Military chaplain plays historic role; comforts families
"I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and prayed for them before they departed," Lee said. "The mood was both excitement and solemn."
A few hours later, that same plane returned to the base with 55 small wooden coffins draped in the flag of the United Nations containing the remains of U.S. soldiers. Again, Lee boarded the plane to pray.
"When I knelt down and touched the boxes, there was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude because the mission went well, and we were finally going to be able to fulfill our vow to these soldiers that we will never leave a fallen comrade behind."
After a few days of initial analysis and identification efforts, Lee helped lead a repatriation ceremony for the remains before they were placed on U.S. aircraft and transported to Hawaii for further DNA analysis and identification.
"It was a very moving ceremony," Lee said. "I began with an invocation and then representatives of the nations that fought alongside the United States in the Korean War came and paid respects to the fallen."
Lee said the historic nature of the event was not lost on anyone present.
"From privates to generals, we were all grateful for the opportunity to participate in this."
Bugles played taps and the national anthems of the United States and South Korea.
"I wore my stole for the ceremony when we received the remains at the air base," Lee said. "Normally at funerals I wear it with the black side out. But I decided to wear the white side out because it symbolizes peace. To me it was also a symbol to our other fallen comrades that we will not leave them alone, and they will be remembered."
Doug Carver, executive director of North American Mission Board's chaplaincy team, said Lee and military chaplains like him, play a key role in helping the families of fallen soldiers find closure.
"Like all military chaplains, Sam had the solemn and noble responsibility of honoring our fallen service members," Carver said. "I'm certain his prayers over our troops killed in action during the Korean War helped bring a much-needed closure to the families of the fallen as well as rendering the highest respect from the American people and Southern Baptists." Carver retired as a two-star Major General from the Army after serving as Chief of Chaplains from 2007 to 2011.
Lee was born in South Korea and came to the United States at age 19 to attend college.
"I was born into a Christian family, so I thought I was a Christian," Lee said. "But one night at a small, nearby Southern Baptist church, I came under conviction from the Holy Spirit. I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't control it."
The next day he met with the pastor and accepted Jesus.
"That's why I still have a love for Southern Baptists to this day," Lee said.
Lee went on to earn a master's degree in Christian education from Dallas Theological Seminary and a master of divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. While serving as an Army chaplain, he completed a third master's degree in national security strategy from National Defense University, Fort McNeil, Washington D.C.
Lee began his military service in 1991 and transitioned to the chaplaincy ministry in 1995. He has seen a lot in that time and ministered in tough situations. During a deployment in Iraq, his unit lost 34 soldiers. Lee was also assigned to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., where soldiers with the worst war injuries come for treatment and recovery.
"Those experiences made me understand just how brutal war is and how fragile our bodies can be," Lee said. "But it also made me grateful to live in a country where we value each individual's life so highly."
Lee previously served in South Korea from 2012 to 2014. His latest assignment there began in April of this year.
As command chaplain for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), Lee supervises all U.S. military chaplains serving in South Korea as well as those serving under the Combined Forces Command (the combined U.S.-South Korea forces) and United Nations Command, the United Nations entity that oversees the Korean Armistice agreement that was signed in 1953.
The Korean War occurred between June 25, 1950 and July 27, 1953. After a series of border skirmishes, North Korean troops, backed by China and the USSR, invaded the South in the name of unifying the country. The United Nations responded by sending a multi-national military force to repel North Korea. More than 36,000 U.S. troops died in the war and more than 7,700 are still unaccounted for. The remains of U.S. soldiers were returned by North Korea in July on the 65th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement between the North Korean government and the United Nations.
More than 1,600 Southern Baptist chaplains serve the U.S. military. The North American Mission Board endorses those chaplains on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention.