AF colonel to get double promotion to 2-star general for top chaplain post
(Tribune News Service) — Col. Dondi E. Costin is not your usual military chaplain.
For starters, the former Pacific Air Forces command chaplain is being double-promoted to two-star general and will take over as chief of chaplains at Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon on Friday.
“He is an incredibly charismatic speaker with an undeniable strength of spirit and character,” said Gen. Lori Robinson of Col. Dondi E. Costin, who will be the top Air Force chaplain in Washington.
But what makes Costin really stand out, at least for those who have heard him speak publicly, are the invocations — normally brief, lackluster prayers at special events — into which he breathes personal insight, humor, quirkiness and even geopolitics so successfully that many in the audience are smiling broadly when he’s done.
“I can probably summarize it by the invocation that he gave at the Air Force Ball last year,” said Col. Joseph Anderson, Pacific Air Force’s command surgeon. “It is the first time I have ever seen anybody, chaplain or otherwise, give an invocation and get a standing ovation.”
Part of the appeal is the humor, mixed with a “little bit of ‘I can’t believe he said that,’” said Anderson, who’s a big Costin fan.
When Costin asks audience members to bow their heads, “prepare to be bowing your head for quite a while, because it’s never short,” said Col. Julie Boit, director of manpower, personnel and services for Pacific Air Forces, who also has tremendous respect for the chaplain.
Nor are Costin’s prayers ever canned or standard fare, she said.
“They are always funny,” Boit said. “They are funny, but they are also with a great message.” If Costin is speaking at a promotion ceremony, “it’s all about that person and their family and special stories or things about them,” she added.
Costin goes big on metaphors coupled with quirky language.
Take the Oct. 16 Pacific Air Forces change of command at which Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle passed the flag to Gen. Lori “Law” Robinson at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.
Most are watching to see how a change at the top of the system sharpens the tip of the spear. Many wonder what adjustments will be made as bore-sight responsibility shifts in the blink of an eye from a hawk-eyed leader straight into the eyes of the law.
On the departing Carlisle, who is not the tallest man in the world, Costin had this to say:
Thank you for prescribing him airman-colored glasses, which he consistently used to demonstrate that servant leadership is not an oxymoron. Thanks for using him to show us once and for all that leadership effectiveness has nothing to do with a leader’s height, and everything to do with his heart.
On Robinson, who became the first woman to lead an Air Force component major command:
As the general goes on scope in pursuit of “el foto grande,” give her enough hindsight to connect the right dots, enough insight to consider the right data and enough foresight to choose the right decisions. Although some observers may be distracted today by the fact that she is first, the wisest will simply note that she just happens to be next.
And on the Pacific region:
Some hope the field of view narrows so they can give us a black eye, or at least pull the wool over our eyes. Meanwhile, countless others pray that resources and interest open the aperture so their people, and our people, can finally see eye to eye. Today, we pray the watching world recognizes this ceremony and its effects for what it is: clear visual evidence that the Pacific has our nation’s full attention, not just a fleeting glance.
Robinson said in an email that when she heard Costin’s invocation at the change of command, she knew he was something special. “He is an incredibly charismatic speaker with an undeniable strength of spirit and character,” she said. “Dondi unifies and inspires in a way that transcends different personal backgrounds and spiritual beliefs — a vital skill for a chaplain in our diverse Air Force.”
His faith and passion for supporting airmen “make him a natural pick for his new role,” Robinson added. “I am confident he will continue to do great things for the Chaplain Corps and the Air Force as a whole.”
Costin, 50, who’s described as a humble man, said he feels “overwhelmed” by the selection that will make him a major general and head chaplain in the Air Force.
The 1986 Air Force Academy graduate said he came from a devout Baptist home in North Carolina and felt a call to the ministry in high school but was afraid of public speaking and became an industrial engineer in the service instead.
He finally switched to the chaplaincy in 1996 and said he has loved having the spiritual role ever since.
The married chaplain, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, admits his unique invocations don’t come easy, and in fact take a lot of effort. Those who know him say he puts in as much time on a promotion from captain to major as he did on the four-star change of command for Carlisle and Robinson.
“That’s what I’ve tried to do through the years: realize the great opportunity and responsibility that invocation holds, not just for the chaplain, but principally, for those in the audience,” Costin said. “We pray together, so hopefully, I’m trying to embody their prayers. I’ve tried to make them as personal as possible and as relevant as possible to the situation.”
Costin said he sought out peers and colleagues of Robinson’s — who was an air battle manager — to gain some insight for her command change. He found someone in Hawaii who knew her.
“One phrase he gave me was, she’s always talking about ‘el foto grande’ — the big picture,” Costin said, so into the speech it went.
Costin said he puts his heart and soul into the invocations. There’s some courage, too, when he feels confident enough to refer to a four-star general’s height.
His last day at Hickam was Monday. Next up for the Costin treatment is Air Force headquarters at the Pentagon.
“I hope not to change at all,” Costin said. “I hope I just stay who I am.”