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Chaplain duo prepare for duty, sacrifices alongside troops

FORT HOOD, Texas (BP)–Maj. Jim Caraway has spent the past two months readying the soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division for combat in Iraq, but he doesn’t teach them how to shoot rifles or throw grenades. He teaches them about God’s Word.

Caraway, a Southern Baptist minister in uniform, is assistant division chaplain and responsible for the spiritual health of the more than 29,000 soldiers being deployed with the combined elements of the Fort Hood-based division’s combat task force. When the soldiers see combat, Caraway said he also will be “in the middle of the dirt, eating MREs [Meals Ready to Eat], not bathing and suffering from a lack of sleep.”

Soldiers and their spouses embraced and wept after the 4th Infantry Division’s deployment ceremony March 27. Caraway said his feelings about leaving the Texas army base for the Persian Gulf aren’t any different from those of the soldiers he watches over. He admits getting choked up when he speaks of leaving his family behind.

“We cry a lot. My wife talks about the time I spend at work as opposed to the time I spend at home with her. Families sacrifice and ours is no different. You have to make quality time out of the time you’ve been given,” Caraway said. “It’s as important to be a husband as a minister.”

It’s also important to be a grandfather, he said. “If we’re gone for more than a year and my grandson asks, I want my family to tell him, ‘Grandpa is over taking care of soldiers who are away from their families just like Grandpa is away from his family. … He is trying to help people.'”

As much as he wants to remain with his family in Texas, Caraway knows he has a job to do. That job, supervising battalion chaplains, means he will ensure that ministry is provided on the battlefield. He will care for casualties, keep track of the number of religious services held in the field and even work with displaced civilians.

One of the battalion chaplains Caraway will supervise is 1st Lt. Virgil Thomas, who only recently transferred to Fort Hood. Thomas and Caraway both graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

“We have been training for our deployment and now that time is here,” Thomas said. “The experience of combat is going to be so new to us. It’s been … years since we’ve been in a sustained shooting war. I see it on television and think, ‘I’m about to go into that.'”

That is why Thomas stresses preparedness. “Chaplains must be spiritually fit themselves. In combat we will experience it all except for the killing. We will treat the wounded, counsel the medics and even our commanding officers, and also honor the dead. That is our job.”

Thomas, however, is quick to remind that soldiers should concentrate on living, a task that can only be accomplished once they are certain about their eternal destiny. “Know where your soul is going and make sure you’re all right with God, and everything else will be okay. I always ask soldiers, ‘Do you know where you’re headed?'”

Caraway said he also asks his commanding officers the question on a regular basis. “How is it with your soul today, sir?”

Still, both Caraway and Thomas understand that they will be surrounded by death on the battlefield, and both realize they will not be immune from the potential of death at the hands of the enemy. In fact, both men have discussed the issue of death with their families.

“The same question I ask officers about their soul is a good confrontation for me,” Caraway said. “I ask myself if I’m doing everything I can each moment to advance the Kingdom of God. But both my wife and daughter have said, ‘You’re coming home.’ That was an order.”

“We are prepared for death,” Thomas said. “Any Christian is prepared for death, and that’s what makes Christians unique. We know how to live and we know how to die.

“I have already talked to my children. I constantly tell them that if something happens to Daddy, they should know that he was doing what he wanted to do, ministering for the Lord. If I were to die on the battlefield, that would be okay because I would die ministering to soldiers.”

Both men are focused on their tasks of providing for American soldiers and possibly the Iraqi people. Caraway noted that chaplains could play a role in humanitarian aid projects and even in caring for Iraqi prisoners of war.

“Part of my role will be ensuring that the prisoners of war are being treated justly, if such a case should arise, and according to the Geneva Convention. We will also be resourcing with civil affairs officers, non-governmental organizations and the U.N. High Commission on Refugees to make certain that food, water and medical supplies are getting to the Iraqi people,” Caraway said.

By doing so, Caraway said he and other chaplains like Thomas will achieve their goal of “recognizing the value of every human being” while providing ministry in a combat zone. While there may be evangelistic opportunities among the local populace, the chaplains’ primary concern will be caring for soldiers. That isn’t always easy to do, Caraway said.

The only thing the military needs is more chaplains, said Lt. Col. Gil Richardson, senior chaplain with the 4th Infantry Division. A Presbyterian chaplain, Richardson said, “Tell all Southern Baptists to send us more chaplains.”

Richardson said he became a chaplain because of the influence of a Southern Baptist chaplain while he was serving as an infantry officer in Germany. Roy Mathis, also a graduate of Southwestern Seminary, told Richardson at the time that he could fulfill both his desire to serve his country and God at the same time by being a minister in uniform.

The field of combat may not have a baptistery or offering plates, Thomas said, but chaplains must improvise and conduct church just the same. “We will hold services out there. We’ll feed everybody. What better way to feed someone than to preach to them or baptize them in the field? We don’t have to have a big sanctuary. We have everything we need there with us, the Bible and the grace of God.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: IN UNIFORM, CHAPLAIN’S PREPARATION, ‘SEND US MORE,’ COURAGE & HOPE and CHAPLAIN’S GIFT.

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  • Gregory Tomlin