By MARILYN TINNIN
Nancy Luke Carpenter is the gregarious Superwoman who heads up the Columbus, Mississippi, Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. This is possibly the last stop in a very long career of ambassadorial type positions in a number of institutions across the state. From her days as a majorette and campus celebrity at Mississippi State to her twenty-six years in banking and her volunteer work in more community organizations and appointed board positions than you can name, she has endeared herself to people all across the country. She is a Believer and a giver in the true sense of the word.
The daughter of “Scrap” and Juanita Luke of Union, Mississippi, Nancy was the middle child, the peacemaker, and the one who was the biggest “pleaser.” She learned to love people, not to whine or complain, and to accept what God sent her way and move forward with grace. Life would have its trials as well as its triumphs. As she says, “Our parents taught us that it is how you react to the things that come your way that determine the person you will ultimately become.”
God gave her a basically happy nature as well as an adaptable spirit. Both of those qualities have served Nancy Carpenter well over the years, and never more than during her season as a soldier’s mom. When her first-born son, Luke, graduated from West Point in 2004, she was incredibly proud, but a little taken aback when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave the commencement address and said to the graduating class of bright and promising young people, “All of you men and women will be going to war.”
One of the mothers of a West Point graduate in the class ahead of Luke had told her once, “Nancy, it’s fun being a West Point mom. It’s hard being an Army mom.” That wise friend was Jane Graham, the wife of Franklin Graham whose son, Edward, had been Luke’s close mentor and fellow cadet.
And it was—incredibly so. It was also a time when her dependence on God grew exponentially even though she’d had much more than a nodding acquaintance with Him for as long as she could remember.
The uncertainty of her son’s safety from day to day was hard. For one who is used to being in control of people and projects, she was accustomed to planning and scheduling and watching things go according to her agenda. There was no possible way to live with the anxiety of having a son in harm’s way than to rely solely on God’s grace and provision, to stay in the Word and to pray without ceasing. And that was exactly what she did.
A Legacy of Service
Union, Mississippi, where Nancy grew up, might well have been the inspiration for Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry.” It was small town America during its heyday. Her father, five uncles, and several cousins had served in World War II. Her grandmother had a box filled with old clippings and photographs of these special men in uniform, the letters they had written home from various far away military stations, and every year, the Luke’s made it a priority to commemorate Memorial Day, Flag Day, Veteran’s Day, and Independence Day.
But then, that was not unique to the Luke family. The entire city flew the Stars and Stripes up and down Main Street and beside most every front door on these occasions. There were parades and picnics and a flurry of events where the city fathers and decorated veterans gave speeches about freedom and country and American values—God and Country and family and freedom.
The concept of love for country took on a deeper personal meaning with two specific happenings, the second being watching her own bright, talented, and handsome 21-year-old son head off to a war with no assurances he would be returning. The first, though less intense, was nevertheless close to her heart. It involved her job as head of the Columbus Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. The Civil War history is a key part of the city’s charm and tourist attraction. The more Nancy delved into the history of her city, the more she was confronted by the stories of sacrifice and the immeasurable price of war. Although no battles were fought in Columbus, wounded soldiers were brought by rail car from other places – especially Shiloh near Corinth – for medical care in Columbus. Antebellum homes were turned into hospitals, and the historic Friendship Cemetery was filled with the casualties of both Union and Confederate armies.
She learned that Memorial Day actually got its start in Columbus in 1866 when a group of local women took roses from their own gardens and spontaneously decided to place them on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. It was a healing gesture, and as the story spread across the country, newspapers began to refer to the event as the place “where flowers healed a nation.” As Nancy says, the grief over the sacrifice of one’s husband, son, or brother, was all the same regardless of whether he wore the blue or the gray. Those who had loved the fallen shared the fellowship of common pain with a language all its own.
Columbus is also home to Columbus Air Force Base, and as director of the Columbus CVB, there have been numerous occasions when she arranged a special event for the airmen and their families who came to Columbus for a predeployment weekend. The primary reason the military holds these are to help prepare both family and the Airmen for the separation, the adjustments, and the protocols. The military intends for it to be a practical briefing event to get everybody on the same page, so to speak.
In 2008 when General Bill Freeman was Adjutant General of Mississippi,Nancy was newly appointed to the CVB. She had lived in Columbus long enough to realize how valuable the Air Force base was to the city. She wanted to do something to show the military how appreciative the city was. She jumped in telling General Freeman, “We—(meaning the CVB)—really want to host this pre-deployment weekend and turn it into something wonderful for this last weekend that these husbands and wives are going to be together for a while.” The families may have arrived prepared for routine meetings and lists and paperwork. What they got were kid activities, gift bags, door prizes, money for meals and overnight stays in nice hotels, a double-decker bus ride, a big welcome and a lot of intentional “Thank you’ s” from the city of Columbus.
Reintegration weekends were the same when Airmen flew back into Columbus after their tours of duty. Visible support from the community continues to be very important to Nancy. She well remembers classmates of hers who served during the unpopular Vietnam War and who did not leave or come back with flag waving ceremonies and community embrace. That memory stings. It is about more than doing her job as the CVB Director as well. Appreciating those who serve goes all the way back to her childhood as well as her recent role as soldier’s mom.
Becoming a military mom was not something Nancy was planning, although in retrospect she can see that God had really been preparing her for that role her entire life. In 2000 while she was a regional vice president of Deposit Guaranty National Bank, she was attending an economic symposium in Jackson when she ran into an old friend, Steve Guyton.
A familiar political face who has worked for several Mississippi congressmen through the years, Steve’s job includes recruiting promising candidates for West Point Military Academy and The U.S. Naval Academy. He asked, “You don’t happen to have a son who is an outstanding student and well-rounded leader?” She said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I do. I have two.”
