FORT DRUM, New York (BP)–A divine appointment in an airport gave Bobby Welch an opportunity to encourage 400 members of an elite U.S. Army unit and personally share the Gospel with soldiers who fight in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.
As co-author of the F.A.I.T.H. evangelism strategy, Welch tells others about Jesus Christ everywhere he goes. As the Southern Baptist Convention’s strategist for Global Evangelical Relations, he also travels extensively.
When Welch met Kevin Mangum in an airport terminal during one of those trips it wasn’t long before Welch was talking about Jesus. He learned Mangum is a Christian and member of a Methodist church. And Welch, a decorated U.S. Army veteran from the Vietnam era, had even more to talk about with Mangum, a brigadier general who commands the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in upstate New York.
Several weeks later, James White, the garrison chaplain at Fort Drum, asked Mangum if he knew someone he would like to invite as the keynote speaker at the post’s annual National Prayer Breakfast.
“‘Get me Bobby Welch,'” Mangum told White.
White got Welch. And on March 2, Welch stood before nearly 400 soldiers. During his weekend at the post, Welch also met with the wives and families of Baptists and others whose loved ones serve overseas, as well as a group of soldiers recuperating from service-related injuries.
“I’ve known about the 10th Mountain Division since coming into the military,” Welch told the camouflage-clad crowd. “I’m very much aware of who you are, where you go, what you do, and I am very, very grateful and humbled about being here this morning. While praying for our meeting earlier this morning, I was moved almost to tears about what an honor and a privilege it is to be among you.”
Welch told the soldiers that “multiplied millions” of Americans are deeply grateful for the “extreme sacrifices” their soldiers make as they defend freedom around the world.
“What I’m trying to say to you is just how endeared and indebted we are to you — how we are strengthened and secured by what you do, and your presence. We’re mindful of your sacrifice, the deep, deadly, hurtful unforgettable, and never-ending sacrifice that so many are making,” Welch said. “You’re going a lot of weird places, but for the rest of us, that’s holy ground because you’re laying your all on the line for people like us, and what we stand for in your home and my home. We thank God for you. We praise the Lord for who you are today as a soldier.”
Welch then read Psalm 33:12 — “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, and the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance.”
Welch told the group about a personal meeting he had with President George W. Bush, in which “the very first thing he wanted to talk about was my military experience.”
Welch said that during the conversation, he reached over to make a point by clasping Bush’s wrist. “Now, evidently, you ain’t supposed to do that, because curtains started moving, doors started opening and people started moving in,” Welch said, as the soldiers chuckled.
Welch said he told Bush he volunteered for everything he did in the military, including training for infantry, Ranger, airborne and jungle service.
“‘And Mr. President, there’s never been a second since I volunteered to do all that; and Mr. President, there’s never been a second since I was lying on that battle field with my guts blown out and left there to die, and Mr. President, there’s never been a second up until this moment in the Oval Office with you, never a second, Mr. President, that I haven’t been proud and thankful for the opportunity to give my life for this country and my family,” Welch said. “And Mr. President, that’s exactly the kind of people you have in the U.S. military today.'”
Welch said Bush also asked how a soldier musters the courage to run headlong into enemy gunfire. “‘Mr. President, I think the first answer is that, if you don’t get up and run at them, they’re gonna get up and run at you. If you don’t get them, they’re gonna get you,” Welch said.
Addressing the soldiers, Welch noted U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking, “And, by the way, that’s the idea behind what we’re doing today, isn’t it? If we don’t go get them, they’re gonna come and get us.”
Welch said he told Bush he was trained for combat dangers and was inspired “by what I’d already seen of other men. Also, others were depending on me, Mr. President. But I think the main thing is I realized that I was the leader, and something needed to be done.”
Welch told the Fort Drum audience that there is “solace and solutions” for people who suffer from the traumas of war.
“I’m not unacquainted with what happens to you when you come back from a war. I know of the accounts of how it is to be caught in the middle of the night crawling around in the bed, screaming, ‘Where’s my weapon? Where’s my weapon?'” Welch said with a trembling voice. He swallowed hard, twice, to regain his composure. “But there are solutions, and there is solace in that God is able to go where others can’t go.”
While other assistance for trauma is available, Welch said there is nothing better than what Jesus Christ offers.
“In God we trust is still printed on our coins, and for us who are believers, we believe that. But in God, you and I can still triumph through what He can do. He is able,” Welch said.
Welch recounted his conversion to Christ at age 16, how he “got away from the Lord when I was in college playing football,” and later became a “cigar chompin’, foul-mouthed, rear-end kickin’ officer on his way up and on my way to Vietnam.”
Welch recalled how he had been so badly wounded in combat that others thought he was dead. He was thrown on the “dead pile” and, though he knew he was about to die, “could only mutter three words: ‘God help me.'”
Welch offered three points of advice for those who had faced or would face such ordeals:
— Learn to leave your past. “You can never forget it, but you can learn to leave it,” Welch said.
— Be sure that you seize the present. He advised the soldiers to realize they are important to others around them and could be strengthening and encouraging them.
— Guard your future. “What you do now will have a lot to do with what you do later. You never know how soon life is going to be over,” Welch said. “You don’t have to go around the world and carry a gun to die. Life is mighty fragile.”
As he closed his message, Welch prayed for “that soldier nearest eternity, who is crawling across some field, headed for a broken-down wall or a small lump of dirt — maybe with blood running out of his nose or the corner of his mouth, hands shaking, heart beating a million miles an hour — just trying to get to that little barrier, hoping to make it home. God, I pray right now you’ll send angels from on high to protect him, bless him and bring him home safe.”
After receiving a sustained, standing ovation, Welch remained to greet dozens of soldiers who wanted to shake his hand, hug him and express their thanks.
“As both expected and desired, Bobby’s message was powerful and resonated with both soldiers and family members,” Mangum told Baptist Press after the event. “Having walked a mile in a soldier’s boots — serving and being wounded in combat — his inspiring words left a very positive impression on our soldiers.”
Norm Miller is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va.