A Pocketful of Crosses

I’ve got a pocketful of crosses that won’t let me sleep. Celtic crosses, Greek Orthodox crosses, Protestant crosses, Army issue pewter crosses. They’ve been there for three days. Until now, they’ve not been a problem. But tonight, as I try to get to sleep in my ACU pants to stay warm, the crosses feel like a rock in my hip. Much larger than the real rocks underneath the tent floor.

I’m sleeping in a tent on the surface of the Mojave Desert during the March rotation of the Army’s National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, California. We are the first Army brigade in over a decade to do a force-on-force rotation at NTC. Which means constantly moving, no FOBs in the “box” – an area of the desert about as large as Rhode Island. It’s a total expeditionary decisive action. The world’s largest war game of laser tag. Philmont Scout Ranch on steroids. A far, far cry from CH-BOLC’s “capstone.” Mine is a new Unit Ministry Team with 3-1 Cavalry Squadron, 3rd Brigade of 3rd Infantry. My assistant and I are currently located at the Squadron CTCP, a sustainment section near the rear on the constantly changing battlefield.

I’ve slept in many tents over the course of my lifetime, and even had aspired of camping for a week in the Grand Canyon. The Army just did me one better. 16 days in a tiny tent in the Mojave Desert in March. Moving to six different locations. The very cold temperatures and high, dusty dry winds were something I had not anticipated. But I also had not expected the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets and magnificent canopy of stars every night. One night we saw a huge moon that looked red through the haze of desert dust. I collected a sackful of multi-colored rocks to share with children back at my home church. I took 170 photos to create a slide show when I get back home.

I drop the handful of crosses into a pile beside me and snuggle back into my Army issue sleeping bag system. “Today was a very good day,” Sergeant Major said an hour earlier, as we refueled the armored HMMWV after several hours of riding for miles across the sandy desert. We had travelled over ridiculous ruts, impossible rock-laden dirt roads, across trails we could hardly see, and over hundreds of shrubs and small tumbleweeds.

I’m glad I wore my Marne Standard kevlar helmet because my head bobbled about the entire ride, occasionally hitting the inside of the rear door frame. Was I ever wrong in thinking the American desert was flat! It is anything but! It’s filled with long rolling hills, sloping plains, sand dunes, and jagged mountains. Holes for snakes, spiders, jack rabbits, lizards, scorpions and ants. There are coyotes, hawks, mountain lions and wild donkeys. But I only saw rabbits, a scorpion, hawks, and some lizards. No trees but millions of shrubs and hardy cacti. But today was a good day, indeed.

Sergeant Major is a man after my own heart. His I love and concern for each and every one of his Soldiers is phenomenal. He set out to run an errand for a Soldier and to carry supplies to four other Soldiers who had been injured earlier in the week. He invited me and my assistant to ride along with him and his driver, so that we could provide religious support to the troops we’d be visiting. He set us up for success.

We visited the first troop in the rear where the Sergeant Major began his errand, but also managed to collect several large boxes of fresh fruit – apples, oranges, and bananas. During that stop me and my assistant provided ministry of presence to Soldiers, distributed candy and toured their foxholes. Even though they would probably never get a chance to use them, they were quite proud of their handiwork.

I met with a Soldier of a low-density faith group who was excited about his supply of Kosher MREs, provided through a thoughtful Sergeant prior to NTC. He was also thrilled at his brother’s getting a compassionate reassignment to come to Ft. Benning in a month or so. He asked me for help in finding a Chaplain of his faith group at Benning once we return. I then found myself sitting in the dirt having a good conversation with three Soldiers who were dealing with a myriad of real life issues. They had confided in each other during NTC and now were glad to share their hopes, fears, dreams, and complaints with a Chaplain. Normally I would counsel one at a time, but they all agreed to do it together. So I chatted with and listened to each one, and offered the three of them a prayer at the end of our visit.

“Time to go!” said my assistant as he came around from behind the supply truck. We climbed back into the up armored, dark green combat vehicle. We drove for miles to deliver sleeping gear and clothing to the four Soldiers in recovery back at the FOB. There I was able to chat with each one and offer them candy and encouragement. Every time I speak with Soldiers I find it is me who is encouraged. The stories of their journeys to the Army often amaze me. So many of these men and women overcame tremendous obstacles to get into the Army. I am blessed to know them.

