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VETERANS DAY: Chaplains a present help in time of war

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (BP)–At times, Jennifer Mitchell wishes her husband would stay in his office, but the feeling passes when she remembers why her husband, Army Chaplain (CPT) Jeff Mitchell, voluntarily puts himself in harm’s way.

Deployed to eastern Afghanistan with the 27th Engineer Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., Mitchell works among soldiers who locate and neutralize Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), accompanying them during 14- to 20-hour missions in a reinforced Humvee’s close quarters rolling along Afghan thoroughfares.

“Selfishly I wish he could stay back,” Jennifer says. “Their whole mission is to go out looking for stuff that’s going to blow up. But I realize this is what he’s called to. And it’s what we’re called to as a family.”

“When I go out on these missions with the guys, we’re together for 14, 15, 20 hours,” Mitchell explains. “That’s when these guys really start to open up.

“Over the past 11 months of deployment, my battalion has had 13 paratroopers killed in action in Afghanistan. I consider many of these who were killed in action to be close friends,” Mitchell says. “It’s very difficult to provide spiritual counseling to those who are grieving from a traumatic event while I’ve also lost someone who was a friend.

“But also during this deployment I’ve had the opportunity to lead many soldiers into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” Mitchell says. “I’ve had the privilege of making disciples as I go about my daily routine here in Afghanistan.”

Across all branches of service, more than 1,400 Southern Baptists serve as chaplains. As their endorsing entity, the North American Mission Board is able to provide special training, resources and connection to local churches.

Back at Fort Bragg, N.C., with their four kids, Jennifer Mitchell has lived nearly a year on base and fulfills her own assignment of caring for their kids, teaching them to trust God with the daily uncertainty they face and building friendships with other military families.

“[The kids] have gotten closer to each other,” Jennifer says. “I’ve seen them really taking care of each other, watching out for each other. They know Jeff’s not in a safe place, but they also know God is still in control. If Jeff comes home and even if he doesn’t come home, my kids believe God’s in control.”

God’s providence gives chaplains and chaplain families their security, and the belief that God cares about the details of a soldier’s life is what fuels a chaplain’s work.

“Spiritual hope was all but absent in Vietnam,” says Army Chaplain (COL) Roger Criner, who notes that chaplaincy work was not as highly regarded or well-known back then.

Now Criner serves at Fort Knox in Kentucky, his 18th and final assignment. Enlisted at age 19, his early years as a medic in Vietnam opened his eyes to the horrors of battle. His last 20 years serving at places all over the world have opened his eyes to the opportunities for representing Christ in difficult moments.

“I never thought I’d be going to airborne school at age 43,” the 60-year-old Criner says. “But I go where the soldiers go. If you don’t have the badge they have, then you can’t relate to them because you haven’t walked where they walked.”

Criner has a number of “badges,” including one called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from multiple combat zone assignments.

“It was early in the morning Easter Sunday,” Criner says in recounting a mortar attack in his years as a medic. “I was looking forward to leaving Vietnam. Early that morning I can remember hearing a loud boom followed by multiple other booms. The whole compound was shaken to the core. Sirens went off…. It was chaotic. The wounded were everywhere. There was metal scattered all over the flight line.

“It was devastation. That’s all I can say. I can still smell the smells, hear the sounds; 30 years later I still have nightmares,” he adds. “People think you can be healed of PTSD but you can’t. You just learn to walk with it like living with a limp.”

As Criner has learned to live with PTSD, he’s helped others over the years do the same. Following his stint in Vietnam, Criner was discharged from the service, attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, pastored a church for 10 years and then returned to the Army as a chaplain.

“I always had a drive to return to the Army to provide ministry to soldiers,” he reflects. “I didn’t believe I was being utilized in my gifts and talents. A chaplain does more ministry in their first initial assignment than some pastors do in a lifetime because they are exposed to so much.”

Criner recently served at Walter Reed Medical Center, ministering to troops transported from battle zones with traumatic brain injuries and other wounds.

“That was the most challenging and rewarding assignment I ever had,” he says. “We had airvacs three evenings a week. We had ministry teams in the lobby with gurneys lined up against the wall to receive them as they came off the bus.

“Sometimes the family was there before they arrived. We had an opportunity to minister to soldiers and their families and to provide hope when they were in greatest need of it.”

Chaplain (CPT) David Burris, 1st 108 Calvary Squadron of the Georgia National Guard, returned in March from a tour in Afghanistan where he spent many months traveling between the 20 or more operating bases where his men were stationed.

“After 9/11 I felt God call me back into ministry,” Burris says. “I did some research and realized there weren’t a lot of chaplains in the military and I heard about so many soldiers coming back spiritually and emotionally traumatized.”

In Jalalabad and surrounding provinces in Afghanistan, four soldiers from Burris’ battalion were killed within the first five months. In the last few months of their deployment, he was able to process what they’d all been through.

“It was a time for guys to really reflect on what they had experienced the first five months we were there,” he says. “To really come to terms with some of that before they went home to their wives and children.”

Now serving as a pastor for counseling at First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., Burris is providing for critical needs on the home front, where soldiers continue to fight the battle to return to normalcy in their families.

As the nation remembers the sacrifice made by members of the Armed Forces on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, churches have an opportunity to recognize the need among the military community.

“There are no unwounded service members in war,” says Keith Travis, NAMB’s team leader for chaplaincy. “This is includes the soldiers and the chaplains who ride out with them. This includes everybody who puts on the uniform.

“It’s essential for our churches to maintain contact with our chaplains and our soldiers, because the church is really the central focal point for our chaplains.”

Travis encourages churches to pray for chaplains and other service members — for safety, for peace for their families and for opportunities for service members to hear the Gospel.
Adam Miller is a writer for the North American Mission Board. For information on Southern Baptist chaplains from your area, e-mail [email protected].

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