AURORA, Colo. – Army Chaplain (Capt.) Jared L. Vineyard sometimes finds himself much too close to the action.
That was true when he was wounded as an artillery officer in Iraq and later during a one-year stint as a Southern Baptist chaplain ministering to an infantry battalion in Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan.
Then in July – only his fifth day on the job with his current assignment as a chaplain at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo. – a dozen people, including an airman and a sailor stationed at Buckley, were murdered by a gunman in a nearby Aurora movie theater. Another 58 were injured.
Once again, the 32-year-old Vineyard was called into action to conduct grief counseling – using every bit of the experience he gained as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan to console the sailor’s family, friends and colleagues.
When he was based in the mountains separating Afghanistan from Pakistan, Vineyard was in a dangerous place. They don’t call it “The Badlands” for nothing. The area where celebrated Army Ranger and NFL star Pat Tillman was killed, Paktika Province – the size of Vermont – shares a 375-mile border with Pakistan. It’s a crossover point for Taliban insurgents sneaking across the border.
Vineyard wasn’t one to stay in the confines of the base. About 850 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were spread out across eight locations throughout Paktika Province. Vineyard was chaplain to all of them and would travel weekly by helicopter to FOBs and COBs (forward operating and combat operating bases) in remote mountain areas.
Chaplain (Capt.) Jared Vineyard, a NAMB chaplain now serving at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., baptizes one of the many soldiers he led to Christ during his year-long tour in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika Province, one of the country’s most dangerous areas. Vineyard utilized a variety of makeshift baptisteries.
“I would do services, baptize, go on patrol with the men and even fill sandbags with them – just trying to have a ministry of presence with them. Then I’d fly out to another combat outpost,” Vineyard said.
“My goal was to hit all the troops and try to have a chapel service for everybody at least once a month and have face-time with every soldier,” said Vineyard, who ministered to soldiers of all faiths.
On one occasion, Vineyard had just landed at a combat outpost when he heard an explosion behind him and the rattle of small-arms fire breaking out from the surrounding hills. Insurgents had launched a three-sided attack on the outpost. It took 30 minutes for soldiers and Army artillery to quell the attack.
At another base, Vineyard was about to start a service in a ramshackle, plywood chapel. He had just asked for prayer requests when the unmistakable whistle of incoming rockets drove the chaplain and his flock of a dozen or so to the safety of a nearby bunker.
“The policy was to stay in the bunker and wait for an all-clear signal, but one of the guys said, ‘Chaplain, let’s just finish the service here. We’re here and ready to go.’ So we finished our prayer requests and did our Bible study. The guys thought it was neat to have a real combat Bible study in the bunker,” Vineyard recounted.
During his 2010-11 tour in Afghanistan, Vineyard saw four of his soldiers killed in battle – one by an IED roadside bomb and three others caught in small-arms skirmishes at remote combat outposts. In all, more than 2,000 service members have died in Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Department of Defense.
“These times (combat deaths) open up a lot of windows of ministry and you become really close to the guys. A key part of the chaplain’s job is to honor the dead, so one of the first things I do is conduct a memorial ceremony for the fallen soldier. I’ll also bring in all the guys and talk about what happened, what they felt and experienced – just let them talk. We’ll pray, and I’ll counsel those who need it,” he said.
Vineyard baptized 34 soldiers who accepted Christ during his ministry in Paktika Province. How do you baptize in the remote, jagged mountains of east Afghanistan?
“You name it and we put ’em in it,” Vineyard said with a laugh. “There was one outpost with a big barrel. We cleaned it out, they would bend down, go under and I baptized them. At another place, one guy had a big blow-up swimming pool. Why he had it I don’t know, but we used that. We used shipping boxes, putting tarps in them and filling them with water. We were baptizing so many that I told the commander the main chapel needed its own baptistery. He consented, and we built a pretty good-size baptistery.”
When Vineyard was not conducting chapel services or baptizing, he was counseling. A large number of his counseling sessions – 942 in all – were for service members struggling in troubled marriages and relationships. These usually included newlywed soldiers separated from their brides for the first time by deployment in Afghanistan, or older Army veterans who had served as many as three tours in the Middle East – repeatedly separated from loved ones.
Vineyard now lives in Aurora with his wife Amanda and their three children, Jacob, Katherine and Samuel. He serves as chaplain to the 743rd Military Intelligence Battalion at Buckley Air Force Base, a joint military base. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Jared is only one outstanding example of 1,450 Southern Baptist military chaplains endorsed by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) for service around the world,” said retired U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains (Maj. Gen.) Douglas Carver, now executive director of NAMB’s chaplaincy services.
Carver has established two new strategies for NAMB chaplaincy. “One, we must do a better job of connecting our chaplains with SBC churches back home. Second, we must encourage SBC churches to start ministries for returning military personnel and their families, especially in cities near military bases,” Carver said.
Vineyard said Carver’s new strategies for NAMB chaplains are on target.
“It’s just good for chaplains to have that connection with a home church,” he said. “When I first got back to Fort Campbell and wanted a strong SBC connection, we moved our membership to First Baptist Church in Oak Grove, Ky.
“From the chaplain’s side, it can be a hard balancing act at times. You want to stay connected to a church but how much time can you split between church on post every Sunday versus off post? It’s a challenge,” Vineyard said. “Our main ministry involves the chapels we serve on post, but we’d also like to attend church off post some Sundays. Every chaplain has to figure out how to do it.”
With thousands of troops recently returning from Iraq and thousands more slated to return from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Vineyard believes it’s time for Southern Baptist Convention churches to launch ministries for the military.
“If churches, especially those close to bases, would adopt a ‘How can we serve the military?’ approach, we could reap untold Kingdom benefits as the troops come back home.
“Baptist churches are pretty stable in membership for the most part, with members living and working in the area. But we in the military are in unstable situations – always moving in or out, coming or going. Churches could be an extended family for military families, especially when a member is deployed. Churches could do marriage retreats, date nights, childcare and other service ministries for military folks,” he said.
Vineyard said he and other service members know there’s a general appreciation in SBC churches for the military. “But it would take that up a notch if a Baptist church showed you in practical ways. It would be eye-opening for a lot of military guys.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.)