Chaplains impart support & strength to soldiers in combat

TONGDUCHON, South Korea — Lt. Col. David Rogers understands the importance of having chaplains in a war zone. He says the three best chaplains he's ever known served with him in combat.

While military chaplains do not carry weapons or drive vehicles used as weaponry, they nevertheless serve alongside the soldiers, witnessing all the horrors of war.

"You really don't think much about the chaplain until the lead is flying," Rogers said, "but if he's known and understood by the men, all the better."

Since 9/11, military chaplains have risen to the occasion, providing soldiers counsel and support, Rogers said.

Rogers is stationed at Camp Casey in Tongduchon, Korea, a few miles from the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. He is the commander of one of the three Southern Baptist chaplains stationed there. All three have served in Iraq.

Another chaplain who was deployed to Iraq is stationed at Camp Walker in Daegu, a couple of hours by train south of Seoul.

All four have their own unique stories of deployment in the war zone.


A life of sincerity
For Chaplain (CPT) Cheun Yoo, the most important thing a military chaplain can do is to live a life of sincerity before God and before his soldiers.

Yoo served at Camp Taji, Iraq, with the 189th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C. Their mission was to conduct tactical convoy operations. Every night at 9 p.m., Yoo's soldiers would head "outside the wire" to conduct dangerous missions in the Iraqi countryside. Yoo would send his troops off each night with prayer.

But it didn't end there.

Although Yoo could not accompany the troops on their missions, he stayed up all night, every night praying for his soldiers. He prayed for their protection and for their strength. He prayed against the enemies who were seeking to destroy them. When the missions were completed each morning at 4 a.m., Yoo would finally fall into bed, thanking God that his troops were safe.

The battalion commander noticed Yoo's diligence and his sincerity. He began to seek Yoo out for counsel and prayer.

Although one of Yoo's soldiers died in an accident, not one of the 1,500 soldiers in Yoo's battalion was lost to enemy fire during their 12 months in Iraq.

Yoo emphasized that this indeed was a miracle from God, not because of his prayers, but because of God's grace and the prayers of so many supporters.

Later, Yoo's battalion commander recommended Yoo to receive the Bronze Star for his heroism.

Yoo told his commander, "Sir, I have a heart to pray for the soldiers. I don't need a medal."

The commander disagreed, and Yoo was awarded the Bronze Star at the end of his tour in Iraq.

"My bronze star really should be shared with all those who have prayed for the troops in Iraq," Yoo said. "They are the real heroes.

"God is really protecting you."

Chaplain (CPT) Rick Suh also experienced God's miraculous protection. While serving with the 801st Brigade Support Battalion in Baghdad, Suh's barracks were bombed by the enemy.

It was late, and normally Suh would have been in his room. Instead, he was busy showing a newly arrived chaplain around the base.

"We got carried away, and I didn't realize how late it had gotten," Suh recounted. "We were headed back to the barracks when we heard the explosion. We hid in a bunker, not realizing that the rocket had hit our barracks."

It was chaotic. Suh got a call on his radio from one of his commanders, telling him where to meet.

When Suh arrived, the captain said in the presence of other staff members, "Good news! You're OK." He paused, then said, "The bad news is your room has been bombed."

The rocket left a gaping hole in the ceiling of Suh's room. Sadly, the two men who lived above him were killed. "I should have been there. I was out when I normally wouldn't have been," Suh said, "but for some reason, God protected my life that night."

When Suh relayed the news to his wife back in the U.S., she responded, "Well, now I can sleep better at night."

"Why is that?" Suh asked.

"Because I know that God is really protecting you."


Finding God in the fray
Listening to Yoo and Suh share their stories, Chaplain (CPT) Chang Park began blinking back tears as he described his experiences in combat. Unlike Yoo and Suh, Park saw death regularly in his outfit, but he also experienced God's grace.

Park spoke of the death of an infantry officer -- a squadron commander and close friend –-when an enemy rocket hit the camp. Park saw the building where the officer was working burst into flames.

"That squadron commander prayed every day," Park said.

Another time, an IED killed seven of his soldiers on mission. On another day, Park lost a group of eight. Still another time, Park conducted 10 memorial services in a single day for his fallen comrades. Within a few short weeks of his arrival in Iraq, Park had witnessed far more horror than many civilians experience in a lifetime.

"I was afraid. And I didn't know how to counsel my men. I once encouraged a command sergeant major to pray. His response to me was, 'I can't pray. I don't know how,'" Park recounted.

Park's commanders noticed the burden he was carrying: Fear was etched in his face.

"They told me that the soldiers needed to see me smile," Park said. "The problem was that I had nothing to smile about."

But then God intervened to remind Park to rely on His strength and His courage.

