By John Branning
Every person in the military has a special reason why they serve and I am no exception. I have been an Army Chaplain serving in the Mississippi Army National Guard since 2007. I want to share with you a brief history of our Corp, which was formed by the command of General George Washington on 29 July 1775, with a desire that local clergy would serve in the Continental Army alongside their parishioners. It was his desire that the Continental Army would have a moral and spiritual compass through the leadership of the Chaplain. Our job has progressed today as we offer religious services, counseling, moral support to the Soldier, and serve as a personal advisor to our command whether in peacetime or at war.
In the civilian world, I serve as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have been the senior pastor of the Crystal Springs United Methodist Church since 2004. Yet, one weekend a month my church family grows from the small town of Crystal Springs to the State of Mississippi as I put on the uniform of the Army Chaplain for the 185th Theatre Aviation Brigade. I am at that point no longer a Methodist preacher, but a Protestant Chaplain. My Soldiers are of all denominations, beliefs, and at times, lack of beliefs. I found this to be the greatest challenge of my life when in 2010 our unit was called up for Operation Iraq Freedom and New Dawn. After mobilizing at Fort Hood Texas and a brief transition through Kuwait, we acquired our mission in Northern Iraq in Early February of 2011. It was there that my mission as a Christian Chaplain began.
It was not long after I arrived at a Contingency Operations Base, COB Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq, that my pastoral skills and training were called upon. We were 6,500 miles from home and any news of a problem back there made it very difficult for any Soldier to focus on the mission. Mission focus is essential when you are in a combat zone because lives are at stake. I had a little office with a couch, and in 10 months’ time 325 Soldiers made their way to see me to discuss everything from personal conflict with other Soldiers to failing marriages. I realized very soon into the mission that I was the only pastor that many of them had ever talked to or been around. It would be very important that I give the word that God intended on them hearing in these most difficult and confusing moments. I began to ground myself further in Scripture and prayer asking God to use me in this moment as an instrument of peace in a time of war. I preached sermons in a little chapel that was usually filled with Soldiers, carried Holy Communion to smaller COB’s and outposts, and mostly practiced the ministry of presence to help bring a measure of calm in these difficult situations.
It is amazing to see the power of the Holy Spirit work in the lives of people in midst of stress in war. To watch young Soldiers walk around with camouflage Bibles and other images of their faith around their wrists, unashamed for others to know that they are believers is a quite witness in the midst of chaos. Local churches from around Mississippi and all around the country would send me books, trinkets and morale kits for the Soldiers that I would distribute in the name of Christ. Though many of these Soldiers were not believers they begin to see the love in action of the believers back home. I was able to see lives transformed and hearts warmed. Husbands and wives began to look forward to the return home to attend church with their spouse and family, many longed to be better men and women of God. I was able to observe all of this first hand.
Most of us will never have the experience of going to war and I hope that my children’s generation never has to. Yet, I have learned the wisdom of George Washington in creating the Chaplain Corps and sending clergy with our troops to remind them that they are still created in the image of God no matter where life takes them. They were created for a divine purpose and the faith we profess in the local church should be magnified when we are sent into the world. Most importantly to remind them that the love of Jesus changes lives and when He changes our life all things become new. I hope to serve many more years in the Mississippi Army National Guard and represent the Lord to Soldiers.
John Branning is pastor of Crystal Springs United Methodist Church and also serves as Chaplain in the US Army National Guard. He and his wife Traci are parents of three boys.