Sergeant Major then herded us back into the vehicle to drive out to the front of the battle lines to surprise the men of Assassin troop with fresh fruit. It was a bit of a challenge getting to them because they were so well hidden in the rocks at the base of a small mountain range. But we soon arrived and the Sergeant Major completed his errand and allowed us to visit with more Soldiers. I did a counseling session and we left a box of apples, oranges and bananas. We provided ministry of presence and gave away some candy as well. This was the troop who had several Soldiers ask for our Bibles when we visited them the previous week.

“You just raised our morale, Chaplain,” one Soldier said. I made sure to thank him but remind him the fruit was Sergeant Major’s idea. I told them how much he cared about them and their well-being. After we encouraged them to be safe in the upcoming battle and to give their very best in the fight, we continued on our way. I feel I have begun to bond with my assistant and with the Squadron Soldiers during this field training. 16 days of sleeping on the desert floor in a little tent, or cramped into a HUMMWV with no doors or windows, not having a shower, not to mention having to relieve myself in the desert, will make you feel part of the team.

Several years ago at Haddock Baptist Church we mailed care packages to deployed Soldiers. The contents included baby wipes, hand sanitizer, lip balm, disposable razors, gum and candy. Now I fully understand and appreciate the value of those items. Bathing with baby wipes and “doing your duty” with the help of a trenching tool makes you even appreciate clean porta-johns and group shower stalls. We all smell bad. But it’s all good. Because we smell of brotherhood. One team, one fight!

That pocketful of crosses that now lay on the tent floor still won’t let me sleep. Sergeant Major is having a grand time. He tells the driver to swing by the TOC (command center) to surprise them with some fresh fruit. He said he wanted to make a “drop and go,” in order to maximize the remaining daylight. He wanted to deliver as much fruit as he could to as many Soldiers. He chuckled and said, “I feel like Santa Claus.” My assistant and I were apparently his elves for the day.

“It’s the little things that make a difference, Chaplain,” We dropped off the fruit, said some ‘hellos,’ and rolled out again into the desert. Along the way we discussed safety issues and Army standards. One thing I’ve noticed is that Sergeant Major is one of the most squared away NCOs I’ve ever met. He’s always in the right place at the right time in the right uniform and equipment. Some of his junior leaders who seek promotion would do well to use him as a role model. His Soldiering and his leadership style. I have begun to use him to check myself. He shows what “right” looks like.

We braced ourselves in the HUMMWV as the driver created paths where there weren’t any and navigated over deep ditches, steep dunes and rocky terrain. We never topped 35 mph and that’s a very good thing! Sergeant Major periodically checked the Blue Force Tracker from his seat to monitor activity across the battle field. I sat there thinking about how blessed I was (first for seat belts!) and about my journey over the past two years to get to this point. Back when I mailed those care packages from Haddock a few years ago, I wanted to climb inside and go with them. Today, God had made my dream come true.

I was right there, in the back of a military vehicle, in a desert, on a ministry mission. I felt goosebumps on my dirty arm covered in ACU, sticking out from under heavy body armor. I closed my eyes and let my head bob loosely as I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving. Sergeant Major asked me what type of work I had done in the civilian world. I told him the various ministries I had done. No prior military service but plenty of diverse ministry experience.

I told Sergeant Major how impressed I was with his level of care he had for his Soldiers, and that I would go to battle with him everywhere. I absolutely would. I trust him with my life. The NTC experience has allowed me to get to observe and learn about this role model. He doesn’t do it for the glory though. “I came into the Army 24 years ago, Chaplain. My first vehicle was a Jeep.” He continued, “I love taking care of my Soldiers. It’s the best part of my job. If the day ever comes when I wake up and don’t enjoy it anymore, I’m done.” Roger that, Sergeant Major!

I thanked him for the day’s experience. “I love having you, Chaplain. I know you wanted to go out to the front lines earlier, Chappy, but you’re too valuable an asset to risk in this force on force scenario. Even if you got notionally killed, you’re still killed. I just can’t do that Chaplain.”

