Chaplain Breakfast, General Assembly 2006
When I reflect on my 17 months in the Iraqi Theater of Operations, four things stand out in my mind: God’s work, the power of prayer, soldiers doing their duty and Kristin’s (my wife) ministry.
I had the privilege of watching God work in many ways. He worked quietly in individuals. I never saw God work in the form of a large-scale revival like He did in Desert Shield/Desert Storm. However, I saw Him work profoundly in individuals. He worked His saving grace in a young soldier who came to a genuine faith in the weeks immediately after we invaded Iraq. She was giddy the day we baptized her under a royal blue sky only a few miles from Ur, the ancestral home of Abraham. God worked in a young sergeant during my second tour. He was one of those young men who are great in a firefight, but seem to constantly get into trouble when things are slow. To this day, I don’t know what exactly the Lord did, or is doing, in that young man, but I watched God pull him closely to the Kingdom, if not into it. God worked in a moment of silence for me as I listened to a tough, heroic Platoon Leader talk through the traumatic moments he’d just been through.
I watched God work in our worship services, most of the time in spite of me. During my first tour I’d conduct typically three services on Sundays; sometimes only one soldier would come, one service built up to around 40 soldiers consistently. As I led worship and preached, I could see the refreshing and strengthening hand of God at work among His people. I led a weekly Bible Study during that time; it turned into essentially a men’s discipleship study. Around 12 men per week were exposed to the Reformed faith as presented in the Scriptures. God was at work building and deepening the faith of those men even in the midst of searing heat, brutal sandstorms and long hours. God was at work in the worship service I led during my second tour. He built a close little Christian community around that service which He used to encourage us all. As the Brigade Chaplain during my second tour, I had the privilege of resourcing at least eight other Christian services, knowing that God was at work in soldiers through those services.
I watched God work especially in the sacraments. We offered the Eucharist weekly. God worked in the Holy Supper the way we read about in our seminary textbooks. That Sacred Meal became a tangible representation of Jesus’ work on behalf of those soldiers. That sacred meal became a source of spiritual nutrition for the faith of those soldiers as they came in faith. Every week I strongly fenced the table, explaining the Supper in distinctly Reformed terms, and still they came.
The second thing that stands out in my mind about my time of ministry to soldiers in Iraq is the power of prayer. I was asked repeatedly by folks back home, “What can we do for our soldiers? What can we send that they need?” My reply consistently became, “Your prayers.” Our soldiers, especially as the war progressed, had many comforts of home. Eventually mail became a regular thing. Eventually phone lines and internet became accessible. Eventually gyms were built and libraries were equipped with books. What they needed most was prayer. (Not that home-baked food was unwelcome!) I am convinced that God acting on the prayers of His people prevented us from experiencing greater losses, enabled huge mission success, drew soldiers to Himself and sustained others in their faith. The prayers of God’s people are our soldiers’ greatest resource.
The third thing that stands out in my mind is soldiers doing their duty. We read a lot of negatives about the postmodern generation. There definitely are vast differences between Postmoderns and those of us who’ve gone before. However, my observations of this generation at war were very positive. There is an incredible sense of duty on the part of our soldiers, especially in the Combat Arms. I saw soldiers bring in a beloved NCO killed in an ambush by an armor-piercing RPG, swallow their grief, and go right back out into the fight. I saw soldiers bring in a company commander killed on a bad day in June, 2004. Later those same soldiers assaulted an objective under the leadership of a new commander. I approached a young soldier in the Brigade Aid Station who’d had his toes blown off. He looked up at me, with no anesthesia, and said, “It’s ok, Chaplain, I’ve had worse; I’m a skateboarder.” Amazing! This generation of soldiers can stand with the other generations of American soldiers who’ve gone before and done their duty.
