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Chaplain gets short break to visit with family

12/1/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Feature By Kathy L. Gilbert*

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United Methodist Chaplain Jay West shares pictures from his deployment in Iraq with his wife Pam during a two-week visit home to Clarksville, Tenn. West is among more than 20,000 “Screaming Eagles” from the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell who have been in Iraq since February. The most recent news they have received is they will be back home next February or March. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number 03-497, Accompanies UMNS #577, 12/1/03


LINK: Click to open full size version of image
United Methodist Chaplain Jay West pays a brief visit to his daughter Sami’s classroom in Clarksville, Tenn., during a two-week break from deployment in Iraq. At left is West’s son Zachary. West is among more than 20,000 “Screaming Eagles” from the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell who have been in Iraq since February. The most recent news they have received is they will be back home next February or March. A UMNS photo by Pam West. Photo number 03-498, Accompanies UMNS #577, 12/1/03


LINK: Click to open full size version of image
United Methodist Chaplain Jay West is welcomed home to Clarksville, Tenn., for a two-week break from deployment in Iraq by his children Zachary (left) and Sami. West is among more than 20,000 “Screaming Eagles” from the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell who have been in Iraq since February. The most recent news they have received is they will be back home next February or March. A UMNS photo by Pam West. Photo number 03-499, Accompanies UMNS #577, 12/1/03
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - Talk to the Rev. Jay West for a few moments and you realize he has had a reality shift.

Sitting at home on his comfortable blue sofa is strange. Being in Mosul, Iraq, in a cinderblock room is normal.

West, a United Methodist chaplain, was one of the few Fort Campbell soldiers granted a two-week "vacation" from Operation Iraqi Freedom. Back home with his family Nov. 14-29, he has had to adjust to a quiet life, to nights without mortar fire or rockets.

"Every day (in Iraq) when you wake up, you know at some point during that day your life might be on the line," he says. "It almost becomes addictive." Life at home seems boring in comparison.

In his short time home, West and his wife, Pam, have already noticed signs that he has changed. Pam says he is uncomfortable in crowds and is always scanning his surroundings.

At one point, he woke from a nap and couldn't figure out how his wife had made it to Iraq.

The signs of impatience he has noticed in himself make him aware of how his soldiers will feel when they come home.

"For some, the little things, like not being able to find your socks, will become big problems," he says. "I am worried about how to help them when this is over."

Pam sits quietly next to her husband listening to his stories. Her eyes never leave his face. She says she has been advised to just listen and not ask too many questions.

"Little by little he tells me more, but he says there are some things he will never be able to tell me," she says.

More than 20,000 "Screaming Eagles" from the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell have been in Iraq since February. The most recent news they have received is they will be back home next February or March.

President George Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq in May. However, daily causalities tell the story of the dangers still faced by soldiers. To date, more than 50 from Fort Campbell have lost their lives.

Nothing can be taken for granted; things as simple as seeing dead animals on the side of the road could represent danger, West says. "You see a dead dog and you know it might be stuffed with explosives."

Soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division have refurbished more than 800 schools in Iraq. West says they work hard to let the Iraqi people know they are there as liberators, not conquerors.

He recalls a conversation he had with an imam, a Muslim religious leader, who told him, "You come to our country with your helmets, dark glasses and vests, and we are afraid. Then we sit down and talk and we realize we are the same - just men."

Americans will never fully realize the amount of control that deposed dictator Saddam Hussein had over the Iraqi people, West says.

"One man told me that Saddam 'could take the very air from in front of my face if he wanted to.'"

Thousands of pounds of ammunition have been found stored in mosques, schools and hospitals because those places are non-targets by the military, West says.

"I don't know how else to describe it but as pure evil," he says. "Kids are trying to go to school over piles of ammunition."

West is part of the 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery, and he says his commanders have made the office of the chaplain a critical part of the leadership team. "It is a tremendous blessing."

He is chaplain to more than 400 soldiers, and his congregation reaches from the Syrian to the Turkish borders.

"In the desert, chapel is where you make it," he says. "Chapel might be on the hood of a Humvee or in plastic chairs under a camouflage net.

"A lot of the things we think matter, really don't," he says. "In the midst of being so blessed, we forget the fundamentals of our faith."

It is Pam who points out West has received the Bronze Star for his service. The medal and certificate are tucked away in a bookcase. Says her husband: "I'm just doing my job."

The Army awards the Bronze Star Medal to anyone who, while serving in any capacity, distinguishes himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service.

Being a chaplain in the military is a great ministry, West says. A mentor, Chaplain Terry Bradfield, once told him something he has never forgotten.

"Terry said if people knew how much fun it was to be a chaplain they would be lining up to join."

There is no substitute for being in ministry with your people 24 hours a day, West says.

"Most folks in the United Methodist Church will never fully realize or appreciate the ministry they do by equipping, endorsing and sending us (as chaplains)."

In a combat zone, if someone takes the time out to come to chapel and hear the Word of the Lord, you know they are there because they want to be there, he says.

"It is not like Sunday morning in a local church, where folk show up because they have nothing else to do.

"Serving soldiers is a holy vocation," he says. "I am having the time of my life."

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*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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