GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. (BP)–As a bitterly cold wind whips through Iraq’s late-night hours, the harsh reality of war again hits Greg Long. He clutches his Bible as an Army honor guard, in solemn silence, carries a metal casket up the ramp and onto the plane to begin its journey back to the United States.
He stares at the casket and, thinking of his own family back home in Guntersville, Ala., wonders if the soldier had a wife and children whose worst fear just came true.
It’s not your typical youth minister’s evening.
Chaplain Maj. Long, minister of youth at First Baptist Church in Guntersville for the past 10 years, is in his first tour of duty in nearly 20 years of military service, having been called up for service in Iraq just after qualifying to become a chaplain last year.
“My primary responsibility is to work at the mortuary evacuation point,” Long said. “All of the soldiers who have been killed come through there before they go home.”
Long and his Marine counterpart do ceremonies at the plane’s ramp, reading Scripture, praying and saying a few words over the fallen soldiers and Marines.
“At first, it was really, really hard, but you get to a point where you just have to do it,” Long said. “The hardest thing is seeing how young the soldiers are and wondering about how many children they have, things like that.”
Long himself has five children, the oldest of whom is 10. When he came home for a 15-day leave in early January, it was the best gift of all for the Long family -— and their Christmas could officially begin.
“I was trying to get home around Christmastime, but it was a little later than we had hoped. We told the kids that Santa was going to swing by Iraq and pick me up, but since they have camels in Iraq instead of reindeer, it was going to take a little bit longer,” Long said with a laugh.
Long’s wife, Lisa, said they got used to having him around again, but at least they were at the halfway point, as he had only about five months left on his tour of duty.
“All our prayers are going that direction, that’s for sure,” she said.
In addition to their prayers, his children drummed up support for the troops, gathering Christmas cards to send to the Mideast. The goal was 1,000 cards but, concerned that other soldiers wouldn’t have any, they began beating the bushes for more, ultimately gathering 6,000 cards from the church and community. “I was able to distribute them to the men and that was wonderful,” Long said.
When he’s not doing ramp services, he is caring for the 9,000 soldiers to whom he and 15 other chaplains are assigned. Long preaches at a 10 a.m. Sunday service and fields questions day and night from soldiers who are soul-searching or simply need someone to listen.
“Soldiers in that environment are open and searching for answers,” he said. “One of the most exciting things that’s happened as a result of that is I’ve had the opportunity to baptize three soldiers.”
Long said the e-mails, prayer and support he receives from First Baptist in Guntersville help him keep going in his ministry.
“For a while, I was really having a hard time with the ramp ceremonies and not sleeping a lot,” Long said. “But I could feel the prayers going out for me and people would write me e-mails. It was encouraging and it really helped.”
Joel Samuels, First Baptist’s pastor, said praying for Long also has been a blessing to him and the church. “His stories are interesting, intriguing -— and it has been a blessing to watch him work through that difficult process [of performing the ramp services],” Samuels said.
During Long’s tour of duty, Bill Morrison has stepped up as youth minister, and the youth have continued to grow under Morrison’s leadership and by watching Long sacrificially give of himself in Iraq, Samuels said.
“It’s been really good for the youth to see that there’s something bigger than them and their own individual lives and watch their own youth minister take part in it,” the pastor said.
The youth also have been able to participate in Long’s ministry, sending care packages and encouraging notes. “I receive a lot of e-mails from kids in the youth group, which is really encouraging,” he said, adding that he sends out an e-mail newsletter each week to people in the church to let them know how they can pray for him.
“Dear prayer partners,” Long wrote to the church in November. “I did … a ramp for two more last week. That was another one that I will never forget. It took place on Veterans Day. Like I told Lisa, from now on Veterans Day will have a whole new meaning for me.”
Grace Thornton is assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, online at www.thealabamabaptist.org.