When the Call Comes

Chaplain responds to worst US Naval Disaster since USS Cole

By Chaplain Jonathan Stephens, USS Fitzgerald, as told to Andy Meverden

“The first time I stepped foot on a ship, (one of my recently assigned ships) the USS Fitzgerald, DDG-62, I was lowered by hoist from a helicopter. We could not land, as the ship was listing at 5 degrees.  I was one of four people sent to the damaged vessel, along with the Deputy Commodore, Damage Control Chief, and a Medical Doctor.  300 Sailors were fighting to keep the guided missile destroyer afloat.  For the 15-hour ride back, I did non-stop counseling.  The first thing I did was conduct a ‘spiritual triage.’ I spoke with those in or near the damaged area, those who closed the hatch to the flooding compartment, and then those who were standing watch when it happened. Later, I asked the command, ‘Who do you want me to see?’  A bow to stern head-count revealed seven Sailors missing. “

The collision with ACX Crystal, a larger Philippine container ship, occurred on June 17th, about 56 nautical miles (64 miles) southwest of the USS Fitzgerald’s homeport of Yokosuka, Japan. Chaplain Stephens, continued: “When the ship finally made it back to port, the community had rallied at the pier.  Families provided food for the famished crew, and additional chaplains and counsellors stood by.  It was a base-wide response.”  Jonathan took a long breath.  “Family members of the missing crew members were frantic.  Divers went down into the flooded area, and found seven Sailors drowned in the berthing area.”

The next morning, Chaplain Stephens showed up in his dress blues for casualty operations ministry duties to formally notify and console grieving family members.  “The next ten days were a blur.  How do you explain the unexplainable to loved ones whose whole world has changed?  It’s not normal. So much damage was done; to the ship, the crew, and most significantly, to the Families of those who perished.  Everyone worked together; the base chaplains, casualty teams, the command, family support; all the while we were grieving, together.”  When I asked about the dignified transfer of remains back to the Sailors’ home towns, he said, “The Air Force team as Yakota Air Base handled the sendoff.  Air Force chaplains conducted the Dignified Transfer of the flag-draped coffins on the ‘Angel Flight’ cargo plane.  They did a great job supporting us.”

I then asked Jonathan about the local memorial service for the seven lost Sailors: “We had great command support for the base-wide service; from the Commodore and Senior Chaplain down. The Navy flew the Families out.  Five of seven Sailors’ Families came, along with Admirals from one to four stars.  The news media was kept out of the service, with only the Armed Forces Network allowed to cover and film the solemn event.  I thought for sure the command would have the senior command chaplain officiate the service, but Commander David Cline, senior chaplain, put me up front.  He and other base chaplains provided all the backup and support of this major event for over 750 people.”

His words were aired at the Washington, D.C. Memorial Service and provided healing and comfort to Sailors, Families, and the Nation. His message at the Memorial Service focused on the act of giving displayed by the seven Sailors.  He said, “So much has been given…But I want to say, for those of us grieving…at the end of the day, what’s given to us is not what is going to heal us.  True healing doesn’t come from what we receive; true healing comes from what we choose to give for others.”

When I asked Jonathan how he felt undertaking this difficult ceremony, he replied, “Lord!  I felt so honored to play a role in the work He’s doing during this great tragedy.”

Now a few weeks after the fact, I asked Jonathan how he and his young Family were doing? “Well, we weren’t even settled in quarters when the tragedy occurred. I had to leave Melissa and six-month old Louisa to fly to the ship.  Fortunately, we had just acquired a car, so I loaded as much of our baggage into it before I took off, ‘Go-bag’ in hand.  That next day, Melissa had to handle the arrival of our household goods, plus care for our baby.  I remember the last thing she said to me, as I left, ‘Tell me what to pray for.’  We have a saying in the Navy, ‘The whole Family serves!’  Because of her faith and commitment to my ministry, I could fully engage in my duties without worry, or concern.  She is a role model for military spouses in the time of intense crisis.”

Jonathan continued, “As for me, I have no routine yet. It was truly a “baptism by fire” at this new assignment.  This major tragedy has gone on for six weeks.  It’s been tough; no time to establish local community connections, a real struggle.”

When I asked Jonathan how people in our churches could pray, he gave me this list:

  1. Praise and gratitude to God. It was incredible to see what God has done in and through this tragedy. I didn’t lose sleep throughout the whole event!
  2. Going forward: for fellowship in the local base community – that support network we all need.
  3. I was so busy for so many weeks, I got off balance. I am working to get back into reading the Bible for myself. We all need that daily quiet time/devotions.
  4. To quote a friend, ‘The chaplain needs to fill up always and not just pour out.’

