Army trainees buoyed by church's 'Operation Appreciation'

RADCLIFF, Ky. (BP)--Young trainees likely to see action in Iraq or Afghanistan have found Stithton Baptist Church to be a place for recreation, a good meal and a chance to call home.

Since the Radcliff, Ky., congregation started hosting “Operation Appreciation” in the fall of 2004, some 720 new soldiers from Fort Knox have responded to invitations to follow Christ, pastor Gregg Curtis said.

“We get e-mails from all over the country [and] amazing letters from parents telling us how much they appreciate us and that we’re an answer to prayer for their son,” Curtis said.

Most of the men and women are in their late teens and have started advanced training when they get a break from the rigors of preparing for war in order to take in one of Stithton Baptist’s Operation Appreciation gatherings.

Stithton got involved in the outreach after Curtis met with Chaplain Willie Ailstock.

An army reservist, Ailstock was called to active duty in June 2004 while serving as pastor of Dry Ridge Baptist Church in northern Kentucky.

“I’ve seen how their church family has made this a part of their church,” Ailstock said of Stithton’s members. “It’s their ministry.

“People are there with us,” Ailstock said. “They don’t just cook a meal. They come out and eat with [the soldiers] and play cards with them. They’ve adopted these guys.”

Although Ailstock held the first day of rest and relaxation for the cavalry scouts in his battalion at another church, after moving to Stithton most of the other Operation Appreciation gatherings have been held there.

The church has hosted 13, with three more scheduled between late July and September.

Attendance has ranged from 60 to 180, with a high of 96 people responding to Curtis’ invitation at one of the gatherings. The decisions include conversions and rededications to Christ, the pastor said.

While Curtis delivers the Gospel message that concludes the evening worship service, the outreach is a congregation-wide effort.

Between 40 and 50 members handle such tasks as preparing and serving the food, playing games with the recruits and leading worship music.

A dozen or more members donate the use of their cell phones so the soldiers can call home for the first time since starting basic training nine weeks earlier.

Retired military men like Bruce McGee also have shared their testimony of how they came to Jesus.

Although he made a decision at 17, McGee said that commitment faded when he joined the Army. It took years before a chaplain in Germany pointed him and his wife back to Christ.

“I remind those who made a commitment like I did but weren’t committed they shouldn’t be doing that,” said McGee, a deacon at Stithton Baptist.

“I have seen soldiers come forward with tears in their eyes to accept Christ,” added Norris Shake, a retired sergeant major and Stithton member who still works at Fort Knox. “It is such a blessing to see that happen.”

The church doesn’t baptize any of the converts. Curtis encourages them to be baptized back home so loved ones and friends can participate.

Still, over the past 21 months average attendance at the Radcliff church has increased by about 100 people, prompting the hiring of three new staff members -- for worship, facilities management and the nursery.

“I always believe when you give out, God will bless you,” Curtis said of the growth. “We’re one of the first churches they see when they come off post. We believe we have a stewardship responsibility to the military.”

In addition, Curtis said the ministry has sparked spiritual growth among Stithton’s members.

“We sense we have a mandate to do what we’re doing,” Curtis said. “There’s an excitement about it. This helps people see who we are and what we’ve been called to do.”

A Kentucky native who left 34 years ago after graduating from the University of Louisville, Curtis never expected to return to his home state or do military ministry.

However, when the opportunity to get involved in Operation Appreciation arose, Curtis said he saw why God had led him home: He recalled asking one recruit if he was afraid to die and the young man replied, “Not after tonight, sir.”

“I could see the confidence in his face and I said to myself, ‘This is why we do this,’” Curtis said. “I’ve been entrusted to give a message to some of the finest young men in this country. I know I will be standing between time and eternity for some [of them].”

These appreciation days, which use various names, started 15 years ago with a Methodist church in Louisville, Ky., Ailstock said; half a dozen are sponsored by a variety of denominations for different Fort Knox battalions.

In addition to events at Stithton, the past two summers Ailstock took groups of recruits to Maple Grove Baptist Church near Louisville for a day of outdoor relay races, volleyball, dinner and worship.

Severns Valley Baptist Church of Elizabethtown, Ky., hosted the first Operation Appreciation under Ailstock’s direction.

Although Ailstock recently earned a promotion to brigade chaplain and extended his service for another year, he eventually plans to return to the pastorate somewhere in the region.

Wherever he ends up, though, Ailstock said his participation in Operation Appreciation will have a lasting effect.

“It’s opened my eyes to young people,” the Ohio native said. “For so long we’ve heard that this generation isn’t open to God. But I’ve seen hunger in their eyes, especially at these events.

“It has made a big impact on these guys going through their basic training,” Ailstock said. “Some of them wouldn’t make it without it. It really meets a lot of needs.”


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