From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Expecting the unexpected: ministry in the danger zone

Date 5 Jun 2002 15:34:00 -0400

Note #7189 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


Expecting the unexpected: ministry in the danger zone

Presbyterian chaplain recounts mission to Afghanistan

by Lt. Col. Jeffrey G. Guild
Special Forces Chaplain
U.S. Air Force 

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - "How in the world did I end up here?" 

That was my first thought after I climbed out of the back of a C-130 Talon aircraft at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, at 2:30 a.m. What was an Air Force wing chaplain from McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., doing with Special Operations Forces fighting the war against terrorism in Afghanistan?

Through the darkness I saw my chaplain assistant, Army Master Sgt. Anthony Cooper, place a full magazine of rounds into his Beretta M-9 handgun. "This is for real, this is no exercise," I thought to myself and I began to draw on my 21 years of experience as a military chaplain. I gave thanks to God for pairing me with Cooper. I looked over at him and said, "God is so good," and he answered, "He's so good to me." We were a team. He gave me the "thumbs up" and an "uoooooah!" I responded with a similar gesture and my usual "airpower!" 

Operation Anaconda

A colonel stood over my cot and said, "Chaplain, we need you." 

Operation Anaconda had just begun and was going badly for our side. I watched the battle unfold as we lost one Special Forces troop, then seven more. Word was coming in that Taliban fighters pinned down the 10th Mountain Division, and a battalion from the 101st Airborne was in the fight. 

Later, in Oman, while waiting to be loaded on a C-130, I met a guy who was returning from the States where he attended the funeral of a 24-year-old airman who lost his life saving the lives of others in Operation Anaconda. With tears in his eyes, he told me of his meeting his friend's widow. "Chaplain, I promised I would bring him back." 

"Canvas Cathedral"

We arrived at our destination safely. The following day we attended worship at the "Canvas Cathedral," which was another unexpected blessing. We then made our way to the Air Transportation Operations Center, which is just a fancy name for a tent with three personnel and two computers to schedule passenger flights. 

We were assigned to fly with a C-130 Wyoming Air National Guard crew to Jacobabad, Pakistan. We landed in Pakistan in total darkness. I asked the aircraft commander how not being able to see the ground affected depth perception. His response, "That is why I let these younger guys land."

On the ground in Jacobabad the aircraft commander took Cooper and me on a night-vision goggle tour of the darkened flight line and operations center. We walked about 100 yards to a hanger that housed the command post. Hundreds of airmen and soldiers were milling about and I asked at the operations center if there might be a chaplain in the area. I was led to the very chaplain I needed to meet. He was waiting for a flight that would take him home as his tour of duty had ended! Again, I was taught to expect the unexpected from God.

Back aboard our C-130, the 101st Airborne was boarding. The aircraft commander suggested I go "bless" the process, so I stood at the loading ramp as these young soldiers boarded. I thought about my 19-year-old son-in-law who had just finished basic military training and was in the infantry. I tapped each on the helmet and gave the thumbs-up sign for encouragement. After loading this precious "cargo," we took off, again in the dark, heading for the "danger zone." 

After forty-five minutes of flying time, the aircraft commander invited me to don the night-vision goggles for my first sight of Afghanistan. I recall seeing small villages in the distance - villages seen only with the enhancement of the goggles. The lights from these primitive villages were probably from cooking fires and candles. The mountains to the south made an eerie silhouette against the night sky. Each was topped with a lighted communications tower and many of these winked at us from at an altitude above our flight path. The cockpit was darkened because of the threat of rocket-propelled grenades being sent our way and small arms fire. 

Again, I said my prayers for our troops on the ground and for our safety. As Jesus commanded, I wanted to be able to pray for our enemies hidden below in caves in these mountains, and pray I did! I prayed that they would all be asleep that night! 

As we approach-ed Kandahar, the aircraft commander pointed out the bright lights of the detainee camp. Next to the camp, in darkness, lay the runway. The faces of those young 101st troopers in the cargo hold were burned into my mind as a reminder of the harsh reality of war. We were in a combat zone.

We made our way to the bombed-out Kandahar International Airport terminal to find the 10th Mountain Division brigade chaplain whom we startled awake with the words, "Hi, we're from higher headquarters and we are here to help you." He bedded us down in his "office" and at daybreak we found our chaplain and assistant. This team was doing a great job but looked like Special Forces soldiers with wrinkled uniforms and unshaven faces. They had "gone native." They were traveling the Afghan countryside ministering to their people.

"Prayer Assault"

That evening I met the chaplain who had gone in with the 187th Airborne. He told his story of ministry:

The Task Force commander had a formation with all the soldiers and gave us a motivational pep talk. The command sergeant major spoke and then asked me to give a word of prayer. This was a spiritual time for me. Then we had a special time of communion. The Catholics had one side and the Protestants had another side, with Jewish and Mormon soldiers in separate corners. 

As the morning hours were upon us, we began to see some of the casualties coming in. I sensed the anxiety in our soldiers. Worry. Fear. Probably the turning point for me, as this was an air assault operation, was that God just really impressed upon my heart that this was now the "prayer assault" operation for us. That is when I really, strongly, fervently prayed that God would encourage our soldiers as they moved forward in combat even as they saw some of the Special Operations soldiers airlifted off, put into vehicles and put into the casualty collection point. 

I realized the importance of the ministry of presence. I know when the soldiers were receiving the rounds ... many times I saw some of them looking back, where is the chaplain? I had some soldiers even fold their hands and make the image of praying, looking at me, and I would look back at them with prayerful hands and let them know that I was simply praying with them - that God was with us. As we also read Psalm 144, I could see their legs shaking. 

What a privilege to be associated with this airborne padre. I received an unexpected blessing from God.

In parting, he said this to me, "This has been for me a deep privilege that God would allow me to serve in this capacity." 

Lt. Col. Jeffrey G. Guild is a 1978 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of the Presbytery of Utica in the PC(USA). After pastoring rural churches in New Jersey, Guild entered active duty in the Air Force chaplaincy in 1984. Among his many decorations is the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal. 
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