The last thing that stands out in my mind is my wife’s ministry to other wives while we were deployed. I truly believe Kristin was more used of God than I. During my first deployment she became the epicenter of a group of young officers’ wives. Most of these women had never been through a deployment, much less a war. Kristin became a mentor and stabilizing force for those women. She shared the gospel with the ones who were lost; she encouraged the believers among them. She refereed fights and calmed overwrought nerves. Several times during the instances when I was able to get a phone call through to Kristin, she couldn’t talk too long because there was a gang of women at our apartment. During my second tour she led the Family Readiness Group (FRG) for the Headquarters Company for our Brigade. FRG’s are official groups of spouses that meet regularly to help each other through deployments and pass along information from the soldiers downrange. In that capacity on several occasions she had to go to the homes of grieving women whose husbands had been killed to provide comfort and help. Kristin became intimately involved with one lady in particular whose English skills were very poor. She led a weekly Bible Study among the wives. She also co-coordinated the Fall Conference for the Protestant Women of the Chapel, an event that drew U.S. women from all across the military’s installations in Europe, and was attended by over 500 women. She became an integral part of the women in our little community, sharing the gospel with some and discipling others. All this while she too lived under the cloud of anxiety about her husband’s safety. Every night she straightened the house in case the casualty notification team came to her home the next morning, she’d at least have a tidy home in which to hear the bad news.
My experiences and observations are typical of all your PCA chaplains deployed in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. Know that your prayers are vital to their ministry. Thank-you for your prayers for Kristin and me. After 17 and ½ months in the Iraqi Theater of Operations I have many vivid memories: I remember the tension in my unit and the beauty of the firmament in the night sky just hours before we crossed the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border during the invasion.
I remember the joy on the face of a soldier as she grasped the grace in the gospel and that same joy still on her face when she was baptized in the desert under a cloudless sky near Ur. She was giddy.
I remember the sense of eternity and peace I’d feel late in the afternoons along the Euphrates River watching the local people paddling their boats on the river with the setting sun reflecting off the water and the Muslim call to prayer floating on the air.
I remember the knot in my gut as my Assistant and I drove towards an exploding ammunition dump to check on the wounded while everyone else went the opposite direction.
I remember riding to an airfield for an air insertion operation in a Humvee in which three of the four men with whom I was riding are now dead.
I remember going to the Aid Station just in time to see the medics rushing a young Cavalry trooper, who would die in route to the hospital, to the Medevac helicopter and then talking to his buddies with whom he’d been ambushed in the farm fields near our base.
I remember spending Easter morning 2004 driving in a convoy to An Najaf, Fitz, my Chaplain Assistant and PCA member, and I anticipating an ambush the entire time, then doing an Easter service that night in a crowded room in an old, abandoned Iraqi Army building.
I remember praying over an Infantryman who’d been shot through the throat while the medics worked on him in the middle of a dusty rural road.
I remember writing a just-in-case note to my wife and then spending the next day on the roof of a building in a 10-hour long firefight. I remember the relief and gratitude to the Lord I felt as we rolled back to our Assembly Area.
I remember Jason Lynch, a very young soldier, who was evacuated to the Aid Station after being shot in the back; he was brought in conscious and talking, a few minutes later he died on the litter.
I remember praying like I’ve never prayed before for the soldiers from my brigade fighting in Fallujah.
I remember finding out that Command Sergeant Major Steve Faulkenburg had been killed. He was going to retire in June of 2005 and teach elementary school. He is a true American hero.
I remember every precious second of R and R with my wife.
I remember conducting a Christmas Eve Service and then Fitz and I spending Christmas Eve and Morning with our soldiers in a stinky, filthy alley on a raid.
I remember the joy and gratitude we all experienced as we began to grasp the success of the elections: the emotions rushing in as we realized that our 36 dead hadn’t given their lives in vain.
I remember driving away in a bus three times from my wife.
I remember Fitz’ awesome grin; I remember his faithfulness, humility, love, courage, fearlessness and protectiveness. “A brother is born for adversity.”