain’s core values for me are not just trite ideas. They are aspects that I believe I have to find ways to live into every single day.”
It is these deep-seated and firmly held beliefs that helped inform his decision in February of 2022 as news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine broke here in the United States. He and his wife, Dr. Lyndsey Heise, watched it intently on the television.
“I can distinctly remember pacing in my family's living room with my pregnant wife and all the things that entail,” said Chase. He knew in his heart that he had to help. He knew that the window for being useful wouldn’t be open long. Eventually, aid organizations would come, but there was a void now. One that he could fill. He had contacts there, a network of boots on the ground that could help him be of use.
“I knew that there was a demand signal, there was a need, there was an opportunity to do more than pray. And my wife and I had quite a long conversation about what it means to pack up your things; get on a plane for an undisclosed, undetermined amount of time; leave a pregnant wife; and travel across the globe for an opportunity that may or may not exist.”
He knew there would be a hole in his heart if he didn’t go. And when Lyndsey told him the same thing in the same words, he knew his prayer had been heard. It was time to move his feet.
The Mission: Service to Humanity in Ukraine
Within three days of their decision, he found himself on the ground in Poland. The first problem he encountered was a lack of transportation. There were no rental cars to be found in the entirety of Warsaw. Luckily, his network stepped up. He soon had a station wagon with a full tank of gas, and the only caveat was: Bring it back in one piece.
He made his way to a border town, stopping to buy diapers and feminine hygiene products for the refugees. There was already a functioning aid system setup, so Chase took a beat to figure out where he could be of help. “I had a unique resource, and I had the time, the money, and the energy to take these people wherever they needed to go in continental Europe,” he said.
Having found his niche, Chase spent his time shuttling families from the border to various points in Europe— sometimes as far as nine hours each way. He put in hours and hours of windshield time on as little sleep as he safely could, knowing that every hour counted. There are dozens of touching stories from Chase’s whirlwind trip, but two stand out in particular.
“It was probably my second or third day, and I thought I hit a stride, thought I hit a routine of how I was going to do this,” he said. “I had a mother, and she had four daughters. We were loading their bags in the back of the station wagon, and there was an interpreter there. And it was three ways of Ukrainian to Polish, Polish to English to me going back and forth with this interpreter. This little girl had a pink suitcase, and she was clutching it. And I'm talking to this interpreter and throwing luggage into the back of my car. I grabbed this suitcase and the look of fear in this girl’s eyes—I can’t describe it to you, but I know I’ll never forget it.”
It took him only a second to realize that everything this girl now owned—everything that mattered to her—was in this backpack that just moments ago, he so nonchalantly tossed into the station wagon.
A few days later, on another run, Brother Wilhelm was doing a short turnaround to Warsaw with a mother and her 17-year-old son. Once on the road, he started to hear a few words of English from the boy. It turned out that he spoke fluent English. Chase learned that the boy, Ignat Striletskyi, had been a pre-law student in Ukraine but was unsure what the future held for him. The two stayed in contact after Chase returned home. When Chase learned that Ignat was interested in attending college in the United States, he had another long conversation with Lyndsey.
“And I’m now happy to say that I have an 18-year-old Ukrainian living, by and large, with my wife and I, attending the University of Illinois,” he said. “So just when you thought the saga had completed, there was a way to draw that circle ever wider. And my family and I were able to do that.”
The Lesson: Living by Our Obligation and Core Values
The circle Brother Chase referred to is part and parcel of his philosophy on our duty to our fellow man. “I was taught that a good man draws a circle around his family, and there he makes a stand. A better man draws that circle ever wider, helps out the neighbor, the cousin, the friend. But a great man will seek to find a way to draw that circle ever wider, never forgetting the core, never forgetting the center, never compromising, never overpromising and underselling, never denying that they have limitations, but in every way each and every day, drawing the circle wider.”
Chase Wilhelm is a reluctant hero and the embodiment of the Scottish Rite Core Values. He spent a week in Poland drawing his circle wider every day. He logged over 120 hours of windshield time shuttling 21 refugees to various parts of Poland and Germany all at his own expense. Freemasonry didn’t make Chase Wilhelm a good man. He was a good man already. But the values we teach, the values he embodies, have helped him see that deeds and actions speak more than mere words.
“I don’t recommend doing what I did, to be very frank. To be very honest, we have to be very careful when we make grand actions and decisions,” he reflected. “I don’t believe that you have to travel halfway around the world to find a kid who has their life in a bag. I think if you take a deep, hard look at your community, [it] probably wouldn't take too long until you found a kid who had their world in a backpack. And I want people who hear this story and who are well-intentioned to know that you don't always have to get on a plane and have a grand story. Sometimes you just need to be paying a little more attention to what’s already in front of you.”
And then move your feet.
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