The formal end to the longest war in U.S. history, ongoing struggles with COVID-19, and deployments of extraordinary lengths all have made this a uniquely stressful time for military chaplains serving with Assemblies of God U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries.
While chaplains sometimes are involved in traumatic situations themselves, their crucial role is to help the soldiers, sailors, Marines, or airmen in their care to handle the stress they are enduring.
U.S. Navy chaplain Denis N. Cox and U.S. Army chaplain James R. Damude both played roles in the U.S. extracting military personnel from Afghanistan after a 20-year commitment.
Damude, a captain based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, participated in the three-phase U.S. mission to leave Afghanistan. As part of the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, he served on the first phase of evacuating the U.S. embassy, supporting troops with pastoral counseling, chapel services, and morale events.
But the second phase, in mid-August, turned tumultuous at the airport in Kabul.
“I conducted a chapel service in the morning and by the afternoon the airfield was being overrun,” recalls Damude, 43. “There were several times those in our unit thought we were going to die; we didn’t know who had breached the gate.”
Damude spent much of the time praying for people and keeping soldiers focused on the mission at hand. He also distributed Scripture verses and notes of encouragement. The brigade successfully evacuated the embassy, but not without anxiety.
“The stress came in many forms: lack of sleep and lack of basic living functions, such as water at the airport not working,” Damude explains. “Many had never seen this before. Many of us thought we would be overrun and killed.”
In the third and final phase, Damude led a group of six U.S. soldiers and 300 Afghan nationals onto a plane flying out of the country.
Cox, a captain with the II Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, in the wake of the chaotic withdrawal went to work immediately putting together “combat operational stress” teams. As the senior MEF chaplain, he helped send chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, and psych technicians to meet service members returning from Afghanistan. He arranged for classes, individual counseling, and group sessions to provide much-needed ministry to the military members in the weeks afterward.
“Being deployed is a stressful event, not just for the service member, but also for the families they leave behind,” says Cox, who has been married for 27 years to his wife, Karen. “I’m serving with a cohesive group of men and women who are well trained and well adapted to respond to crises in which we’re involved. My wife back home can only wonder and pray about what’s going on.”
“It’s very difficult to be out of your family’s life for seven months,” says U.S. Navy chaplain David T. Nelson Jr., whose daughters with wife Tonya are ages 15, 12, and 7. Many days he would face a communications blackout.
Cox, 58, acknowledges that keeping in touch is easier today than at the beginning of the 21st century. Even those halfway around the world normally are able to maintain some form of regular contact with loved ones.
“Before on a ship, once in port we might get letters or be able to make a phone call with a bad connection,” Cox says. “Now, with electronic devices, one can stay in touch much more readily. Still, deployment is a stressful event.”
Cox speaks from experience. He has been deployed 10 times, at intervals ranging from three to nine months. Cox spent a decade as a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard. After the Gulf War began, he switched gears, spending the next six years as an Army chaplain. For the past 23 years, he has been an active duty Navy chaplain.
Over the years, Cox has written letters to his two daughters while at sea and bought presents before departing that his wife dispenses during the deployment. Cox realizes children often question the validity of their father’s career choice.
“I pray that children at home understand that their father is doing exactly what the Lord wanted them to do as a father: to protect, serve, and sacrifice,” says Cox, who didn’t become a Christian until the age of 26 at the altar of an Assemblies of God church.
For Damude, his current third deployment has been the tensest because of the uncertainty of the events surrounding the pulling out of Afghanistan.
“The majority of the deployment we have had to be ready for anything and plan for everything,” Damude says. “It’s hard to establish a rhythm when always getting ready to do something new.”
The presence of the novel coronavirus the past 19 months has altered much in the way the Navy, especially, has moved about. Nelson, who spent part of this year aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, says the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier made no port calls to places of interest as is customary. The ship just docked briefly at a pier side liberty ports three times. The Eisenhower, which carries scores of aircraft, provided air support for the recent Afghanistan exit.
Nelson, 47, contracted COVID-19 onboard between receiving his vaccination doses. With 2,500 of the ship’s crew plus 1,500 air wing, destroyer squadron, and strike group staff personnel in close quarters, others tested positive, but no one died from the virus. Nelson had the opportunity to preach to other patients in the COVID berthing.
With such a long stretch on the water together, Nelson, a lieutenant commander in his 14th year in the Navy, found more people seeking him out for advice.
“A lot want to talk about God in times of stress and duress,” Nelson says. He frequently explains to the inquisitors how they are created in the image of God, have intrinsic value, and that God has plans for them.
Nelson, stationed at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, says he’s discovered many young adults ascribe to a “moralistic therapeutic deism,” summed up with the notion, God wants me to be happy and comfortable. Such an ideology can conflict with the military’s demanding lifestyle.
“Even though the military life is strenuous, I tell them their situation isn’t a shock to God,” Nelson says. “While nobody wants to be on a flight deck when it’s 110 degrees, I suggest maybe that’s part of God’s plan in trying to build virtue in them.”
Nelson found the environment on the carrier ripe for God to move.
On this deployment, his fourth, Nelson taught a Bible study on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and had the opportunity to baptize three dozen sailors, most of them recent Christian converts, in the Red Sea.
One of the most difficult tasks for a chaplain is to notify relatives of the death of a military service member and to comfort families in the aftermath. Cox sent a chaplain to accompany an official delivering the death notification of one of the 11 Marines killed by enemy attack in Afghanistan Aug. 26.
Cox still stays in touch with some of the Gold Star mothers he contacted 16 years ago after their sons died in the Iraq War, in which he served as a battalion chaplain. He initially sent the moms notes of condolences, telling them accounts of how he interacted with their sons. He continued to correspond with them, to let them know he remembered the sacrifice their sons made.
“A chaplain’s duty doesn’t end with a casualty notification or memorial service,” Cox says. “The pain for families who have experienced tragic loss doesn’t go away. I’m still their chaplain.”
Damude says while some soldiers lived in a state of heightened stress during the Afghan withdrawal, those who trusted in the Lord had a greater sense of peace.
“No one wants to die out here, but many don’t have an answer for when they do die,” says Damude, who will finish his current seven-month deployment next month before returning to wife Sara and their four children, who range in age from 15 to 8. “The followers of Christ have an answer, and it is Jesus Christ. I can do the hard things, because my hope and future are secure in Him alone.”