Military Chaplains From Iraq, Afghanistan Unite In Elsah And Share Experiences
A roomful of military chaplains from all branches of service - and from across the U.S. - gathered in Elsah Nov. 7-9 to share their experiences in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to the bond they shared as pastoral care providers in active war zones, the chaplains also came together as United Methodist clergy.
Col. and Army Chaplain John Read, an Alton native now serving as command chaplain for the U.S. Army Medical Command at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, earned the Army’s Bronze Star Medal for his bravery under fire in Iraq.
As non-combatant members of the military, chaplains do not carry weapons. “As chaplains, we’re not trigger pullers,” said Read. “We’re there to support the trigger pullers and to provide pastoral care to America’s sons and daughters.”
Read was a member of the first Encounter more than 35 years ago; the Christian performance group, comprised of high school students from 16 churches across this community, is hosted by Main Street United Methodist Church in Alton.
Both Read and Capt. Select Dale White - a Navy chaplain currently assigned as the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command’s senior chaplain at Camp Lejeune, N.C. - share the distinction of earning the Bronze Star Medal. White’s came from the Navy as a recognition of his bravery in rescuing fellow military personnel when their Humvee was ambushed in Fallujah, Iraq in 2006. White also experienced the Sept. 11, 2001 attack at the Pentagon firsthand.
“Part of our role as chaplains was to pick up the Marines who were injured and to provide pastoral care to them,” White said. “As chaplains, our instinct is to reach out and help others - that’s our calling from God. But in a war zone, we constantly have to balance that with our own safety. I would see what appeared to be a pregnant woman approaching me for help, for example, but potentially she was carrying explosive devices under her dress. We constantly dealt with that challenge.”
The Rev. Dwight Prowell, an Army chaplain who was wounded when three suicide bombers invaded a marketplace, said it can be hard - even when you’ve been stateside for months and sometimes years - to erase those images and experiences.
“I served in Bagdad for 13 months, retiring in August of this year,” said Prowell, who now pastors a United Methodist congregation in Jackson, Miss. “I was hospitalized in Bagdad for awhile, and later cared for at Fort Campbell (Kentucky). I experienced some flashbacks of the marketplace bombing. Chaplains, in many cases, are the drivers. Our chaplain’s assistants are our cover. We have a heart to care, but we’ve got to balance that with safety.”
For some military chaplains, one tour of duty isn’t where it ends. Once every few months, Chaplain Kyle Roehrig leaves his regular post at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska to join a C-17 squadron flying troops and materials to Afghanistan. He also spent four and a half months there in the war zone as chaplain for a level-one trauma center, supervising the spiritual care for all seven hospitals at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
“Our call is to be a visible reminder of God in the midst of strife,” Roehrig said. “And in order to do that, we’ve got to be right where the servicemen and women are. The Methodist church, as a whole, affords chaplains the opportunity to minister to and help a wide range of people, regardless of their religious affiliation. The Afghan civilians we had an opportunity to treat called me their community spiritual leader,” he added.
Main Street United Methodist Church Pastor Bob Phillips, who retired as a Navy chaplain after 33 years, hosted the Elsah-based chaplains’ retreat over the weekend.
“As a career veteran, I am grateful for the attitude of the folks at Main Street and for the United Methodist Church that so actively supports its chaplains and laity who serve,” Phillips said. “The United Methodist Endorsing Agency paid all the expenses for these chaplains and spouses to travel here for this time of healing and renewal, and Main Street volunteers have been on the spot to bring it all together.”