Chaplain sees bigger picture of war in Iraq, consequences
EDITORS’ NOTE: The following six stories focus on the deployment of troops to Iraq –- how people of faith have sensed God’s call and presence amid the efforts to bring peace and democracy to the Iraqi people.
OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)--It was 120 degrees in Kuwait at 2 in the afternoon. Inside the tent where Chaplain Andy Taylor was preaching, the temperature reached about 140 degrees. As Taylor came to the end of his message, a soldier in the back got up, with his M16 on his back, and started walking toward Taylor.
"I was concerned," Taylor said. "A story flashed across my mind of a pastor in Nevada who had been given the right to bring a weapon in the pulpit because a woman had threatened to kill him. As a chaplain, I do everything other soldiers do, except I'm not allowed to carry a weapon."
Taylor said he kept preaching, and the soldier walked up to him and then right by him.
"I turned to look at him, then turned back to the congregation and noticed four or five more soldiers were walking toward me," he recounted. "Then I realized what was happening. I hadn't finished preaching, yet soldiers were laying their weapons down behind me, and they were down on their knees, crying out to God. Twenty-nine soldiers gave their lives to Christ that afternoon."
God is doing great things among American soldiers in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world, said Taylor, who rejoined the Army after graduating from Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and serving as pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Chickasha, Okla.
"I decided to go into the Army because it's a calling," he said. "A lot of people have a misunderstanding about what it means to be a chaplain."
Taylor said many people think that when he puts on a military uniform, he's not a Southern Baptist anymore. But he is endorsed by the North American Mission Board.
"I preach Southern Baptist doctrine," he emphasized. "I let fly that there is only one way to be saved. You can cut me, and I bleed Southern Baptist doctrine."
The only difference in being a chaplain rather than pastor of a church is that Taylor's congregation is nearly 1,000 soldiers and their families in the 6th Battalion, 27th field artillery at Fort Sill, Okla.
"There are a lot of soldiers who are empty on the inside and look to their battalion chaplain to give them something to hang on to," he said. "I give them Jesus, because I believe Jesus Christ is the only thing we have to hold on to."
Taylor, a captain, said he does everything the soldiers do, including crawling in the dirt, sleeping in the mud and physical training like push ups and sit ups.
"I get up an hour earlier than the rest of the soldiers to go to the gym to work out because I'm 36, and most of them are 18-20," he said. "If I put my heart into all the soldier skills, there is going to be a time when a soldier comes to me and needs help. The soldier will say, 'That chaplain can relate to me. He knows what it's like to be a soldier.'"
On April 2, 2003, Taylor's battalion deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with the first stop in Kuwait.
"My first Sunday there was Easter Sunday," Taylor recalled. "We had our Easter service in the back of a tent where a command group meeting was taking place. Four soldiers gave their lives to Christ."
On May 9, the battalion crossed the line of departure, stopping periodically to let the soldiers stretch their legs.
"Children carrying American flags came running from the villages," Taylor said. "At one point, all these kids came running toward me. As an officer, I'm the only one who doesn't wear rank, but I wear the cross on my helmet. A young Muslim boy pointed at the cross and said, 'God.' It struck me that even a Muslim child knows that Jesus is the Messiah."
After an intense two-day journey, the battalion reached the Iraqi Air Force base, where it began six months of operations transporting captured enemy ammunition.
While returning from a mission, one of the convoys was ambushed just north of Baghdad. Only one round of ammunition entered into the convoy, but it entered into the back of Specialist Jose Perez, one of the battalion medics.
"I was the one who told the battalion commander he had lost his first soldier," Taylor said. "This death rocked our battalion. Soldiers began to examine their own lives and contemplate life after death."
During those first hours after Perez's death, Taylor said he stopped being the chaplain and became the pastor for 400 men. He said God used the circumstances to reveal Himself in some incredible ways.
"One evening shortly after Perez's death, a young Jewish soldier came into my tent and said he wanted to talk about Jesus," Taylor said. "I used Old Testament Scriptures to show him how he needed a relationship with Jesus, and that night he kneeled down and gave his life to Christ."