I was glad to finally get a call from Chaplain Stephens from Japan. I took notes as fast as I could, so I could share his experience with you our faithful supporters of chaplaincy.  I urge you to lift Jonathan, Melissa, and baby Louisa to God in your prayers.  As you do that, remember the other 189 chaplains serving across the 54 United States, Territories, Commonwealth and the District of Columbia, AND spread around the globe in combat zones, sailing hostile waters, and often flying in dangerous skies.

For more stories describing the ministries of CBAmerica chaplains, go to www.cbamerica.org/chaplaincy.  If interested in learning what it takes to be endorsed for chaplaincy ministry, contact Andy Meverden, Director of Chaplaincy at chapandy@cbamerica.org.

Renewing the Shield of Faith

A Law Enforcement Chaplain’s Ministry Story

By Rev. Wylie W. Johnson, Pastor and Law Enforcement Chaplain

 

In Delaware County Pennsylvania, there are 43 distinct Police Departments, many of which are quite small. Even the larger departments are small by city standards. Each department is stove-piped in policies, promotions, retirements, etc. Competition and isolation are the inevitable results of this structure. Cops are also a very close-knit, clannish group. It’s hard to break in and to find acceptance. When an officer retires, regardless of rank, the isolation can become almost unbearable.

The Law Enforcement Chaplains of Delaware County (LECDC) work cooperatively and collegially to meet the spiritual needs of officers. Until this past year, I’ve been the LECDC Vice-president. We are especially cognizant of the issue of police suicides, among both active and retired officers. Sadly, in the past few years we have seen several officer suicides. In 2012, I had the privilege of instructing (16 hours) our chaplains in the Applied Suicide Interventions Skills Training (ASIST). I’ve also made suicide intervention presentation to officers from across the county.

Recently I’ve had the privilege to minister to John, a medically retired Philadelphia city cop who just lost his wife. John was despondent, and sought counseling from a licensed counselor in a neighboring township. The counselor asked if I could help. Although John had only served six years before his injury, and that had been more than 25 years in the past, he still self-identified as a cop. It is a truth that cops always wear the shield in their hearts, even if they’ve been off the force for years. When I called John, he seemed interested, and I made arrangements for him to come to the monthly POOP (Police Officers On Pension – P.O.O.P.).  luncheon. We prayed over the phone, and agreed to connect with each other.

These luncheons are usually attended by 30 – 50 retired officers, sheriffs and chiefs. For most of the men and women attending, it is a high point of their month. We chaplains bring a strong spiritual emphasis to these meetings with care for the sick, and bereavement arrangements. We also offer a hearty blessing on the lunch we’ve come to share. I share POOP duties with another CBAA pastor, Perry Messick; and Bob Kilmer, a local evangelical pastor. John was immediately welcomed and made some new friends. Here was a group where John could feel accepted. Retirees find commonality in their years of service, and their personal need to connect with others. Part of communicating the Gospel is the simple caring for each other, and John found this among retired officers who were fast becoming new friends in his old age. Our ministry of presence yields fruit because we are often the only pastors these officers know.

Rev. Wylie W. Johnson (pictured left, with Rev. Buccialia) was ordained by the CBAA of NJ in 1982. He has been the Law Enforcement Chaplain in Springfield Township PA since 2010. Additionally, he is the Chaplain for the Delaware County Chiefs of Police (since April 2013); and co-chaplains the local LE retiree group (Police Officers On Pension – P.O.O.P.). Previously, he served nearly 26 years as a CBAA chaplain in the US Army; and for the past 20 years has been the Pastor of the Springfield Baptist Church, Springfield PA.

 

Across our Nation, pastors and churches are reaching out to Law Enforcement and Firefighters. These brave men and women appreciate the respect and support of God’s people in their dangerous, daily duties.  Many CB pastors are volunteering as LE/First Responder chaplains in their communities.  Chaplain Johnson is open to contact [pastor@springfieldbaptist.net] from other pastors interested in learning more about LE/Firefighter (and retired) ministry.

 

For other stories and reports of CBAmerica chaplains, go to www.cbamerica.org/chaplaincy. Those interested in learning about endorsement may contact Andy Meverden, Director of Chaplaincy at chapandy@cbamerica.org.

