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Chaplain will follow 'his soldiers' into war

2/28/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.

A UMNS Feature By Kathy L. Gilbert* By Kathy L. Gilbert*

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (UMNS) - Being prepared to die thousands of miles away from home is part of his job description.

He will walk into danger's way without a weapon because that is where his congregation is going.

Chaplain Capt. Ernest P. Jay West is the perfect blend of soldier and United Methodist pastor.

He loves Jesus Christ, his family and "his" soldiers.

"I love what I do," he says, smiling. "I work with soldiers from literally the rainbow of God's creation. Ethnically, economically, politically, theologically - you name it. It is so much fun."

His congregation is made up of the men and women and families of the 2nd Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). He is one of 42 chaplains - including three United Methodists - serving at Fort Campbell.

West is with his flock on the firing range, in the motor pool and in the barracks. He has literally walked a mile in their boots.

In the early morning rain, freezing sleet and snow, or torturing heat, he has been there doing the jumping jacks, flutter kicks, push-ups, sit-ups and any other form of exercise the Army deems necessary.

He is a recent graduate of Fort Campbell's Air Assault School, where he learned all about aircraft safety, combat assault operations, how to hook up a load underneath a CH-47 helicopter and other technical points that are vital during a war. He has also rappelled from a 34-foot tower and knows how to rappel from a Blackhawk helicopter. In order to pass, he had to complete a 12-mile road march with full equipment in less than three hours.

When the bullets are flying and the bombs are dropping, he will be there making sure his soldiers know God is there too.

Shaking his head, he recalls a recent conversation with a young man who couldn't believe he would be going into battle without a weapon.

"He said to me, 'You have to be a little crazy, don't you chaplain?'" West recalls. The chaplain laughed, and used the moment to talk about his faith, which is his shield.

Making the rounds

On a recent cold and rainy Friday morning, West walked into the cinder-block barracks where his congregation lives.

Young men and women, many of them teen-agers, mill around the hallways, get candy from the vending machines, make plans for lunch and talk to each other about weekend plans. It could be a college dorm except they are all dressed alike - and they are carrying rifles instead of books.

As West makes his way through the crowd, shaking hands, laughing at jokes, he is watching for anyone who might need a friend.

Sitting quietly in a corner is a young man with a look of despair on his face. Soldiers are passing him without a thought. West stops.

"Is everything OK?" he asks. The young man hangs his head and softly says, "No."

After spending some time with the young soldier, West learns what is bothering him. The soldier has only been married for five weeks, and he needs some time off to help his young bride get a driver's license. It is just one more stressor on top of everything else.

"God, give this soldier strength for what he has to do," the chaplain prays. Then he goes to speak to the chain of command to get the young man a few hours off to take care of his personal business.

"Soldiers have a right look and a wrong look," West says. He has learned when to intervene to remind the Army that there are times when a person's spiritual needs are just as important as the training.

"I am not critical of the commanders; they have a job to do," he says. "It is their job to take these soldiers out and bring them all back home."

At Fort Campbell, the 101st Airborne Division is on 36-hour worldwide response. The training level is high.

"I am a voice of justice for the enlisted," West says.

Laughing, he says he reminds his soldiers: "I am the only guy here that gets paid to like you."

It is the chaplain's responsibility to make sure the soldiers are emotionally and spiritually ready to go to war. "The chaplain focuses on the human side of things," he explains.

"It truly amazes me that in a day and time when there is so much talk about separation between church and state that I get the privilege to go serve God with these soldiers," he says. "It just amazes me. This is one of the things the United Methodist Church is doing right."

Marriage renewal ceremony

This Friday at noon, West has scheduled a "Reaffirmation of the Marriage Covenant" from the United Methodist Book of Worship. His wife Pam has joined him to participate in the ceremony. Two other couples have come as well.

Sgt. Jonathan and Mary Fleenor have brought their 16-month old son, Logan, to the ceremony. Capt. Erick and Lisa Segarra sit quietly together in a pew talking about the daughter they soon have. Every once in a while Lisa grabs his hand and places it on her abdomen so he can feel the baby kicking.

West reads 1 Corinthians 13, known as the "Love Chapter."

From verses 4-7, he reads: "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

All the couples know they will soon be separated for an undetermined amount of time. That knowledge adds an extra poignancy to the ceremony.

"On the verge of deployment, we are all counting the days. Soon three of us will have to go," West says.

Anyone spending time with West comes to know how important Pam and his two children, Zachary and Samantha, are to him.

"Pam has been my bride for 16 years," he says before the ceremony begins.

Love of family

Another thing West has in common with his soldiers is that soon he will be leaving his family behind also.

The entire West family feels called to this ministry. Even 6-year-old Sam, who does not fully understand what it all means, recently surprised her family by praying, "God, we thank you for the Army."

West has only been at Fort Campbell since August. He graduated from the U.S. Army Chaplain Center in Fort Jackson, S.C., last summer.

He is an ordained elder from the West Virginia Annual Conference and he served in his state's National Guard from 1987 to 1992. He was serving as pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Keyser, W.Va., before joining the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.

"Ever since Sept. 11, I knew God was really calling Jay in a different direction," Pam says. "I really fought it at first," she admits, smiling. But she is at peace with the choice and says she likes it better than being a local pastor's wife.

"There is a lot of support," she says, ticking off some of the groups she belongs to: a coffee group of chaplain's spouses, a weekly Bible study group, and part of a bowling league. "The Army offers a lot of different options," she says.

As a pastor's wife, she says she almost felt like an associate pastor herself. "He was always off to meetings and I was the link to him." Now he is just another guy in BDUs (battle dress utilities) she says, laughing.

That change is especially nice for 13-year-old Zachary who isn't known as "the preacher's kid" but just another child of a military family.

Pam is learning the ins and outs of military life. She says the Army does a good job of preparing families for deployment. However, she and Zachary heard the news about the 101st deployment on the radio. "I told Jay about it," she says, laughing.

Jay and Pam agree being in the Army has helped their relationship.

"When you are on 36-hour notice for deployment, you keep your life in order," West says. "We have learned not to take each other for granted. If you have a fight, you work it out right away because you might not be given another opportunity."

"One of the things I have learned is that in a military environment no one has the luxury of being an 'insider' or an 'outsider.' In one sense we are all outsiders, so we just make everybody insiders. It has just been wonderful," West says.

Often in a local parish, no matter how close you may get to the people in the pews, you are still the pastor, West says.

"The walls never get totally broken down. In the Army, you can't afford to keep anyone at arm's length."

"In a sense, we are more at peace here than in the local church," Pam says. "We have a true sense that we are where God wants us to be."

Representing the holy

"By no stretch of the imagination do I or my soldiers want to go to war," West says. "It is a hard thing to be with these soldiers day in and day out, then knowing I have to release them to God's care."

West and the rest of his soldiers work long days. His day starts at 4 a.m. and often doesn't end until 10 or 11 p.m. He has to hear about the harsh realities of Army life along with the troops. Tips like: Don't take personal pictures of your family to war; they could be used as tools for torture if you are captured. Many troops will not go into war wearing their wedding rings for the same reason.

"We fully expect we will be hit with gas," he adds.

West will minister to people from a wide range of religious beliefs. Represented in his congregation are Jewish, Islamic, Catholic and Protestant faiths. He will perform or provide any religious guidance they need.

Packed in his gear will be The Unit Ministry Team Handbook. The small spiral book, among other things, contains prayers for the dying of any belief system.

In the trenches, West says, he will be "the practical demonstration of God's love, of the holy."

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

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