SAN ANTONIO (BP)–Flown by medi-vac aircraft from Southeast Asia, the severely wounded soldier stared up from his cot at the Texas blue sky as medics hustled him into Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Forty-one years ago, Bobby Welch left Vietnam with a gaping hole in his chest from an enemy bullet and eventually arrived at BAMC flat on his back. Forty-one years later, he walked upright into that hospital — this time with an open heart.
“Hi, I’m Bobby Welch, and I’m a graduate from this place,” the decorated veteran said with outstretched hand toward dozens of soldiers at BAMC.
With a broad smile on his face and occasional tears in his eyes, Welch told the soldiers, “Thank you. God bless you. We’re proud of you.”
Later in each conversation he’d ask, “May I pray with you?”
Welch, newly named strategist for global evangelical relations with the SBC Executive Committee, visited BAMC as part of his six-week trek across Texas to raise awareness among Southern Baptists in Texas about the upcoming Crossover San Antonio evangelistic effort June 9 and the SBC annual meeting there June 12-13.
Talking with one soldier, Welch fingered the Purple Heart ribbon on his own lapel and briefly recounted his ordeal in Vietnam and the months-long recuperation at BAMC back in 1966.
“Let me take a good look at you,” he asked the soldier, whose facial profile and prosthetic nose revealed the cruel effects of a roadside bomb blast.
“See, you don’t look that bad at all,” Welch said, attempting to rouse the young man’s spirit as he stared out a hallway window as they talked.
Welch prayed with him, hugged him and gave him a copy of the Soldier’s Bible.
Repeatedly, Welch knelt in prayer by the wheelchairs and beds of amputees and burn victims. And at least one, whose unrecognizable face was a mass of scar tissue, prayed a prayer of repentance and committed his life to Jesus Christ.
The soldier had already heard the Gospel several times from Southern Baptist chaplains at BAMC, said Keith Travis — director of chaplaincy evangelism for the North American Mission Board — who accompanied Welch and helped distribute copies of the Soldier’s Bible supplied by LifeWay Christian Resources and its B&H Publishing Group.
Travis told Baptist Press that he and Welch met several patients who met Jesus Christ through the witness and ministry of NAMB-sponsored chaplains. “These chaplains are soul-winners,” Travis said.
A veteran of 28 years as a U.S. Army chaplain, Travis coordinated with Southern Baptist chaplains at BAMC to assist Welch in gaining access to the facility and its patients.
“I appreciate the wisdom and foresight of our convention’s Executive Committee for establishing the role of strategist for global evangelical relations, and appointing a man of Bobby’s caliber to fill it,” Travis added.
“His stature in the convention and status as a veteran help raise the visibility of NAMB-sponsored chaplaincy among military personnel as well as our Southern Baptist constituents.
“Here’s somebody who’s been there and had a chaplain hold his hand while he was dying. He understands full-well what chaplain ministry can mean,” Travis said.
Welch told Baptist Press his association with Travis and contact with NAMB-sponsored chaplains is “crucial to the North American component of my global assignment on behalf of our convention. Chaplains who are Southern Baptists and deploy to other parts of the world will carry with them a global, evangelical influence themselves.”
At a hospital luncheon, Welch read a letter from President Bush relaying greetings to all “heroic soldiers and veterans at Brooke Army Medical Center including the medical staff, hospital personnel and the chaplains.”
“America is grateful to the men and women who have sacrificed for our liberty and the security of our nation. For generations, our veterans have triumphed over brutal enemies, liberated continents and answered the prayers of millions around the globe,” Bush wrote.
“On behalf of a grateful nation, I thank veterans for protecting our citizens and laying a foundation of peace for generations to come. All of us who live in liberty live in their debt, and we will never forget their sacrifice and service,” the president noted.
In remarks later that evening to chaplains and their spouses at a NAMB-sponsored dinner, Welch reflected on his time spent among wounded soldiers and chaplains at BAMC: “I will go to bed tonight a better American than I got up this morning. And I will go to bed a better Christian, too.”
Welch told Baptist Press after the dinner that he was “overwhelmingly encouraged by the high levels of morale and optimism” among the soldiers and chaplains, saying he neither heard nor detected any complaining or bad attitudes. The challenging nature of the chaplains’ ministry deepened his appreciation for them, and also encouraged him to redouble his own ministry efforts, Welch said.
In a telephone interview, Travis recalled his visit to BAMC and the work of NAMB-sponsored chaplains: “I did cry. I was challenged by the soldiers’ courage and willingness to stand for God and country. Several were ready to go back and fight with their fellow soldiers.”
One amputee told Welch, “I’d re-enlist if they’d let me.”
“Many people see chaplains as those who just pat soldiers on the back, give them a little pep talk and urge them to get back into life,” Travis added. “But military chaplaincy is really about leading soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. That’s what military chaplaincy is all about.
“Chaplains are all-too-often asked, ‘Why did you leave the ministry?’ If what we saw at Brooke Army Medical Center isn’t ministry, then I don’t know how to define ministry,” Travis said.
“Southern Baptists should be thankful, and Texas Southern Baptists especially, because these chaplains are not just serving with honor, they’re leading people to Jesus,” Welch added. “They are fighting a spiritual war and are winning one hill and one heartbreak at a time.”
Jerry Pierce, managing editor of the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, contributed to this story. For more info on military chaplaincy, contact Keith Travis at 770-410-6366 or go to www.namb.net/chaplain. For more info on Crossover San Antonio, go to www.crossoversa.com.