Not only does that mean a great deal to me professionally, but it is nice to personally know someone values me and my ministry team partner that much. I know that even in a practice combat situation, my leaders value my safety and security. That’s why I trust this man. I’ve tried to pass along that value and protection to my assistant while we’ve been in “the box,” guarding him when he’s occasionally been asked to do a duty that could jeopardize his primary mission – to protect me, a noncombatant, if he were to become a casualty during an attack on our position.

The smile on Sergeant Major’s face at the end of the day is gold. He was beaming from ear to ear with a grin like a big kid. “Today was really good, Chaplain.” I heartily agree. My assistant and I are so honored to be part of 3-1 Cavalry Squadron, where the Sergeant Major and the Squadron Commander share the same love and concern for their Soldiers and Families. If you look at the lower ranks it is often easier to find discontent among the troops, but when you see the leaders at the top – the Commander, the Sergeants Major, the XO and the 5 Troop Commanders, you see a caring staff. The kids are alright at 3-1 Cav! Moms and Dads, Spouses and Children, your Soldier is in good hands. And I would say they have a Unit Ministry Team that cares alot, too.

It has been a tough month. It has tested me personally and professionally, but I have grown. Our UMT has grown. We did six field services, ministered to 26 notional casualties, ministered to a dozen real world wounded or ill Soldiers, gave away nearly 75 sacred texts including Bibles and a Koran, gave away all the candy and playing cards my friends back home gave us to distribute, gave away many devotional guides and crosses, promoted upcoming Single Soldier and Married Couples Strong Bonds events, counseled dozens of Soldiers, and coordinated with our Squadron command team and brigade ministry team to get our work done.

Three comments I will personally take away from Soldiers in our unit gave me lots of motivation. Early during our time in “the box,” a medic platoon sergeant commented to me that he’d been on several field exercises, and he’s never seen a Chaplain more involved with the medical and casualty side of it. In the middle of our rotation, a corporal told me that he’d never seen a Chaplain who wanted to help Soldiers as much with their routine duties. Finally, the night we rolled back into the FOB, a platoon sergeant with several serious family issues hitting him at the same time came to me for late night counseling in the motor pool. After listening to his needs, and offering him some different ideas, he teared up as I held his hand and prayed with him in the dim light near our vehicle. He then thanked me and told me that I was really able to help him. With watery eyes he snapped to attention and gave me the sharpest salute possible. I was very humbled. I saluted him back and thanked him. Soldiers who give me those comments are the best AAR (after action review) I could hope for.

As the sun dipped below the mountains at the end of our day with Sergeant Major, I stood at the back of our dirty, doorless and windowless vehicle and quickly heated up an MRE to eat before it got completely dark. A lone yellow butterfly startled me as it graced my cheek and fluttered by. (Much better than that little yellowish scorpion I had encountered outside my tent door the week before!) It landed in a small shrub near me and a jack rabbit suddenly bounded out of the shrub and up the wadi.

After supper, I stood in the darkness with a Soldier and watched the canopy of stars slowly reveal itself overhead. We watched shooting stars, slowly moving satellites, and pointed out constellations and the Milky Way galaxy. The Soldier said that he believed there simply had to be life on other planets in the universe. I concurred. I told him that C. S. Lewis used the term “the heavens” instead of “space,” since what we see above and beyond us certainly isn’t emptiness.

Just like the desert. Certainly not a place of emptiness. The stereotype is often a lifeless desolation where little grows. But that’s not what I experienced. I saw a unique and fascinating environment that I learned to respect and appreciate. The first week I caught a cold, but with a little help from the medics it went away.
The daily sunrises and fiery sunsets, along with the nightly star shows constantly reminded me how much God cares for us. As far as things growing in the desert, I witnessed a Chaplain and a UMT grow. I saw Soldiers growing. I saw a Squadron grow. God was all around us if we opened our senses to experience God.

That pocketful of crosses wouldn’t let me sleep. They wouldn’t let me sleep until I realized that each one of them represented a full day’s worth of rich experiences. It was a pocketful of blessings. I grabbed my tactical red light in my tent and my pad and pen. I could not get to sleep until I recorded my experiences. I said a final prayer and slept like a baby as the cold winds blew hard outside the ACU-patterned tent. God’s grace is everywhere. Even in the Mojave Desert in the midst of a force-on-force war game.

