Chaplain gives comfort, conveys hope amid tragedy

BAGHDAD, Iraq — It wasn't by chance that Chaplain (Capt.) Kent Coffey arrived at the Combat Stress Center on Camp Liberty in Baghdad, Iraq, just moments after a U.S. soldier opened fire, killing five soldiers and wounding three others May 11.

"It was the providence of God that I was even aware of what had happened," Coffey said. He and his assistant (Pvt.) Russ Glover were walking back to the division chapel after lunch, 30 minutes later than normal, when they noticed emergency vehicle lights at the Combat Stress Center. Having served closely with combat stress team members, Coffey and Glover stopped to see if they could be of help.

They were the first chaplain team to arrive on the scene. Coffey sent Glover to the chapel to call for chaplain reinforcements while he talked to the soldiers on site to sort out what had happened.

Once the division chaplain arrived to take over at the scene of the incident, Coffey and Glover headed to the Troop Medical Clinic where the wounded soldiers were being treated. They arrived just as the medical staff had "called" the death of one of the victims.

"The staff was still lingering in the treatment room, so I gathered them all, and we said a prayer for the soldier's family," Coffey recounted. The commander of the medical unit asked Coffey to stay and help with an After Action Review. "I said a prayer and spoke some words of encouragement, offering my praise for the work they do in times like these."

In the meantime, the division chapel where Coffey serves had been turned into the center of operations for evaluating the soldiers who had been in the Combat Stress Center at the time of the shootings. Coffey soon learned that one of his battalion's soldiers had witnessed the deadly incident.

"I was only able to speak to her briefly, but I told her that if she wanted to talk I was available day or night."

Later that evening, Coffey and Glover went back to the clinic to offer further support. Again, God's timing was evident. The team of first responders who had given life-saving measures to one of the soldiers had gathered for a gut check. They asked Coffey to join them.

"The captain who led the session was excellent. He got them talking and then turned it over to me," Coffey said. He went on to conduct a mini-Critical Event Debrief, designed to allow soldiers to share their experiences with each other, to talk about thoughts and feelings in a safe environment and help them process the events.

"I was amazed at how well these soldiers were able to rally around each other and embrace their shared experience," Coffey said. "It was good to see people sharing and see that others were experiencing the same thoughts and feelings as their fellow soldiers. I finished that time with prayer and stuck around a while in case anyone wanted to talk."

The next day, Coffey and Glover attended the ramp ceremony at the Air Force base as the fallen soldiers were placed on an angel flight en route to their homes in the U.S.

"There were tons of people out there, paying tribute to these men," Coffey said. "I was glad we went if for nothing else than to just lay my hand on the back of those who were openly weeping."

Coffey, a member of the Division Special Troops Battalion, 1 Calvary Division from Fort Hood, Texas, is one of 1,200 Southern Baptist chaplains serving in the U.S. military — more than a third of the 3,078 chaplains endorsed by the North American Mission Board.

While military chaplains do not carry weapons or drive vehicles used as weaponry, they nevertheless serve alongside soldiers, airmen and marines, witnessing all the horrors of war. Since 9/11, chaplains have risen to the occasion, providing counseling and support.

"Military chaplaincy is an extremely important ministry in today's world," said Keith Travis, leader of NAMB's chaplaincy team. "With the global war on terror, the role of a chaplain has become very important. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are looking to chaplains for a word of hope. Our SBC-endorsed chaplains are on the front of the battle ready to offer hope, words of encouragement and strength, and also point the way to the cross."

On Wednesday following the incident, Chaplain Coffey was finally able to debrief with the private in his unit who was present during the shootings.

"My heart broke as she shared with me what had happened," Coffey said. "I was glad I already had a relationship built with her, so she felt comfortable enough to talk."

Coffey explained that it is imperative for chaplains to develop relationships with the soldiers in their unit, battalion and division. That involves visiting with them where they work, in the chow hall, even going on patrol with them.

"As chaplains we have to seek them out, build relationships with them, be real with them and then maybe, just maybe, when they have a need they will overcome their reluctance to seek us out for help," Coffey said. "The more I build that relationship, when a crisis occurs in their life, then I'm free to share the message of Christ."

Relational evangelism is the bedrock of chaplaincy ministry, Travis said.

"That is why chaplains run PT every day, why they are on the battlefield, leaving the green zone to go with soldiers, so that they can build a relationship that will offer them the right to lead them to the cross."

Coffey is no stranger to tragedy, death and sorrow. During his first deployment to Iraq in 2006, he lost 13 men within 24 hours. He listened over a radio as one unit was ambushed by the enemy, hearing their cries of distress. The wound is still fresh as Coffey recalls the counseling sessions and memorial services in the days and weeks that followed.

Then and now, Coffey leaned on the support of the One who provides hope and everlasting life. And he relied on the training he has received as a military chaplain.

"I always ask myself the question, 'What would I want said to me if I were in this situation?' If the answer is nothing, then I just shut my mouth and am just there," Coffey said. "The essence of a good chaplain is being where the need is the greatest, assessing where you can best be used and then moving out of the way and allowing God to use you as He sees fit."

As division chaplain, Coffey is responsible for the spiritual support of some 2,000 soldiers. Coffey, who was called to active duty as a chaplain in 2005, acknowledges that a chaplain's ministry can be very demanding.

"The need is great all across the Army. The news media is reporting all the time about multiple tours and the stress involved. Remember our chaplains face this as well," Coffey said.

"It takes someone capable of experiencing those tours and yet have their own lives together enough to be able to endure under the worst conditions and still be able to minister to others."

Part of Coffey's role is to support other chaplains who have lost soldiers. Southern Baptist Chaplain (Capt.) Jerry Wagner lost one of his soldiers in the May 11 shootings and later led a memorial service for the fallen soldier.

"Chaplains have the tough job of ministering while hurting themselves," Coffey said. "Speaking from experience, this is the hardest job of all."

Coffey talked about the need for more men who are strong in their faith to answer the call of being a military chaplain.

"We need men who have a sense of calling to the hardest ministry they will ever face. Men who are capable of standing by the side of a fallen soldier and be able to look in the faces of the medical folks who tried to save his life and have a word from the Lord. Our most desperate need is for guys who have a passion for people and to see those people improve in every area of their life."

Coffey also spoke of the importance of prayer.

"Knowing there's folks back in the states that care, that are praying and will stick with you during the tough times makes all the difference in the world."

Travis called for people to pray that God would strengthen military chaplains for the days ahead.

"Our chaplains suffer the same tragedies and losses that our military personnel face," Travis said. "Yet, in the face of tragedy, they need to be ready to offer hope.... Pray that God would give them courage and strength."

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