Shortly after that, Taylor said, a young lieutenant came to him, declaring his Catholic upbringing and desiring to find peace with God.
"He received Christ that night," the chaplain said. "The next Sunday, I baptized a Jew and a Catholic in a Muslim country in a wooden box we had to build to use as a baptistery."
Taylor said every time he believed God was finished using Perez's death, something else happened. One night as he was about to go to bed, Taylor heard a desperate voice from a soldier who had constantly tormented him. Taylor discovered the young soldier was going out on a dangerous mission the next day and wanted the chaplain to pray for him.
"I took it a little further," Taylor admitted. "I didn't pray only for his safety; I prayed for his soul. I prayed God would reveal to him that he needs Jesus now. I wish I could say I know he gave his life to Jesus, but I can't. But I do know he is looking."
Taylor said one of his commanders received Christ because he saw something in the life of one of the other officers.
"Those who aren't believers examine our lives," Taylor said. "They want to know if it is real. When the chips are down, they need to see something that has substance to it."
He was frequently asked to pray at convoy briefs as soldiers were getting ready to leave on a mission.
"Typically, the first sergeant stands up and gives a pep talk, which usually includes a lot of four-letter words," Taylor said. "Then he turns and says, 'Chaplain, would you pray for us?' Every time I said, 'Let's pray,' every helmet came off and every head was bowed. Even though many of those guys are not professed believers, they want to know God is with them."
While no one likes to be deployed to Iraq, it was one of the richest times of ministry he's experienced, he said.
"The real heroes are the men and women who continue to give their time and even their lives, not just for the American way of life, but for the freedom of Iraqi boys and girls, men and women to live free from the tyranny of dictatorship, threats and torture," Taylor said. "These are freedom fighters, young soldiers with bright futures, and they are willing to put everything on the line because something deep inside of them says it's good and it's right and somebody has to draw a line and say, 'Not here, not anymore -- no more imprisonment, no more depraved ideologies, no more intimidation, no more empty promises, no more 9/11s, no more terrorism, period.'"
Taylor said hard times often make people turn to God, and few ever experience the hardships of a soldier.
"If trials and hardships make us turn to God, then bring them on," he said. "If the burdens of life and combat make us turn to a Savior who loves us, then I say bring them on. If all the trials we experience as believers and as soldiers make us turn to the One who gave His life for us, bring them on.
"We live in a fallen world. In the battle of good versus evil, evil is getting the upper hand. But whether it's fighting the spiritual strongholds in Oklahoma or terrorists in Baghdad or Afghanistan, there is reason for us to continue the fight."
Once Taylor returned home and spoke in a church about his experiences, he went out to eat with the pastor and his family.
"Their 7-year-old son kept snuggling up to me and looking at my uniform," Taylor said. "He finally asked if he could use my coat as a blanket tonight. His mother later wrote about this incident in her journal, which she shared with me."
She wrote, "Tonight this child heard the passion of a man who loves God, family and country. It stirred him in ways he won't understand for many years. I watched his eyes as he sat next to our friend in a restaurant, a place usually reserved for his adored father, but today given to this interesting soldier. As he asked about the medals and stripes on the man's green military coat, his eyes continued to shine. He eventually whispered to the soldier, 'Can I use your coat as a blanket tonight?'
"We thought it was funny and laughed at the question. But the question reverberated through my heart all night," the mother wrote. "As I tucked my children into warm beds in a beautiful home in a safe neighborhood and read a newspaper full of many Americans' different views of life and politics, I began to be truly thankful for soldiers. Perhaps I would describe it as patriotic if the word weren't so overused that it seems to dilute the true meaning. What if we as Americans and even some mothers and sons sleeping under flags of other colors could recognize that indeed we all use the American soldier's coat as a blanket tonight?"
Taylor appreciated the mother's view of the bigger picture, and he expressed a desire for everyone to keep the right perspective about war.
"I want my two sons to have the freedom to worship Jesus Christ freely and openly in a country we all love, in a country that owes our deep gratitude to the veterans," he said. "We are at war, whether we wear the military uniform or the uniform of Jesus Christ. We are in a battle."