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Chaplain in Iraq learned to rely ‘on God like never before’

FRANKFORT, Ky. (BP)–Capt. Jay Padgett has been back from Iraq for nine months, yet the Army National Guard chaplain hasn’t abandoned pastoral care for Iowa’s 234th Signal Battalion.

The 650-member battalion, composed of personnel from several states, was stationed at Baghdad International Airport, with Padgett as the first Army National Guard chaplain from Kentucky to serve in Iraq.

Back in the States, Padgett has conducted a reunion briefing for military families about the emotional challenges of reuniting with loved ones returning from battle. He has conducted the funeral of an 18-year-old National Guardsman in southeastern Kentucky whose death was not related to the war and he has officiated at two weddings in Iowa.

The 41-year-old Padgett has been minister of music for nearly six years at Graefenberg Baptist Church in suburban Frankfort, Ky. Although he has completed 20 years of National Guard service, he has no plans to retire from the Guard.

“God has called me to this and at this time I don’t feel He wants me to quit,” said Padgett, who spent 15 months away from home in training and wartime duty. “There’s a shortage of chaplains and a ministry need.”

Padgett is one of nearly 2,400 SBC-endorsed chaplains, more than 1,000 of whom serve in the U.S. Armed Services. He was endorsed by the North American Mission Board in 1999 after graduating from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Although stationed at the Baghdad airport, members of the battalion served at outposts stretching from Kuwait to Mosul. That meant many trips through the countryside to visit battalion members, an often nerve-wracking experience that tested his faith.

“Every time you got into a vehicle you couldn’t help but be afraid because of road bombs,” Padgett said. “It changed your prayer life.

“Over here when you see litter or a dead animal on the side of the road you don’t think a thing about it. Over there the enemy put bombs on dead carcasses on the side of the road or hung them from overpasses.”

In such circumstances, the chaplain often turned to his deployment Scripture -– Psalm 23:4, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” -– in times of prayer and in visits with battalion members before convoys departed.

“When you’re that far away from family and hear mortars landing and hear reports of soldiers getting killed every day, it makes you depend on God like never before,” Padgett said.

With his unit installing Internet service and handling other support duties, nobody died in combat. But that didn’t relieve him of counseling men and women through the stresses of marital problems, homesickness, financial issues and job duties.

Padgett also talked three soldiers out of committing suicide, convincing them to put down their weapons and taking them to meet with a combat stress team.

“It gave me a new perspective on being a chaplain,” Padgett said. “[At home] you don’t deal with a lot of issues on a regular basis. If you go to drill on a Saturday morning and you have a big issue, you can wait until Saturday night to visit with your local pastor.”

Besides counseling, Padgett prepared weekly devotional newsletters for soldiers and their families. He organized three talent shows and a five-kilometer run to boost troop morale. And he led in the creation of a multi-city humanitarian outreach that distributed more than 500 boxes of clothing, toys and school supplies at Iraqi schools and orphanages.

The latter was cited when Padgett received the Bronze Star, awarded at his home church last October by the state’s adjutant general.

However, Padgett downplays the honor, saying it belongs as much to the residents of numerous states who shipped the supplies to Iraq and the soldiers who distributed them.

“The other night I was watching the news and they showed a soldier who got the Bronze Star for bravery and courage under fire,” Padgett said. “I told my wife [Carrie] that compared to him, I didn’t deserve one.”

Although he calls the award a highlight of his time in the Middle East, Padgett is equally pleased about the eternal results.

He performed two dozen baptisms, half of them during training at Fort Riley, Kan., and the other half on the battlefield. Padgett also led numerous soldiers in prayers rededicating their lives to Christ, in addition to weekly worship services and midweek Bible studies.

While Padgett met many Southern Baptist troops, the majority who attended services came from other backgrounds. In such an environment, Padgett said, “It was all about asking, ‘Lord, help me through this day.’ I preached Jesus Christ and the hope we have in Him. It was a sweet and beautiful thing.”

Nor did political disputes matter. Arguments back home about the war were a moot point in the field, meaning the troops spent little time discussing or arguing about it, Padgett said.

Day-to-day survival became uppermost in his mind, particularly the time his convoy took a wrong turn in downtown Baghdad and found itself surrounded by hundreds of Iraqis.

In such situations, Padgett would pray and often see immediate answers.

“All of a sudden a car would pass and a beautiful, brown-eyed girl would pass, smiling and waving,” the chaplain recalled. “Or an old man would smile, put thumbs up and wave at you, like ‘Way to go.’ That stuff would make fear melt away and make you feel like you were doing something worthwhile.”
For more information about Southern Baptist chaplaincy, go to www.namb.net/chaplain.

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker