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National Guard chaplain aids fire-fighting soldiers

LOWELL, Fla. (BP)–When the Florida National Guard was called to active duty for “Operation Wet Down,” chaplain Jerald Jacobs was among the first activated for front-line duty — not to fight fires but to salve spirits.
Since June 23, Jacobs has crisscrossed the state, lending moral support to 1,500-plus men and women assigned to back up forestry, fire and law enforcement officials in keeping order and extinguishing life-threatening fires in north and central Florida. About 100 of the guard were trained to put out hot spots while others supported the government infrastructure.
Jacob said his job is “to keep soldiers focused” while on active duty. He helps them handle emergencies at home and in the line of duty, provides worship experiences and offers counsel and encouragement in the hazards of their work.
Many of the soldiers serving in “Operation Wet Down” volunteered for active duty to fight the fires, leaving their jobs and family responsibilities to serve, and making personal and financial sacrifices, Jacobs said. “That’s typical of reservists. Neighbors helping neighbors at their own sacrifice.”
Active-duty pay likely is less than their civilian salary, he said, sometimes causing added stress. “As the fires drag on, it will wear on people with responsibilities at homes, missing their families and the pressures of work.”
It is those times when Jacobs’ ministry becomes more vital. He sees his role as a “ministry of relationships,” getting to know soldiers on active duty, building trust. Often he sits down with a soldier at lunch to open military rations when the reservist turns to him to say, “Hey, Chaplain, I have a question.”
“Then they begin to share tremendous decisions and burdens they have been carrying,” Jacobs said. “These are the moments for which we do all this preparation. We want to be there.”
It also is a “ministry of introduction,” he said, knowing when to hand off people with needs to authorities or institutions that can meet those needs. That ability was useful following the fires, as victims were identified.
Jacobs considers the role fulfilled in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew as the first of the “defining moments of the modern National Guard, our Desert Storm.” With south Florida in a disaster mode, the National Guard stepped in and supported local authorities in keeping law and order amid the devastation.
Soldiers would ask Jacobs, “Chaplain, why aren’t you going crazy like the rest of us?”
“The opportunities for witnessing and evangelism were incredible,” Jacobs recalled.
The Pensacola native is a graduate of Stetson University in DeLand and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. When not on active duty as a major in the National Guard, he serves as chaplain at the Marion County Correctional Institute in Lowell.
His willingness to leave his family and job is influenced by his obvious devotion to his ministry. “God is going to have to retire me; I just love it too much,” he said. “This is a wonderful, wonderful ministry.”

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  • Barbara Denman

    Barbara Denman is communications editor for the Florida Baptist Convention. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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