Diving Deep in a Desperate World

Navy Chaplain Deals with Suicide

By Chaplain Darin Dunham, US Navy, with Andy Meverden

 When I don’t hear from a chaplain, I don’t panic, but I do pray for them, as it’s likely that something significant is going on.  Such was the case with Chaplain Darin Dunham, US Navy, assigned to a submarine base.  Rather than paraphrase what transpired, Darin gave me permission to discreetly share his communication.  Darin recently wrote:

9 July, 2017

“Good Morning Andy,

Been crazy here, I just transitioned down to the “waterfront” to my new assignment on a Submarine Base. Now instead of supporting schools and training for new submariners, I am supporting the boats themselves.  Already love the people I work with, and is closer to my heart strings than my last assignment.  God is clearly planning my steps in front of me.

But I did want to write to you special, as we just had another suicide on-board a US submarine (Like the one pictured above) two days ago. I was down with the boat at 3am as soon as I heard, talking to the watchstanders, and pretty much stayed with the boat all throughout the day.  The following day I spent at a hospital about an hour away when his family arrived.  He was still alive but brain dead.  They waited till 11pm when the last family member arrived and then took him off life support and he passed.  Family were not believers, but I did have an opportunity to bond with them during the day and, at the moment of passing, they asked me to pray.  The crew is getting a lot of attention as they called in Critical Incident Teams including my Force Chaplain from Norfolk, but they have left now.  I am preparing for memorial service on Monday which has been a challenge because I am not completely unpacked and looking for my notes and references.  They hurriedly scheduled a memorial service, but it is necessary for operational requirements.  Family members likely to be present last I heard.

Tragic circumstances; but ministry is as rich as it can possibly get. I’m running on fumes but good as I know it’s just a short season and time to decompress will be available.

Asking for your prayers for boat and for myself, that God would be manifest in many ways and touch hearts. Darin”

 

Darin explained that he had yet to fully set up his office and didn’t have access to his files; so he asked me if I had any resources handy to send in preparation for the unit memorial. Fortunately, I have a full file, so I sent him back some outlines, readings, etc.  Next came his reply:

 

11 July 2017
“Andy,

Thank you so much for the funeral reference material and prayers.  Good stuff!!  With your permission, I will file these for future reference.  The service was planned so quick, too quick, that I couldn’t really look at it till after the memorial service.  We had the service yesterday, three days after he passed with 14 family members in attendance.  It adds an extra dynamic when family is present; as I am trying to address the crew and their grief but must focus on family if they come; but it went well.  Family were not believers.  The Sailor was on watch right after the 4th of July and went topside by the ship sail and used his service weapon to take his life.  I remained on board the rest of the day, and attended the all-hands meeting when the Commanding Officer broke the news to the rest of the crew.

I crashed later that afternoon, as I was up since 2 am, but my other chaplain went to the hospital later that night to meet mom and some family. Service member was on life support, but it was doubtful his mind was functioning.  The next day I went back to the boat early, and then met with liaison to begin preliminary service planning as outcome was already known.  Later I drove to the hospital and was with the family from 2pm – 11pm when the last brother came in from out of town.  At that time, they removed him from life-support and he passed.  During that time, I bonded with the family, offered prayers, and ministry of presence.  At the time of death, they asked me to offer a final prayer, which was a little surprising as they clearly were not religious.  Grief counseling has been hot and heavy with members of the boat; still got phone calls last night.  Boat is heading out shortly which is why some elements of the service were so rushed.  I was looking for an opportunity to ride with them but they have an imbedded mental health specialist going out.

That is sort of been a private frustration. The chain-of-command has been pushing the psychologist engagement, but the chaplains were there first and longest on the boat, and have the best rapport with the crew.  We were the ones stepping over gore to get to the mess decks at 2am when no psychologist was to be seen.  We were the ones that were spending 8 hours with family till time of death and ones following up but the focus now is “how can we get the mental health folks out there.”  On one hand, I get it; that is the DOD first line of defense to unplanned losses due to suicide, but you and I both know the power of the chaplain (influence) remains unprecedented.  Nothing replaces being and walking with your people where they are and in what they are going through, “getting dirty” with them.

It’s all good. I’m a little emotionally fatigued but the heavy stuff is over and things are balancing out a little more every day.  A pat on the back from my superiors would have been nice, but, they are focused on lessons learned and deficiencies right now and they are not looking at the chaplain’s role.  The boat’s Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer (XO), and Chief of the Board (COB) are deeply appreciative.  The CO even asked me to help with notes for his address to the crew at the memorial which I was happy to do.  At the fellowship following the service the CO’s wife found me and told me the CO appreciated so much all that the chaplains had done, and that was when I realized the depth of his anxiety and stress which he wasn’t showing.  That was a good and encouraging moment.

And I thank you for your prayers and encouragement.”

