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‘Black Hawk Down’ hero urges Gator Bowl teams to trust Christ

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Comparing going to war as the military’s Super Bowl, Jeff Struecker, an American war hero featured in the movie “Black Hawk Down,” told Gator Bowl players the definition of success is not to be drafted by the National Football League.

Instead, real success is defined by a “life surrendered to Jesus Christ,” said Struecker, a Southern Baptist chaplain and an Army Ranger, in Jacksonville for a Gator Bowl luncheon Dec. 27 hosted by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Struecker also served as the grand marshal of the Gator Bowl parade Dec. 31 and threw the coin toss at the start of the New Year’s Day bowl game.

Football players and coaches from the University of Notre Dame and North Carolina State University listened intently as Struecker, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., recounted the 17-hour battle that pitted several hundred U.S. soldiers against thousands of Somalis on Oct. 3, 1993.

Struecker, now assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C., won the Bronze Star with Valor for leading several of the rescue attempts in Somalia and the 1996 David L. Granger Best Ranger Competition, considered the Army’s Olympics.

In Mogadishu, Somalia, Struecker said his mission was to kill or capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Unlike the previous operations, Oct. 3 turned ugly when two Black Hawk helicopters went down in the city.

Struecker said his mission changed from one of escorting prisoners to rescuing fellow Ranger Todd Blackburn, a Floridian who had just fallen 70 feet to the ground from one of the Black Hawk helicopters.

Speeding down the bullet-riddled streets to the airfield, Struecker said the men in the vehicle began to panic when it was splattered with the blood of soldiers who were being fired on from all sides.

Watching men pulling bodies from vehicles, Struecker said he had only one thought: “Thank God he spared my life and I made it out of this thing alive.” Struecker recalled thinking, “There’s no way that I can go back out there.”

Struecker said he didn’t have long to dwell on his thoughts before his platoon leader grabbed him by the arm and told him he needed to get the blood cleaned out of his vehicles and go back out to help bring in fellow Rangers who were being overrun by Somalis.

Thinking, “it’s gonna be my blood,” Struecker said he didn’t know at the time he would venture out a total of three times before his mission ended early the next morning. Spotting 15 men running down the hill behind his vehicle that morning, Struecker said the look on their faces, the abject misery and emotional strain evident even in their posture, will stay with him forever.

“If you’re not afraid in a situation like that, then something’s seriously wrong with you,” Struecker said. “This is where God really put my life in perspective. It wasn’t the blood, it wasn’t the bullet holes, it was the condition of those battle-hardened combat Rangers.”

At that point, Struecker said he promised God he would be a chaplain.

“Does an NFL contract equal a successful life?” Struecker asked rhetorically. “Does that equal real success in life, or is it all in vain?”

Paraphrasing Matthew 16:24, Struecker told about how Jesus directed his disciples to take up a cross and follow him.

“‘A’ is admitting to God you are a sinner, ‘B’ is believing Jesus Christ is the payment for sin, and ‘C’ is a life committed to God,” Struecker said.

Struecker, 33, told the Florida Baptist Witness in an interview he believes God used the 15 years he spent in the enlisted ranks to “mold him” into a soldier. Unlike most military chaplains, Struecker completed most of his seminary training while still on active duty.

“I often think of what was important to me when I was a private or a sergeant,” Struecker said. Plain and simple, it’s the little things like knowing when to go out to the field to visit soldiers in a wrinkled uniform with a little dirt on his boots that makes the difference between being resented or respected, he said. “In fact, one of my men said to me recently, ‘Captain, you are the dirtiest chaplain I have ever met in my life.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much.'”

Knowing too much can produce some “tension” at times when Struecker considers the difference in his role as a non-combatant rather than a well-trained gung-ho Army Ranger.

“I wrestle with it every day,” Struecker said. “I have to remember that my primary responsibility is now to minister to this battalion, to their families and that God would use me to speak to their lives, to their hearts.

“But there’s always a part of me that remembers what it is to be in the thick of it, to exchange gunfire with the enemy. But the overarching thought that always wins out is that my primary responsibility is to minister to these men, not to win a war. It’s their job to win a war.”

And if he finds himself in a position to give combat advice, Struecker said he doesn’t hesitate, but waits to be asked. Given the opportunity, he shares the gospel as well.

Struecker said God uses tragedy to turn people in his direction.

“There were a lot of battle-hardened Rangers who really were just devastated by what they had been through. A lot of guys lost their best friends and a lot of guys who had been really shook up came to me because I was a Christian, asking me questions.

“If these guys had the same faith in Christ that I had, they wouldn’t struggle with it,” Struecker said. “That has really been a driving force in my ministry.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: JEFF STRUECKER and CHAPLAIN AT GATOR BOWL.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan