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Going to War: Ministry amid Training

Two years ago my group of Individual Augmentees was leaving Ft Jackson South Carolina on the way to Kuwait, which was our final training site before going on to our assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and other locations in the CENTCOM Area of Operations.  In the two weeks prior to our departure  we received training in a number of areas, especially weapons which I was exempted from as a Chaplain, though I did fire the crew served weapons for the fun of it.  I wasn’t always a chaplain and have a hard time not enjoying a Mk 19 Automatic Grenade Launcher, M-240 series machine gun or the classic .50 caliber Machine Gun.  Since I used to call in 155mm Artillery fire these are little guns, but still fun to play with.  When you are chaplain and are exempted from actual training it does not mean that it is time to go to the Food Court at the Post Exchange to chow down on Pizza and Ice Cream.  Ministry abounds if you want to go hang out.  One of the fun things about hanging out with Navy guys unfamiliar with small arms is to watch them trying to clean them and get them past an Army armorer in an Arms Room.  To see the looks of shock as my fellow sailors brought back their M-16s and M-9s for more cleaning.  They had not yet learned the dirty little secret that a good armorer can find things dirty on a weapon that you didn’t even know existed.    It was at this point with me calmly pointing out tricks of the trade that a physician who I had gotten to know looked at me and said: “Chaplain, you were in the Army weren’t you?”  He looked at me as several others who had just had their weapons rejected stopped what they were doing and waited for my response.

I was kind; I acknowledged that indeed I had served in the Army and that I was not always a Chaplain.  I then looked at the physician and said “Give me the weapon.”  I took it from him, broke it down and gave a quick lecture on how to clean a weapon of the M-16 series.  The dirty secret on these things is that you almost never get your weapon through the inspector on the first try.  There are more places for carbon to hide on an M-16 than places you can find Waldo.  Thus a good inspector knowing that he has a bunch of novices coming through simply rejects every weapon.  I think that it builds character.  I showed those around me all the little places where carbon was hiding on this officer’s weapon and how to get it clean to pass inspection.  Knowing such things gives you additional “street cred” as a chaplain as you go off to war.  It shows that you care about what your guys have to do enough to teach them.  This is really vital when your Navy or Air force guys are training with the Army.  It opened doors to ministry with these men and women.  So if any of my deploying friends need some pointers on the care and feeding of an M-16 let me know.

Additionally, ministry seems to happen when you stay engaged with people.  I was blessed that two additional chaplains, Commander Kyle Fauntleroy and Command Dave Rodriguez who were heading off to manage the “Warrior Transition” program in Kuwait.  Together we figured out how best to care for our sailors including how we did services as well as counseling.  We had a pretty good amount of business.  It seems that life and tragedy happens even in training. We had a young hospital corpsman who was diagnosed with Leukemia during our first week there. Both the Navy chain of command and Army trainers expected us, in between and after training to make sure that she and her family were cared for.   Other sailors found out that their husbands, wives or significant others were cheating on them.  Still others were hurt in training accidents and could not deploy.  In every case one or more of us took care of the sailor in question.  It was a community of individuals that for a brief two weeks began to gel together despite the fact that when the training was completed we would go separate directions, some for more training at other bases and others directly to the Middle East.

Apart from the young woman with Leukemia the most notable thing that I got to do was baptize a young Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer who had been raised in the Episcopal Church but who’s parents had forgotten to have him baptized…oops.  The subject came up when he became engaged to a Catholic girl. He needed to prove that he was a baptized Christian, only problem when he went to his parish they could find no record.  So he inquired of his parents when he learned of the “oops we should have done that” situation.  I like to baptize people, they way we do it you don’t have to wear hip-waders or make up anything because it is all in the Prayer Book so it’s not that hard.   So I did it on our last Sunday morning with his fiancé present.  It was really cool.  The young officer had the bunk next to me in the barracks so we had gotten to know each other during conversations as we checked or put together equipment, packed gear, washed clothes or went to chow.  He was very smart and friends as well as unassuming.  When asked what he did in civilian life he simply said that he worked intelligence and foreign policy in DC.  I figured as most would infer that the young man was with the CIA or DIA or some other outfit.  We saw each other a couple of times as Nelson and I traveled about Al Anbar Province the last time in the Wal-Mart sized chow hall number three at Al Asad as we waited for a flight out west.  After I returned and was having my PTSD meltdown I found that the young man was then Senator Barak Obama’s senior National security adviser.  We had stayed in touch in the following months but finding out this was a surprise. We have remained in touch and he now serves as Chief of Staff for the National Security Council.  I think it’s cool that he is up there working with General Jones on the NSC.  He’s a good man who despite his high position remains active in the Naval Reserve.  He is doing well in his marriage and remains in contact with guys like me.  It makes me even more prayerful for him as he advises the NSC and President.   It was one of those moments when I knew that the Deity Herself had placed me in a person’s life that due to his office needs prayer more than we can imagine.

Ministry of all types continued to happen our entire time at Fort Jackson, we dealt with family deaths, birth notifications and medical emergencies.  We counseled, prayed and assisted sailors in need and looked out for each other.  Nelson was engaged not only receiving training but also giving it having run something like 400 convoys in Afghanistan.  He ended up as one of the honor graduates and won a leadership award from the Army staff.  It is really great to have an assistant of Nelson’s caliber when you go to war.  As we got ready to leave Ft Jackson my young friend went off for more specific training at another base with many of the other Intelligence Officers and specialists.   Nelson and I packed up our gear, stacked it and helped load trucks which would take us to our flight.

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, leadership, Military, philosophy, Tour in Iraq