 

One final exchange with Darin shows a glimmer of hope regarding that which matters most:

 

July 12, 2017

“Hi Andy,

I have no issues sharing the saga. I understand the value of sharing with those that cover us in prayer and support.  I also have trust in you to cobble a report together, if you would be so kind.  You have “been there and done that.”  I could eventually get to it but I think it might be later than what’s ideal, as I am heading out to the boat again today.  They may or may not be underway sometime soon.

It has been a revolving door of sailors coming to talk, there are two categories. Some are young enough (20, 21) that this is their first up-close-and-personal encounter with death, and it’s scary.  The second group are those that have faced trauma in the past (someone they knew committed suicide etc.) and this incident is a trigger.  Yesterday I had one young man who was a believer and grew up in a God-fearing home, but had drifted.  He was shaken and we talked over two days, he’s revitalized his faith and is making efforts to get back on track.  He may even be a future lay leader for me in time.

Here is the “fun” part; Mental Health Lieutenant called me last night asking for advice!! It’s his first rodeo and he’s going out with them.  Based off what I shared above, I found the irony thick.

Only one real hot personality sailor issue, doesn’t want to go out, but he will. I’m worried a little, not a mature individual and was volatile the other morning with his senior enlisted supervisor.  Grief kicking in and filters gone.

Selfishly, although I volunteered to ride, I am glad underway is coming up as it has been non-stop. I’ll catch my breath and re-engage when they return, which won’t be overly long.

Darin”

 

Director of Chaplaincy, Andy Meverden concludes:

Our military chaplains (as do all our chaplains), are literally fighting for the souls (and the very lives) of our men and women in uniform every day. Darin’s recent experience underscore’s the inestimable value of prayer for the ministries of our chaplains.  Incidents like this are tragic and stretch our chaplains to the max.  Your prayers on their behalf unleash the power of Heaven in this ongoing spiritual battle.

Keep Chaplain Dunham and his Submarine Sailors in your prayers. One has already rededicated his life to Christ.  Others still need to find their solace and strength in Him…up to and including the CO, XO, and COB! (Do you remember who these acronyms represent?)

A special thank you to those who support CBAmerica Chaplaincy with your prayers, notes of encouragement, Care Package, and financial support. Frankly, we couldn’t do it without you.

For more stories of “God stories” of our 190 CBAmerica chaplains, see www.cbamerica.org/chaplaincy.  For information on what it takes to be endorsed for ministry in chaplaincy, contact our director, Andy Meverden at chapandy@cbamerica.org

Veterans Win Post-War Battles

VA Chaplain Engages in Ultimate Combat

By Chaplain Gary Cowden with Andy Meverden

Gary Cowden is the Chief Chaplain at the Puget Sound VA Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. In addition to his supervisory duties, he focuses on some of those experiencing the greatest battles; PTSD, moral injury, and spiritual oppression.  In his recent ministry report he described two of his greatest blessings: one with a young Vet, one from the Vietnam Era.

  • “Helping a young Vet achieve deliverance from demonic oppression; facilitating groups on PTSD and moral injury that has resulted in some real spiritual growth.”

Did you catch that simple reference to extreme spiritual warfare? Some things can’t be described in detail, and Gary is not one to sensationalize. He does battle, assesses the progress, and gets back onto the battlefield. Some battles wage long and hard, like below.

  • “One of my Veteran patients involved in PTSD work lost his struggle with cancer and went home to be with the Lord suddenly a couple of weeks ago. He had come to me with deep anger and PTSD symptoms; a Vietnam Marine who returned with all the classic symptoms. He felt that God could never forgive him or be near him. Over the months, we worked together. He began attending our chapel services every Sunday and grew in his knowledge of the grace and mercy of God. Initially thinking he was unredeemable, he developed a loving trust in the Savior, and finally came to forgive himself. The last year of his life was a peaceful one spiritually, even as his body was being destroyed by cancer. He was a lovely man, and will be deeply missed. I look forward to the day we will be united as eternal friends in Glory.”

Chaplain Cowden, like many of our CBAmerica chaplains, do battle daily for the souls of men and women who serve or have served in our nation’s Armed Forces. Some wounds, like lost limbs and telltale scars, are obviously traumatic; others are invisible.  The horrors of war often produce injuries to the mind, soul, and spirit. These are equally traumatic.  The providers of healing of moral and spiritual injury must be skilled pastoral counselors who can treat matters of the heart, soul, and spirit.

Thank you to those who pray for our chaplains. This report is testament to God hearing and answering your prayers for spiritual wisdom, courage, and power.  It reminds us that “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4 NKJV)

For more stories of God working in and through CBAmerica chaplains, go to www.cbamerica.org/chaplaincy.