FORT BRAGG, North Carolina — One of the most enjoyable aspects in Scott McChrystal’s role in his 14 years as military chaplaincy representative and endorser for the Assemblies of God is going to the field in support of the Fellowship’s 214 military chaplains and 69 chaplain candidates.
Such visits allow McChrystal, 70, to minister to the ministers who help sustain American military personnel. Some AG chaplains have been in the Army for decades, others only months. But they uniformly seem to appreciate the listening ear and fatherly advice McChrystal offers.
Although the still-lean and fit McChrystal intends to stay active in ministry via outlets such as Warrior’s Journey, earlier this month he made his final stop in an official AG capacity at Fort Bragg. With his lengthy and respected résumé, many chaplains consider McChrystal a mentor. He is able to calmly reassure them regarding the myriad challenges they face — ranging from marital stress to doubt about fulfilling their ministry calling. McChrystal knows the challenges young troops face. He served for seven years as the senior chaplain at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before becoming the military representative/endorser for AG U.S. Missions in 2005.
There are 100 chaplains at Fort Bragg at the edge of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and 10 of them are endorsed by the AG Commission on Chaplains. Because of the breadth of the facility, they usually don’t interact with each other on a regular basis. The emotional toll some experience can be as real as in trenches on the battlefield. Every year some will be deployed overseas or rotate to another U.S. post.
“This last trip to Fort Bragg was absolutely necessary because of the quality and strategic nature of the impact these AG chaplains are having,” says McChrystal, who retires officially on July 31.
In his travels to military installations, McChrystal typically is accompanied by his compassionate wife of 46 years, Judy. They minister individually with chaplains and spouses in need of encouragement and counsel. Just like McChrystal, several of the AG chaplains at Fort Bragg had enlisted as soldiers before switching to ministry. McChrystal, who retired from the Army as a colonel, spent a decade as an infantry officer before becoming a chaplain.
Fort Bragg is a center of activity for the military with 57,000 personnel at the most populous U.S. post. Its forested environs provide an ideal training spot for U.S. Army Airborne and Special Operations Forces.
McChrystal has been stationed at Fort Bragg four times, the first time just prior to serving as a platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He met Judy in the city. Their two sons, Rob and Josh, both in the Army, were born here.
Fayetteville, a city of omnipresent pine trees, clearly is a military community. A preponderance of tattoo parlors, barber shops, and sewing centers (for patches to be applied to uniforms) dot the roads to the post. An inordinate number of Mustang, Camaro, and Corvette drivers rev their engines at traffic lights.
The number of pawn shops and payday loan outlets along the streets attest to the reality that many young recruits are naïve upon arrival.
Brigade chaplain Mark S. Miller initially worked as an Army psychological operational specialist. Before he joined the military, Miller worked as a teacher and counselor for Job Corps, a residential program for at-risk high school students. The AG chaplain sees parallels in his current assignment.
“The military is not unlike Job Corps, full of people at risk making bad decisions,” says Miller, 52. He has been deployed eight times for a total 43 months, including Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, experiences he says has helped his wife, Kathy, son Jacob, and daughter, Kate, be more independent and resilient.
Yet Miller, a major currently is assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division as the 1st Infantry Brigade Combat Team chaplain, is confident military culture has changed for the better during his tenure. He notes the Army has taken great strides in addressing equal opportunity and sexual assault questions.
CAREER PATH DIVERGENCE
As a boy, Eddie Walton Cook dreamed of following in the footsteps of his father, Eddie Ray Cook, as an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper. Cook, now a colonel, is currently the 82nd Airborne Division chaplain, still jumping out of aircraft at the age of 48. His duties include overseeing services at All American Chapel.
Unexpectedly, Cook sensed a call to ministry while an infantry platoon leader. While in Panama and Germany, Christian troops who desired a religious service regularly asked Cook to lead in lieu of the presence of an actual chaplain.
“My calling was a stand-in-the-gap-type ministry,” recalls the pensive Cook, who carried a pocket New Testament with him. “We would sit under a tree or by a riverbank and have church — reading, praying, having a good time of fellowship.”
In retrospect, Cook believes the deaths of both his parents died within six months of each other during his first year in college helped prepare him for ministry.
“When soldiers see their mortality, it makes them more open to hear God’s Word,” Cook says. “Although some soldiers neglect the need of their soul, others see the need there.”
As a paratrooper chaplain, Cook, whose awards include the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service Medal, has earned an extra measure of respect from some soldiers. He believes the adage of no atheists exist in foxholes applies to the sky as well.
“It doesn’t necessarily take war to prepare people spiritually,” Cook says. “When they jump out of an airplane or helicopter, they are thinking.”
Cook resigned his active duty Army commission in 1997 and went on reserve while ministering alongside Sobhi Malek, a veteran team member with Assemblies of God World Missions, in parts of Eurasia where an open gospel outreach is not possible. He returned to the 82nd Airborne Division as a chaplain in 2002, and he has appreciated McChrystal’s insights.
“My job is to remove obstacles and make the ground fertile for younger chaplains,” Cook says. “Some don’t want to talk about emotions such as anger and loneliness.”
Cook and his wife, Jennifer, have been married 20 years. In counseling sessions and Bible studies, Jennifer, 47, helps young chaplain wives grapple with the reality of first deployments.
“Typically wives don’t fill out a six-page form when their husband takes a business trip that includes information about who the pallbearers should be,” Jennifer says.
The articulate and personable Jennifer advises chaplain wives not to become embittered about the number of transfers their husbands are bound to endure. The Cooks, who have one child, 15-year-old son Edward, share freely about the relationship potholes they’ve come through.
“Jennifer has amazing common sense in equipping families to deal with situations,” Eddie says.
Cook will deploy in June for a four-month tour of duty with the 18th Airborne Corps as part of Operation Iraqi Resolve. Cook already has spent a combined two years on a trio of deployments to Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq, including Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
At a farewell dinner attended by the Fort Bragg AG chaplains and their families, McChrystal received a plaque of appreciation. He believes the chaplains will be in good hands with the continuing support of the Chaplaincy Ministries department and his replacement. U.S. Missions Executive Director Malcolm Burleigh and Chaplaincy Ministries Senior Director Manuel A. Cordero have approved the selection of Navy chaplain James T. Denley as McChrystal’s successor.
“I appreciate Chaplain McChrystal’s seasoned leadership that guided our denomination’s chaplains,” Cook says. “We have experienced many changes and challenges as a country, and Chaplain McChrystal’s leadership has assisted our chaplains to navigate a brave, new world.”
Photo: Scott McChrystal (left) congratulates Eddie Cook after a successful parachute jump at Fort Bragg