In Honduras, chaplains find unique ways to serve
SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras (BP)--While scores of Southern Baptist military chaplains minister to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, others are serving faithfully in other hot spots, often in isolated regions.
In the mountainous heart of Honduras, for example, where the four military branches work together in drug interdiction, Chaplain (Maj.) Dan Thompson and Chaplain (Capt.) Paul Cartmill serve some 500 soldiers who are part of Joint Task Force-Bravo located at Soto Cano Air Base near Comayagua.
Even though enemy fire may not be as prevalent as in the war on terrorism in the Middle East, the troops in Honduras are on the front lines of efforts to stem the rising tide of illicit drugs entering the United States -- tantamount to another attack against the U.S., but much closer to home.
Thompson, 38, has served as a chaplain since 1996, first in the Navy and now in the Air Force. His military service began as an enlisted Marine. He's halfway through a six-month deployment to Honduras from Germany, where he's stationed and where his wife Erica and their three children are now based.
"Even though we don't have bullets flying over our heads, it's still important to make worship services and Bible study available to our military," Thompson said. "My vision is to enrich the spiritual fitness of Joint Task Force-Bravo, providing opportunities for our people to come to worship and study the Bible -- just as they could outside the military."
Many of the soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines in Honduras are veterans of one or more tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Although still on active duty, Soto Cano Air Base is a place where they can unwind and decompress from the rigors, tough conditions, bad memories and dangers of the Middle East war zones.
"There's still a lot of hardship.... It's still hard to deal with the counseling load," Thompson said. "The men and women still have a lot of spiritual needs ... facing post-traumatic stress syndrome from Iraq and Afghanistan."
Thompson and Cartmill preach, teach and counsel as well as baptize new believers in the base swimming pool.
And they extend their faith to remote Honduran villagers.
Thompson and 120 other Joint Task Force-Bravo personnel spent a Saturday in June strapping on 40-pound backpacks of food and school supplies to hike two miles up the mountains where so many poor Hondurans live in isolated villages.
The troops -- males and females dressed in civilian hiking clothes -- hiked up to the tiny village of El Paraiso (means "paradise") with 160 backpacks of food, with some of the soldiers carrying three or four backpacks.
The backpacks contained dry food items such as beans, rice and other staples for about 800 meals, Thompson said.
"These people have nothing and are truly starving," said Thompson, who had already scouted out the village and talked to village leaders in advance to determine how much food would be needed and which families needed it most.
Supported by chaplain assistant Brandon Jones and his Honduran-born secretary and interpreter, Maria Santos, Thompson's group used El Paraiso's local chapel as the food distribution site, attracting lines of grateful villagers.
"I can't describe how beautiful it was on the top of this mountain in El Paraiso," Thompson recalled. "It is a paradise ... untouched, green and lush.
"While most of us didn't speak Spanish, Maria translated for us. But the language of love can communicate across cultural barriers," Thompson said, mentioning that El Paraiso is only one of 20 villages they hike to several times a year to deliver food and school supplies.
The El Paraiso hiking team was the largest group yet for the bi-monthly chapel hike, Thompson said. "It was also the largest amount of money we've ever raised for a hike and the most families we've ever been able to provide for." All ranks from Joint Task Force-Bravo chipped in nearly $1,700 for the food. A portion of the money also was spent on school supplies and two piñatas for the village's children.
"I'm told that the children are not permitted to go to school unless they have their school supplies," Thompson said. "If the kids can't go to school, that means the parents can't go to work, so it's critical that we help them." Most of the parents subsist on meager incomes from area coffee plantations.
Thompson is a native of DeLand, Fla., and Florida State graduate who hold a master's degree and doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
His fellow chaplain in Honduras, Capt. Paul Cartmill, missed the recent hike because he was attending the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Phoenix, where he was commissioned by NAMB as a new chaplain.
"It's through the faithful prayer support and encouragement we get from Southern Baptists and the North American Mission Board that inspires us to move forward," Thompson said. "It's the little things -- like getting emails on our birthdays -- that really matter."
Representing the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board has more than more than 1,300 endorsed SBC chaplains in the military, which requires that all of its chaplains be endorsed and qualified by a recognized denomination. In all, 3,400 NAMB-commissioned and endorsed chaplains are ministering in the military, healthcare institutions, corporations and in public safety.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.