In early October, after just a few short weeks in Iraq, a new lieutenant arrived at the camp. Like Park, he was overwhelmed by the loss of life and the horror he was witnessing. Like Park, he was scared, and he began to withdraw from his men.

"I realized what was happening and I knew what I had to do," Park said. "I grabbed the lieutenant by the shirt and I shook him. I told him, 'I know about your fear.'"

Park paused to regain control as he recounted the story.

"We are officers," Park told the young lieutenant, "and our attitudes are important. The dead are already gone. They are no longer on our side. They are on God's side. You are responsible for leading the men and women who are left on our side."

Twelve months later, Park returned to the U.S., having completed nearly 40 missions with his men, "outside the wire." In that time, neither Park nor the vehicle in which he was riding ever was hit by an IED.

Still Park said, "I don't like to mention God's blessings."

Park knows many good men and women like that infantry officer who lost their lives in the desert, even as their families were praying earnestly for their safety. And so he wonders why God chose to spare him.

In the early days of his tour, Park said his services were sparsely attended. "But after the IED," Park said, "everybody came."

Park said there are no easy answers, but that he knows even in the midst of the tragedies he witnessed, God is sovereign and His purposes will be fulfilled.


Not victims but victors
Like Chaplain Park, Chaplain (CPT) Edward Choi also understands what it means to lose men in combat. Choi lost 31 soldiers and conducted 18 memorial services during his 15-month deployment in Iraq. In fact, Choi's unit, which was part of the 126th Infantry Battalion based in Schweinfurt, Germany, had more casualties in Iraq than any unit since Vietnam.

It was challenging, Choi recalled, to find unique comments to offer at the memorial services. "I didn't want a cookie-cutter service," Choi said. "These soldiers were real people with real lives, and I wanted to honor them. Every two weeks I was either preparing or conducting a memorial service."

Choi also was wounded in combat when the vehicle in which he was riding was hit by an IED. As a result, Choi was awarded a Purple Heart.

"I only had minor injuries," Choi said, "and I didn't want the medal in light of the soldiers I'd seen who were seriously injured or killed."

Still, the Purple Heart reminds Choi of his fallen comrades and wounded warriors.

"I use it to proudly share their stories," Choi said.

But the horrors he witnessed left their mark. In about the 12th or 13th month of his deployment, Choi recognized that he was experiencing compassion fatigue. Once his deployment ended a few months later, Choi attended the Chaplain Captain's Career Course, or C4.

"At C4, the chaplains were able to talk, share and pray together," Choi said. It was then that he realized that his fatigue was not unusual and that he was not alone.

As Choi began to heal mentally and emotionally, he realized he could make a difference in the lives of other soldiers. While in Iraq, Choi and his assistant started Operation Healing Heart to help soldiers heal spiritually, mentally and physically. Through Operation Healing Heart, Choi developed religious programs, sports activities and recreation events designed to provide some sense of normalcy and stability in the war zone.

Then, Choi transferred to Camp Walker in Daegu, Korea, where 40 percent of the soldiers have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Together with social services worker Don Guffey, Choi initiated what he calls the Warrior's Huddle, a simple support group to allow soldiers to talk through their experiences and the spiritual and emotional implications of those experiences. The group meets weekly and has been well-received because it allows soldiers to find ways to integrate their service into their daily lives.

Guffey, a combat veteran who served with the Special Forces in Vietnam, helps facilitate meetings of the Warrior's Huddle.

"Mr. Guffey has a real heart for combat veterans," Choi said, "and he understands their unique needs in a way that others can't."

While Choi believes that the Army has made great strides in understanding and treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among soldiers, improvements can be made. "Some think that briefings on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are enough," Choi said, "but it takes much more than that."

In the Warrior's Huddle, Choi seeks to celebrate the achievements and the service of those who fought in combat.

"We don't need to see our combat veterans as victims, but as victors," Choi continued. "We need to see them as resilient men and women who are sharing their sacred story because it's important and it changed their lives.

"I explain to the soldiers that God is using these experiences to prepare them," Choi said, "and I let them know that they are conquering warriors.

"I often tell soldiers the story of Elijah at Mount Carmel. Elijah had been in combat with the prophets of Baal, and I believe he was probably suffering from PTSD." Choi explains to his soldiers that God took Elijah aside, spoke to him, and healed him.

It is difficult for the average American to understand the experiences of combat veterans, Choi acknowledged. While he knows that churches back home want to help, he said today's combat veterans need to share their stories with those who've also experienced it any combat arena.

Keith Travis, leader of the chaplaincy program for the North American Mission Board, agreed. "As more and more of our military return from deployment in the combat zone, we need to think about ways that we can offer training to churches to reach out to the combat veterans among them," Travis said.

Choi noted, "I believe it is a spiritual principle that God will stretch you to your limit, but He knows the limit. When the limit comes, He will take you to a place of renewal, rejuvenation and refreshing."