You could say the rest is history, but Nancy would reiterate that it was the providence of God! Luke, with excellent grades and an impressive resume, was recruited right out of high school and entered West Point on a track scholarship a few weeks after graduation. He was only 17—one of the youngest cadets in the class.
The rigorous training began immediately. The first year at West Point is not called “Beast” year for nothing! The hours are long, the demands are relentless, and only the most disciplined and fit cadets persevere. Academics are as demanding as the physical training, and the strategy the Army employs to mold its cadets into a cohesive unit is perhaps the most difficult adjustment of all. Nevertheless, Luke thrived on the challenges.
While Luke was being trained for war along with learning advanced calculus and physics, Nancy was enjoying her days as a “West Point mom.” She served on the executive committee for the West Point Parents’ Club and greatly enjoyed the camaraderie. West Point, from where she sat, was just a regular stage in the journey of parenthood.
Luke’s younger brother, Hunter, entered West Point in 2002 following his high school graduation. He completed two years, but was injured in a basketball game in 2004. He suffered torn tendons in his foot, had two subsequent surgeries and completed his degree in Political Science at the University of Mississippi. After working on Governor Haley Barbour’s Staff for five and a half years, he moved to Washington where he serves as Director of Public Policy at the Agriculture Retailers Association. Nancy believes the Providence of God was merciful in sparing her the experience of having two sons deployed in a dangerous combat zone at the same time.
When 9/11 happened and things changed, the reality that her sons would likely be in the thick of the inevitable conflict that followed was a fearful thought for Nancy. It was not until Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s commencement address in 2004 that she was certain.
Throughout her children’s lives, she had taught them with her words as well as by her actions that a servant’s heart was a priority for a Believer. And couple that with the family legacy. He knew the stories of his uncles and his grandfather. He had watched his mother pour herself into the projects on behalf of the Airmen at Columbus Air Force Base. He had just naturally developed a sense of selfless service to his country as well as to his family. He was ready to go even if Nancy was praying for a nice desk job somewhere stateside!
It says something about Luke’s character that he chose for his inscription beside his photo in the West Point yearbook Howitzer: “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Timothy:3-4).
He left West Point as a second lieutenant and arrived at Fort Riley in Kansas to receive his first orders. Nancy breathed a sigh of relief when Luke told her that although he would be going to Iraq, he would be assigned to the Green Zone. This was a fortified area in the center of Baghdad surrounded by high concrete blast walls, barbed wire fences, and security checkpoints. It was the safest place he could possibly be, and he told his parents, “You don’t have anything to worry about. Once I get there, I will be in touch.”
The first email arrived a few days later, and Nancy realized Luke had indeed not been assigned to the Green Zone. Instead he had been placed in charge of a platoon based at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. This was in an area where roadside bombs and IEDs were prolific. Her 21-year-old son was in quite possibly the most dangerous place on the planet. The footage she saw every time she turned on the news left her weak. She prayed again and again as she watched explosions and heard the gunfire, “Please take care of him, Lord.”
Nancy and her husband, Carol, were in prayer groups nationwide with other soldiers’ families. They sent emails and prayer chains. She was also on a group email that arrived every Sunday morning from West Point listing all the casualties of the previous week. Week after anxious week, she opened that email and prayed she would not see Luke’s name. At the same time, she grieved for the families of those who would find their loved one’s name there.
One Sunday morning when the newspaper boy threw the paper, it hit the front door with a thud. She screamed as she sat straight up in bed afraid that this would be “the knock” she had dreaded.
Nancy found her greatest comfort in the Psalms. She would sit in her special chair in the living room every morning and read scripture and pray. When she ran across the book, A Table in the Presence by a Marine chaplain, Carey Cash, she practically devoured it. “You think about it,” she said, “the fifth verse of the 23rd Psalm says, ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.’ That’s what this entire book is about. I probably read it five or six times.”
Filled with Psalms about warfare and trust in God, the author told the story of his deployment during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Reading of his experience in the very same area where her son was now serving helped her remember that as far away as Iraq was and as vicious as the enemy was, God was there, He was in control, and Luke belonged to Him. She had to let go of things she could not control.
Nancy busied herself with a group at her church, First Baptist, stuffing, sewing, and shipping “Cold Collars” to Luke’s company. The temperature in the desert could get as high as 110 degrees. The collars were stuffed with little garden soil pellets that expanded when soaked in water. They brought welcome relief to the soldiers, but as Luke said, “While many loved using the rags, they received just as much enjoyment from the encouraging letters included in the packages.”
He added that so many of his “brothers and sisters in arms” were really overwhelmed that a group of strangers in Mississippi would spend their free time doing something like that for them. Luke said that gesture was just one of the ways the gospel had a chance to be presented during that year. Those actions speak volumes, and when one’s sense of their own mortality is heightened in daily combat, there is an open heart in a way that there may not be in peacetime.
The months dragged by. Over 840 American soldiers lost their lives in Iraq during 2005. Another 10,000 were wounded, some sustaining injuries that have totally rewritten their futures and diminished their quality of life. Only during the Vietnam War did West Point lose so many of their alumni on the battlefield.
Luke returned to Fort Riley—whole. Nancy has not taken that blessing for granted for one minute in the last nine years. In that very difficult year, her son had grown up in so many ways, but so had she and Carol and Hunter and Molly Jane. None of them will ever be exactly the same.
The word “sacrifice” is one she had heard her grandmother speak, but she understands that word now as she never understood it before. It is a precious and very personal word that connects her more deeply to God this last decade. He also had a much-loved son. He understands sacrifice, too.