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Chaplain requests prayer for soldiers, families & Iraq

CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait (BP)–When Christmas Sunday dawns in this Middle Eastern encampment, more than 200 American troops will crowd into a large tent for worship, all buffeted by thoughts of survival and all but the chaplain armed with an automatic weapon.

“Daily life for the soldiers of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom [Afghanistan] is a schizophrenic roller coaster,” Army chaplain Rick Brunson told the Florida Baptist Witness newsjournal in an e-mail interview from Camp Buehring in Kuwait. “When they leave here they know that death or severe injury is just around any corner of a road through IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. There is the constant adrenaline rush and fear of attack and there is the constant boredom and loneliness that comes with waiting for missions and training. The constant ups and downs can play havoc on the emotions of soldiers.”

Still, worship in the field is “real-world stuff” for Brunson, 43, a former Southern Baptist pastor who, as a non-combatant, does not carry a weapon other than the Bible in his right pocket. Leaving what had become for him a “stained glass house,” Brunson trains with soldiers each day to stay attuned to their personal needs, concerns and problems.

“Infantry soldiers train hard, fight hard and live even harder,” Brunson said. “I have an opportunity to bring God into the equation. By helping soldiers and accepting them unconditionally, I have had opportunities to share my faith and pray with Christians, Wiccans, atheists, Buddhists and even Native American shamans.”

Citing a current cultural debate over whether it’s appropriate to pray in Jesus’ name in such circumstances, Brunson said it has not been an issue for him. “On a soldier-to-soldier level, I always ask permission to pray,” he said. “And I tell the soldier I will pray to my God whose name is Jesus. Sometimes soldiers don’t want me to pray and I respect that. But, up to this point, I have never been asked not to offer a prayer in Jesus’ name.”

A native of Oil City, La., Brunson’s ministry had taken him to Gonzalez Baptist Church in a growing community north of Pensacola, where he served as pastor from 1997-2002. It was while in Florida he felt the call to chaplaincy in the Army Reserve and, after 9/11, he volunteered to work with reserve units deploying to fight the war on terror overseas.

Brunson recently completed a doctor of ministry degree through New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary where his focus was evangelistic worship for postmoderns. He earlier had earned a master of divinity degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and a bachelor of arts degree at Louisiana College in Pineville.

Brunson was given his first assignment as a chaplain for a basic training battalion at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2002. The assignment was short-lived, however, when Brunson suffered a heart attack during physical conditioning. He was only 39 and in great physical condition but “family genetics” prevailed, Brunson said.

Undaunted by a year-long assignment that put him behind a desk “kicking and screaming” because he wanted to work with soldiers “in the trenches,” Brunson finally received medical clearance for an overseas assignment.

In 2003, Brunson relocated his family to Kaiserslautern, Germany, and he recently began his first long-term deployment to the Middle East with a battalion from there.

His wife of 23 years, Donna, keeps the home fires burning for Marsha, 21; Joshua, 16; and Melissa, 11. Only a few weeks into deployment, however, Brunson said God has shown him the importance of having support back home for his family. Friends and neighbors have jumped in to help his wife who is nursing a broken arm after an auto accident. The injury came only months the Brunsons were flown to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where his wife had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma on her leg.

Churches can minister to military families by acknowledging the pain of long-term separation and by remembering that many soldiers are starting their second or third one-year deployment, Brunson said. Some have been with their families for six months or less between deployments.

“Spouses and children of military families need special attention,” Brunson said. “Many of the spouses are far from their families and they have no one to watch their children if they are sick, injured or hospitalized.”

Non-military families can adopt a military family to help them with childcare, lawn chores or home or auto repair, Brunson suggested. Additionally, taking a child to a park or a ball game provides companionship they miss from an absent parent.

The day he left for Kuwait was very difficult for Brunson as he looked around at spouses standing unattended while the troops loaded equipment. Gathering around his wife, the women who were watching their husbands prepare to leave for war were able to “share, cry and pray” together.

Describing his prayer life as “not bad” before he left for the field, Brunson said he now wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night uttering the prayer: “God, please take care of my guys.”

Before the troops go out to train or into a dangerous area, Brunson prays for God’s protection on them. “The soldiers covet those prayers,” he said. “I have had atheist commanders ask me to pray for their soldiers. That is not the time to argue theology or attempt to make a point. It is time to appeal to the Lord for mercy and divine protection.

“In those moments, a soldier doesn’t want a chaplain who can win a war of wits on the subject of God. They want their chaplain to pray for them to come back alive and in one piece.”

Brunson said he’s learned to be patient and wait for God. A few years ago, Brunson said one soldier, an atheist who “made Madeline O’Hare look like Mother Teresa,” had such disdain for chaplains that he made cruel remarks about how they should “bleed to death.” After two months of helping the soldiers in that company, Brunson was asked to bring his personal vehicle to a rack where they were being cleaned. “I drove my car into a bay and was about to hose it down when the atheist soldier approached me from behind, took the power hose from my hand and said, ‘Chaplain, let me wash your car for you.’

“I stood in amazement,” Brunson recalled, “fighting to hold back the tears as [the soldier] did his best to say, ‘Thank you.’”

The soldier told Brunson later that he had left an impression on him and wasn’t as sure in his belief that there is “no God” as he was before his encounter with Brunson. The young man did not become a Christian then, but was “half a universe closer than he had been,” Brunson said.

Brunson called for churches to pray for the soldiers and for the spiritual condition of Iraq and to show their love in a tangible way.

“We are currently in a different kind of war,” the chaplain said. “The biggest threat to a soldier is not an enemy they can see on a battlefield. Most injuries and deaths occur through IEDs along the roads and mortar attacks on our Forward Operating Bases. Our churches need to pray that these cowardly weapons of war will be ineffective and that our soldiers will be protected by the hand of God as they travel and live from day to day. …

“Pray for the Iraqi people to continue to train so that we can exit their country knowing that we have brought democracy and peace to a land that had known nothing but terror and the sword,” Brunson continued. “Pray for our government officials so that we will not leave the country until democracy and peace are stable, so that the blood of the dead and wounded soldiers will not have been spilled in vain.”

Brunson said he and other chaplains appreciate the packages they receive with goods they may distribute to the troops. Tangibles one soldier described as “lickies and chewies” are really cards, letters, boxes of personal goodies, movies (DVDs), magazines, music (CDs) or other items that let the troops know they are not forgotten. Personal items may include toiletries, lip moisturizer and sunscreen.

“It’s the tangible support that motivates the soldiers to keep doing the job of keeping America safe,” Brunson said. “American soldiers are incredible people because in this global war on terrorism, they are paying the ultimate price so that families at home can sleep in security at night.”
Chaplain Rick Brunson’s mailing address is:

Chaplain (Captain) Rickey W. Brunson

TF 1-6 Infantry

HHC, 1-6 Inf

APO, AE 09330
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan