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Chaplain in Iraq ready ‘to die if I have to’ as witness for faith

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq (BP)–There are many reasons to join the armed forces. Some join for college money. Others join out of a sense of patriotic duty. There are even some who join because they answered a call. Not a phone call, but a call from God.

Lt. Cmdr. Phillip Endel Lee, a Navy chaplain and assistant professor of preaching and pastoral ministry in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell College, recalled how God used a combination of those factors to lead him into the military.

“From the time I was 9 years old I was working part-time jobs,” Lee recounted. “When I turned 14 I couldn’t even drive, but there were days where I would be walking around with hundreds of dollars in my pocket from selling farm produce on the side of the road.”

Lee joined a local Baptist church in Tanner Williams, Ala., at the age of 15 and surrendered to fulltime Christian service at the age of 17.

“I started going to church and I knew that God was calling me to preach,” Lee continued. “I had about $5,000 in the bank when I finished high school and that would have paid for a secular education. I knew I needed to get smarter about ministry and study religion so I [enrolled at] a Christian college. As I started college I realized that an education from a private institution was not cheap and my funds were getting low very fast. I knew I couldn’t make it with the money I had saved, even with scholarships to help.”

Lee was living on $25 a month. He would use the money to wash his clothes and buy other items needed to get by.

“Usually once a month I could go have pizza on a Friday night with my friends,” Lee recalled. “I would eat the buffet for $4 and that was splurging.”

Low on funds and needing to finish his education, Lee took the advice of a friend who urged him to join the reserves so he could get money for college.

“After praying about it persistently, I just walked into the recruiting office and told the recruiter that I wanted to join the Marine Corps Reserves,” Lee said. “He asked me what I wanted to do. I said, ‘I don’t know. What have you got?’ He looked at me like I was crazy. We started talking through it and he told me they had a unit in town that jumps out of airplanes and scuba dives and things like that. I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds pretty good; sign me up for that.’”

Lee asked the recruiter what the job was called and was told “reconnaissance.” He later learned that jumping and diving were just how you get to work in recon and there is a lot more to the job.

Lee joined the Marine Corps Reserves in January 1982 and was assigned to 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company in Mobile, Ala. He achieved the rank of sergeant and was recognized as the Alabama Enlisted Marine of the Year in 1985.

He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Mobile in 1985 and then attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees, finishing in 2000.

In 1987, he transferred to 2nd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment in Fort Worth and accepted a direct commission as a Marine Corps Reserve officer. Serving as an officer for six years, he was a platoon commander, naval gunfire liaison officer and executive officer with 14th Marines. He also served as a platoon commander and a company level commanding officer with 4th Reconnaissance Battalion in San Antonio.

“Having been both a private first class and a commanding officer, I have learned how to think like and communicate with Marines at various levels of responsibility,” Lee said. “My experiences and leadership training in the Marine Corps have definitely added more tools to my toolbox which I can now use to help people from a spiritual perspective.”

In 1993, Lee received a reserve officer’s commission in the U.S. Navy Chaplains Corps via an inter-service transfer.

“I get a lot of double takes,” Lee, 23-year veteran, said. “People stop me because they see my pins and realize I was in recon and they see that I’m now a Navy chaplain. It opens a lot of doors for me to talk with people. We begin to talk and I have a chance to tell them how the Lord worked through my life to lead me to this current place of service.”

Lee explained his ultimate goal for serving in Iraq is to lead men and women to recognize and engage in a spiritual connectivity with God.

He was four months away from possible retirement in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He could have retired years ago, but he knew God was calling him to remain available for service in Iraq or wherever he was called upon to go by the Navy.

In New York after 9/11, “I would escort families down to ground zero and help them deal with their grief and then I would often pray with them,” Lee said. “We [chaplains] would also have duty at the morgues and help families deal with identifying whether one of their loved ones had died.”

He was mobilized for active duty in January 2005 and is serving the 8th Communications Battalion, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Headquarters Group, II MEF (Forward) and Military Police Battalion, 2nd Force Service Support Group (Forward). Lee also acts as the deputy coordinator for Protestant worship at Camp Fallujah.

“I know the context of the Marine Corps because I’ve lived it,” Lee said. “I understand it and I speak the language. People seem to appreciate and respond to that capability.

“When I first talked with my two CO’s [commanding officers] I told them my interest is to live with these Marines and sailors on a daily basis and reflect the presence of God to them. My first priority is God. I also want our service members to know that if we get in the ‘hurt locker’ that I’m willing to go all the way with them. I came here willing to die if I have to, so that I can help our Marines and sailors see their need for a personal relationship with God. I hope to show my commitment and concern for their spiritual well-being by being here every day that I can. I plan on helping with their hurts and supporting their celebrations.”

When Lee is finished with his service in Iraq, he will return to teaching at Leavell College of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“I hope that people look at my service and see what the Lord has done through me,” Lee said. “God took a country boy from Alabama and formed an uncommon combination between recon and a chaplain in order to help our military members express their faith.”
Lance Cpl. Aaron P. Mankin is assigned to the II Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD) in Iraq.

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  • Aaron P. Mankin