'Bringing God to soldiers and soldiers to God'
EDITOR'S NOTE: 2015's Memorial Day is May 25.
COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP) -- Lt. Col. Derrick Riggs, serving in Afghanistan as command chaplain for NATO Special Operations and the Special Forces Joint Task Force, was beginning a series of Bible studies based on Psalm 91, which he calls "David's Fearless Warrior Psalm."
There was a visitor for the first Wednesday study, Jan. 28. "Normally the new guy just sits there and listens," Riggs said, "but not Jason."
The following evening, Riggs received word of an attack at the Special Missions Wing. Three Americans were dead, shot by an Afghan soldier or someone dressed in an Afghan uniform. The chaplain reported for duty and talked to four men who had witnessed the attack. "Three of them were hunkered down in a bunker when the shooting started," Riggs recounted. "The other guy was the one who killed the Afghan that turned on our guys." The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the killings.
Riggs, 44, now on his fifth combat tour in his 18 years of military service, read the list of the three deceased men. Walt Fisher was from North Myrtle Beach, S.C., Matt Fineran was from Summerville, S.C., and Jason Landphair was living in Fayetteville, N.C.
"I felt chilled," Riggs said. "Stunned ... shocked."
The following day he accompanied the three bodies to a C-130 transport for a "hero flight" back to the United States. "In one of those cold metal coffins," Riggs said, "was the body of Jason Landphair, the first-time visitor at the Wednesday night Bible study 48 hours before -- alive, vibrant, smiling, talking, engaging in the discussion of how God can make a person into a fearless warrior.
"Forty-eight hours earlier, I was teaching about the Fearless Warrior. I had no idea that Jason would be living it.
"'Rest in peace' is the standard phrase for funerals and sending off the dead. But for Jason, I said, 'Rest in eternity, my friend, for now you stare directly into the loving eyes and relax in the gentle arms of God. You are the Fearless Warrior.' "
Army chaplain –- a lifelong goal
Even with such occurrences, Riggs is living his dream.
"He always wanted to be an Army chaplain," said his father, retired Col. Dwight Riggs, an Army chaplain himself for 26 years.
The senior Riggs and his wife Kathy are members of First Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., where their son was actively involved before being deployed overseas.
His son graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary in December 1997 and went on active duty as an Army chaplain in January 1998. When he began his chaplaincy work at age 26, Derrick was the youngest chaplain ever to serve, his father said.
"I was deployed three weeks after 9/11," Derrick Riggs said, "which began what has become a ministry of bringing soldiers to God and God to soldiers in garrison and combat."
Landphair, the visitor to Riggs' Bible study in January, is survived by his wife Natasha and two daughters, Sofia, 3, and Wren, 2. Friends have described Natasha as an amazing woman of God. Following her husband's death, she sent Riggs a note that read, "Jason called that night and told me about the Bible study. He was excited and looking forward to going back next week."
"That note brought tears to my eyes," Riggs recounted.
Landphair was described by those who knew him as a man of God who demonstrated the love of Christ and touched everyone around him. "He always loved the military and always had a strong sense of patriotism and duty to God and country," one person said.
Landphair's father described his son as "a devout Christian ... passionate about his faith."
Riggs said that even though Landphair was at Camp Integrity only about two weeks, "the impact his visible relationship with God has had on many of my personnel has been profound."
A graduate of Idaho State University, Landphair joined the Army and was deployed to Iraq where he was wounded by a sniper. But he soon returned to duty after receiving a Purple Heart. After his injury, he trained in the Army Special Forces to become a medic and served three tours in Afghanistan without further injury.
Landphair was trying to help two wounded comrades when he was killed.
"Jason was a Special Forces medic and was responding with aid just like he had been trained to do," Riggs said. "Most people flee at the sound of gunfire. Soldiers run toward it. Medics run to the wounded to protect and take care of them, even though the danger is still present."
Riggs led the second Wednesday Bible study on Psalm 91 with a heavy heart, admitting he was "overcome with emotion. All of us were feeling overwhelmed knowing that one of our group was now standing in the presence of God."
Riggs has continued in his ministry of "bringing God to soldiers and soldiers to God." After three tours in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, he will have been deployed a total of 46 months. After all those deployments and numerous Bible studies in combat areas, he "never really wondered if someone in our group would not return because of death."
"I am ready to come home for a while," Riggs said. He is scheduled to return to the U.S. in June.