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Soldier’s godly living 30 years ago still influences fellow Vietnam v

McGIRK, Mo. (BP)–The church’s Fourth of July worship was shaping up to be special anyway, but when God, a caring pastor and a loving wife teamed up to reunite two Vietnam combat veterans who hadn’t seen each other in 30 years, it was memorable indeed.
Frank Whitney, pastor of Lebanon Baptist Church, McGirk, Mo., noticed about a year ago that July 4 would fall on a Sunday in 1999, and that got his wheels turning. “I knew our church was rich in military veterans,” Whitney said, and he began planning a service that grew to include a color guard, patriotic songs and an impressive display of military memorabilia.
One of the vets in the church is Mark Miller, who earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars for service with the Army in Vietnam.
Miller’s wife, Denita, said he has tended to keep his experiences in the war private, but there was one thing he was willing to share — with his pastor, with his Sunday school class, with the boys in Royal Ambassadors. That was how the influence of a fellow soldier — a Christian from Oklahoma by the name of Jack Rogers — had stayed with him over the years.
Miller, drafted right out of high school at age 18, had found himself in the 1/28 Infantry Division — the famed “Big Red One.” When the troops came in from their search-and-destroy missions, many soldiers spent their three-day stand-downs with alcohol, drugs and prostitutes.
“I was young and foolish and wanted to be like the other guys,” Miller recalled. When Rogers refused to take part in the carousing, Miller and the others ridiculed him and called him names. “But Jack always kept his Christian faith, no matter what.”
When Rogers found out that Miller was a Christian, having made a profession of faith as a 12-year-old, he told Miller that Christians shouldn’t behave that way.
Miller responded, “Who would ever know?”
Jack’s reply seared into Miller’s conscience. “He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘God knows.’”
Other than a brief phone visit some years back, the two men had no contact after they left the Army. Miller has had a career in the meat industry — the last 24 years as an inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Rogers, who also earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars for his Vietnam service, has spent three decades in the ministry. He now is minister of music at Freeman Heights Baptist Church, Berryville, Ark.
Both men have been married nearly 30 years; both are grandfathers.
Denita Miller decided she wanted her husband to see the man who had been instrumental in setting his life on a straight path. She told Whitney — a longtime Oklahoman — that she would pay for Rogers to come to Missouri, if Whitney could find him. A phone call to the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma led Whitney to Rogers, but they didn’t connect until the week before July 4.
Rogers was surprised to learn of his impact on Miller. “I had no idea that anybody was looking at me in Vietnam, that I was making that kind of impression.”
He liked the idea of a reunion, but there was a problem — he had agreed to lead the music in an Oklahoma church on the Fourth of July.
Rogers started looking for a substitute. “I called everybody. I’ll bet I called 25 men to do it.” Finally, a friend suggested another friend he hadn’t thought of, and the man agreed to fill in for him.
Rogers and his wife, Martha, flew into St. Louis at 9:25 a.m. Sunday, July 4. Whitney’s son, Matt, was waiting to drive them to McGirk, 10 miles west of Jefferson City. At 11:40 a.m., they arrived at the church.
Pastor Whitney had invited Miller to share about his friend in Vietnam with the 170 people present in the worship service. Miller’s voice began to crack as he recalled Rogers’ lifestyle testimony. As he paused to collect himself, Whitney stepped forward and said, “Mark, I want you to meet again William ‘Jack’ Rogers.”
As Rogers emerged from behind an American flag at the back of the sanctuary and started down the aisle, Miller rushed to meet and embrace him. The two men hugged and shook hands and shed tears as the congregation stood and applauded. Then Rogers sang “Amazing Grace,” a song that Miller recalled him singing often in Vietnam.
The two men and their wives — their weddings were four days apart in 1970 — spent the rest of the day together and made plans to see each other again in the near future.
Besides Miller and Rogers, the two happiest people this Fourth of July were Denita Miller and Frank Whitney. “I’ve been trying to do that for a long time, and it turned out really great,” Denita said. “It raised a lot of goosebumps.”
Whitney called the reunion “the neatest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life.”
He told the congregation July 4 that the church would have loved to help reunite all the veterans with all of their service buddies, and to think of Miller and Rogers’ reunion as standing for all friendships forged in the fight for freedom.
Whitney suggested to his flock, “If you want to shake hands with some heroes, just look around — they’re right here in our midst today.”

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  • Tim Palmer