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Chaplains a present help
Adam Miller, Baptist Press
January 03, 2011
8 MIN READ TIME

Chaplains a present help

Chaplains a present help
Adam Miller, Baptist Press
January 03, 2011

FORT BRAGG — 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 said. “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 said. “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

said. “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 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.”

Photo from Jeff Mitchell

Chaplain (CPT) Jeff Mitchell (at podium) officiates at a memorial service in Afghanistan for fallen soldiers from the 27th Engineer Battalion from Fort Bragg. During a year-long deployment ending in December, Mitchell lost more than a dozen fellow soldiers.

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,” said 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 said. “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 said 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 said.

“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 said.

“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

said. “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.

“There are no unwounded service members in war,” said 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.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — 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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