Assemblies of God military chaplains go through extensive schooling and training to prepare for their duties. They are men and women of strong faith and great courage.
But as they provide vital spiritual support for military personnel in often tumultuous and dangerous environments, chaplains, too, are in need of support.
Pastor Rich Catapano and Bethel Assembly of God (Franklin Square, New York) recognize this need, so in 2006 the church "adopted" Chaplain Jeff Bryan during his 15-month deployment to Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division's 31st Infantry Regiment.
"My personal heart is to always support our troops," Catapano says. "I've talked to too many people who came back from Vietnam who were ignored and forgotten, and I was never going to let this happen here. We focused on supporting the chaplain because we know he can be key in keeping people safe, spiritually and mentally."
"Military chaplaincy can be a really tough ministry, yet it can be a deeply fulfilling ministry, because you are part of a sacred fraternity among warriors, reflecting God to them," Bryan says. "It's challenging, but there's no greater ministry."
As a chaplain for an infantry unit on the frontlines, Bryan came face to face with the horrors of war on a daily basis. In the course of 15 months, 34 members of his battalion were killed and over 200 were wounded.
"There were times when I was absolutely broken," Bryan shares. "One of the men I prayed a prayer of confession/salvation with came to know me very closely, only to be ambushed one day while on patrol. The explosion blew everything below his hips off. He fought for his life for 30 minutes until he died on a medical aircraft. That just crushed me."
Some of Bryan's darkest days occurred following an attack that saw eight of his men overrun; five were killed and three were captured, remaining missing for many months before their bodies were recovered. During this difficult time, Catapano supported Bryan
through occasional email correspondence.
"It was being there to listen and to let him know that he's not alone and know that people are here that appreciate what he and the troops are doing," Catapano explains. "It was just our desire to keep him as close to our hearts and God's heart as we could. We would send scriptures as necessary and most of all just let him know he wasn't alone."
To show the church's gratitude and support for the troops serving on the frontlines, prior to Christmas in 2006, Bethel Assembly sent care packages and some 200 stockings filled with gifts to Bryan to distribute to his soldiers, the Polar Bears. Included in the
stockings were homemade cookies baked by the church youth group, handwritten notes and military-use phone cards so the soldiers could call home on Christmas.
Bryan says the soldiers were grateful for the presents. One Sergeant 1st Class told him, "In my 18 years, no one has ever given me one of these before."
The church also sent audiovisual equipment for Bryan to use in his chapel services along with cards of encouragement. Beyond the gifts, Bethel Assembly's continuous prayer and support were what meant the most to Bryan as he served in Iraq.
"The most important things that the church did included praying for and remembering my men," Bryan says.
To show its ongoing support, Bethel Assembly set aside an area of the church sanctuary as a tribute to some of the men from Bryan's battalion who died, including the three soldiers who had been captured.
"We have a wall where we have an American flag and a display, a very nice picture called 'Reviewing the Troops,'" explains Catapano. "Next to that we have a plaque that my wife made up with some certificates and pictures of those killed in action in the 10th
For Bryan, Bethel Assembly's tribute to the slain troops is one of the most meaningful things the church could have done.
Bethel Assembly also has invited anyone from its community to call the church and add the name of a military member from the local area to a prayer list.
Bryan, who has since been moved to serve as a basic training chaplain at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, is finalizing his memoirs about his experiences as a combat chaplain in Iraq's "Triangle of Death."
To learn more about supporting AG military chaplains, contact the Assemblies of God Military/VA Chaplaincy office at email@example.com or go to http://www.chaplaincy.ag.org/militaryva.
-- Kara Chase