May 27, 2005
|A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert
The Rev. Billy M. Whiteside and his wife, Bernice, remember the year he served in Vietnam.
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (UMNS)—In 1961, while the United States was going
through turbulent times, the Rev. Billy M. Whiteside felt called to
serve his country. He signed up for a three-year tour in the Army.
Thirty years later, he retired from a ministry that always made him feel needed.
would not change a single assignment," he says of his years as a United
Methodist chaplain. "Serving soldiers and their families is where real
ministry takes place."
is a gruff, no-nonsense military man. He speaks frankly and
affectionately about what it means to be a chaplain in the military.
He served as a chaplain during the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1968. "I hated Vietnam, but it was my greatest ministry.
was the next thing to hell that you could imagine," he says. "Young
guys gave up their lives for such a useless cause. It was heart
has painful and lingering memories from that year. He once served
communion from a C-ration can using crackers and water. A week later,
three of the young men he had served communion to that day were in the
were three young men with so much to live for, one had shown me a
picture of his little girl, another told me he planned to go to college
after he returned home. I felt such a surge of rage at their deaths."
As he was leaving Vietnam the troops presented him with a communion cup they had made from 20mm rounds.
"They took something deadly and turned it into a symbol of life and forgiveness. I cherish that cup."
Meanwhile, his wife, Bernice, was at home in Charlotte, N.C., in the "waiting wives club."
wasn't like it is now; I couldn't call him," she says. "When he moved, I
didn't know where he was. It might be weeks before I would get a
letter. We had two small children. It was hardest on our oldest son.
"We lost a lot of husbands in that waiting wives club."
oldest son told his father years later he would get up early in the
morning and sneak downstairs to watch TV because on the early morning
news they would print the names of those killed in Vietnam.
"He told me he hoped and prayed my name would not show up," Whiteside says.
The protests of the war back in the United States were also scarring. "It was painful to see the protesting of the war."
remembers a soldier who had just killed someone and had come to talk to
his chaplain. He saw a copy of the latest United Methodist newspaper
lying on Whiteside's desk. The lead story was about supporting those
going to Canada to escape serving in the war.
told me, 'It is terrible when your own church turns against you.' It
was gut wrenching. Anytime a person kills another person, they are never
He says he came back from Vietnam "screwed up."
was filled with rage and doubted God's love—God's love was the last
thing I felt," he says. It was another chaplain who helped him find his
way back to God.
"He listened to me, and I felt understood. It turned my ministry around. Unless you feel understood, you don't feel loved."
served at the disciplinary barrack at Fort Leavenworth from 1976 to
1981. There, he developed a holistic pastoral care program for soldiers
confined to confinement facilities. The program was adopted by several
state and federal confinement facilities.
retiring in 1991, he served as director of pastoral care at Middle
Tennessee Methodist Hospital and developed a marriage and family private
practice. From 2002 until now, he has devoted his time to his private
practice. He is also on call as chaplain at the Veterans Administration
Center, Fort Leavenworth, when needed.
Whiteside says he knows it is difficult for some people to see military chaplaincy as a ministry. "There are no church walls."
He treasures the fellowship of other chaplains and says it is nothing like ministry in civilian life.
"We support and take care of each other. It is a great life."
a hint of a smile, his parting words were a reflection on what he has
seen during his service in the military. "If I die and end up in hell, I
will probably look around and say 'Hey, this is pretty nice.'"
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.