Thank you, Lord, for that pocketful of crosses. I’m tired. I’m dirty. My feet stink. But I’m beyond blessed. Like many of the Soldiers I’ve talked with and gotten to know better, I grew closer to God in the middle of nowhere. And I’ve discovered than in the middle of nowhere, God is everywhere.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jodie Rhymer on 25 March 12 at 23:47

    I love this!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Brian Hargrove on 26 March 12 at 00:47

    Chap, I really miss having you around at Haddock Baptist Church. I just got through reading this blog and I am so moved right now. I never made it out to NTC, but I spent my fair share at Fort Stewart.

    It’s funny that I decided to read your blog tonight. I have been meditating a lot about the Holy Spirit and how it needs to be a much larger regarded part of my life. In fact, that is what the lesson was for the RA boys this week.

    I asked them if they knew what the Holy Spirit was. I got a few different answers like God and Jesus. I told them them that the Spirit was that part of God that Jeaus left with us until his return. After several clueless expressions from them, I explained.

    I asked them if they had ever seen Pinocchio. Many hands went up. I said, “Well, do you remember when the cricket told Pinocchio to always let his conscience be his guide?”. They all yelled yes. I told them that it was kind of like that. The Holy Spirit was that small voice inside them that said things they may do were either bad or good. They all got it then.

    I really enjoyed reading this post. You are very missed here. I can tell you that all those soldiers appreciate you because we all do.

    God is everywhere. I have seen so much pain in people’s lives lately, all of which unfortunately involved a murder. I can’t imagine not being able to feel the love of Jesus. I know what kind of work you are doing and thanks be to God for putting you there.

    Come home safe soon Chaplain Beaver. Stay squared away, all the way, and we shall see you soon.

    Blessings,

    Brian Hargrove

    Reply

    • Thank you Brian. I like that Pinnochio example. Thats really cool. I hope to visit ya’ll on a Wednesday night sometime in April and bring desert rocks and show a slide show. Miss you guys too! Thanks for your thoughts.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Buford Marion Pennington on 26 March 12 at 15:55

    William Beaver, all I can say is; when you sat our dinning room table and we talked, talked and prayed; I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that God would place you where you are. We love you and are so proud of you and what you men to all our servicemen. Keep on, Keepin On! As old Bill Powell would say! I’m gettin older so please don’t forget me! BMP

    Reply

  4. Posted by Judy on 26 March 12 at 18:07

    William, I just read some of your blogs and must tell you my heart swells with joy and pride that a man of your dedication, ability ,faith and whole hearted service to God has touched my life and I know you love me as I love you in Christ. I am so proud of the life you are living and all your talents that you share with those you touch in any way. I just stand amazed as I look up and pray “Thank you Father for Chaplin Beaver,William the man,Billy the Grandson of Ms. Elizebeth, and “best Dad in the world” (according to your daughter) and all other rolls he lives.” I have never known anyone more passionate about what they did than you. “Thank you ” for being who you are and what you are doing. You are loved and remembered in my prayers. Gods blessings on you.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Linda Pennington on 27 March 12 at 12:30

    Hi William,
    Just finished your blog and have to keep wiping away the tears to respond. What a touching entry; you have a way with words, and you put that talent to excellent use here. I am just in awe about what you are doing and the way you have embraced such a different lifestyle from anything you have ever encountered. God is using you in a mighty way; I know you feel that. I’m just so sorry you have to be away from Elizabeth and Kadison so much, but I know you and they treasure and make the most of your time together. They are both growing up into such fine young people. I see Elizabeth’s comments on FB at times and am amazed that your “little girl” is so mature! I know you are so responsible for much of their positive growth and attitudes.
    Rusty brought the sermon on Sunday, using so many of the Psalms; we sang songs based on those Psalms. I know you would have liked it and would have been proud of Rusty; he, too, is growing in God’s grace. I fear we won’t have him around very long, but I pray for God to continue to use him, just as he is using you, to fulfill His goals here on earth. May His blessings continue on your life.
    Love,
    Linda

    Reply

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