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Somalia firefight solidifies soldier’s calling as a chaplain

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Rangers are not supposed to fear. Nor cry. Nor panic. Nor exhibit any emotion as they endeavor to execute orders.

But, as U.S. Army Ranger Jeff Struecker stared blankly at his blood-soaked vehicle in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, seven years ago, he knew these emotions raged in the hearts of each man in his armored vehicle team. Men who had just witnessed the death of a fellow soldier. Men who were now ordered to risk their lives again.

And he felt the same fear. He began to pray.

Reflecting on that battle, Struecker, a master of divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., remembers Oct. 3-4, 1993, as the defining moment in his life.

A native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, Struecker had conquered every challenge the Army offered, including Panama and Desert Storm. But, his life was never threatened, and the one question lingered. How would he react in the heat of battle?

The raid into the dust-filled Somalian city on that evening in 1993 began as any other. Struecker’s team of high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (humvees) were to provide escape for the “door-kickers” and helicopter raiders securing and subduing a building. Only this night, the Somalis hit the Americans with more manpower and firepower than expected.

His team received word of a seriously injured ranger who had fallen while repelling from a helicopter. Struecker’s humvees rushed to remove the fallen comrade from the firefight.

Sandwiching the aid vehicle between two of his humvees, Struecker navigated his convoy through ever-creasing gunfire. They were “the biggest target in town.”

No more than 100 meters away from the building, Struecker’s humvees pierced a hornet’s nest.

“Everybody in the city just opened up on us,” he said. “We were taking fire from everywhere.”

The machine gunner in the back of his vehicle was shot in the head and killed instantly — the first death in the 400-man unit.

Panic ensued — especially with the man sitting beside the gunner. Managing to calm everyone, Struecker maneuvered his team to safety.

“Our entire vehicle is just covered, painted in blood,” Struecker said. “My soldiers … couldn’t even control themselves.”

The news soon worsened. A helicopter was shot down. The team received orders to return to the melee.

Yet, his men understandably couldn’t fight in the bloody humvees. Struecker spent the next 30 to 45 minutes cleaning. No running water. Only sponges and buckets.

“I began to talk to the Lord. I thought I was going to die,” he said.

Feeling his fear grow, he began to ask God to protect him. But his prayer soon changed.

“I’ll never forget this for the rest of my life. … A scene appeared in the landscape of my mind. The scene was Jesus in the Garden. … He clearly and honestly knew that he was going to die. … He also showed that he did not want to go to that cross and die. And I knew that I didn’t want to die that night. But Jesus courageously said, ‘God, not my will, but yours be done.’

“I said, ‘If I die tonight, that’s fine, as long as your will is done,'” Struecker said.

For the first time in his life, Struecker — who had been a Christian since age 13 — was prepared to die.

“God spoke to my mind and my heart and said, ‘I’ve been protecting you every day of your life,” Struecker said. “He did not tell me, ‘You will live through the night.’ He simply showed me my life has always been in his hands.”

Struecker and his men returned to the field of fire in Mogadishu that night and fought with a God-given courage. The sergeant first class would later be awarded the Bronze Star Medal “V” for valor.

“I fought differently that night than everybody else … because of my faith,” Struecker said. God had given him a “supernatural peace” in the midst of pandemonium, further firefights and an ambush that nearly blew his humvee off the road.

“I began to understand God’s omnipotent power,” Struecker said. “He was orchestrating every single bullet that was fired that night. … The peace that I had was not only for my own life, but for the lives of my soldiers. If any of them were to get shot, then that was part of God’s sovereign plan.”

And God chose to preserve Struecker that night.

Others never returned from the city. Of the 200 Rangers who stormed Mogadishu, 140 were wounded. A total of 18 were killed. The Red Cross later estimated Somali casualties topped 1,000, with some 300 dead.

Later, the Rangers would watch CNN in horror as Somalis dragged five dead Americans down the streets of Mogadishu and claimed one captured (and later released) comrade as a hostage.

The next morning was a time for taking stock. A time for “grown men, battle-hardened” to cry.

Nobody spoke.

“Most of us just sat there and recognized the loss of human life and wept,” Struecker said.

Everybody wanted answers. Few were found. The Rangers’ heads and hearts turned to the chaplain. But his eyes averted their questioning tears.

More than 150 Rangers packed the next chapel service — up drastically from the usual 15.

“Everyone of them had the same question: ‘Why did this happen?'” Struecker said. “[The chaplain] didn’t even acknowledge that anyone had been shot and killed.”

Struecker saw 150 souls longing for the answer, receptive to the gospel. Their yearnings remained unquenched.

“My heart was broken for the last time,” Struecker said. “I resolved, ‘I will never again let something like that happen.’ I didn’t know that I wanted to be a chaplain, but I thought, ‘I want to at least be able to answer some of those questions.’

“God was really preparing me for ministry there. He developed a hunger that has never gone away. That hunger has never been satisfied since Somalia. I hope it never is.”

Though he praises God for the many good military chaplains, Struecker knows God put him “in contact with the worst possible example … in the worst possible situation” to instill a desire to minister to hurting soldiers.

Several months later, Struecker returned home.

“I grabbed my wife and gave her a big fat hug,” he said. “We went to church, and I joined immediately. I committed myself to everything — Sunday school, discipleship training. I joined the choir, and I can’t sing.”

Nine months after Somalia, God clearly called him to military chaplaincy. Struecker chose Southern as his boot camp for his ministry path.

“God clearly pointed me to Southern,” Struecker said. “Because of the professors and the faculty and staff, God has not quenched that hunger [for ministry].”

Struecker will graduate in December with a master of divinity degree. He will then begin active duty.

Though the pluralism that pervades the chaplaincy concerns Struecker, he has chosen to serve Jesus first regardless of the consequences.

“I’m not a military chaplain first and foremost. I’m a minister of Jesus Christ. If the Army interferes with my ability to minister for Christ, I’ll leave.”

Author Mark Bowden has related Struecker’s story along with accounts of other soldiers from the Somalian conflict in the book, “Black Hawk Down.” It was a New York Times best-seller.

Struecker’s main concern: “I said, ‘I want you to print that I’m a born-again Christian,'” he said of his interview with Bowden. Indeed, the book includes this testimony.

And Struecker will live the rest of his life testifying of God’s grace in the line of fire.

“God used Somalia to forge me and to mold me into the man that I am now,” Struecker said. “I thank God for it. I hope it never happens again.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.sbcbaptistpress.org. Photo title: JEFF STRUECKER.

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  • Bryan Cribb