A National Guard chaplain and Iraq War veteran reflects on his service to distill lessons of faith and life.
In 1996, Willis was a new seminary graduate with few employment prospects when he signed up with the National Guard as a Chaplain Candidate. After he shipped off to basic training in Fort McCoy, Wis., he immediately began to change, at first by surrendering the standards of comfort that had guided his civilian life. Specifically, he learned how little he needed, which served to reinforce his Christian faith. That faith, and a personal bravery that Willis consistently downplays, made him the confidant of troops and commanders alike. “You can tell how a Command functions by how they use their Chaplain,” one commander tells him. After his unit was deployed, his experiences dealing with men and women fighting and dying opened his eyes to the hidden dimensions of sacrifice. Soldiers came to Willis with all kinds of concerns, and he sometimes had to walk a fine line between counsel and command: “It’s easy being the supportive Chaplain,” he writes, “but when you have to censure, rebuke, or reprimand someone, you can become unpopular in a hurry.” Alongside his men, he saw some of the worst the Iraq War had to offer, and as he relates stories of violence, boredom, treachery and fear, he also weaves in the history of chaplains in earlier conflicts. More prominently, he smoothly and thoughtfully provides biblical insights into his wartime reminiscences. Staying true to the tenets of his faith required courage, particularly in a military environment that thrived on secrecy. “There is nothing worse than an invalid Christian,” he declares at one point. “How many times have Christians witnessed wrongdoing and said nothing?” Ultimately, Willis’ principled stance strengthened his faith, although even he couldn’t escape the harsh realities of war, as he writes with simple eloquence: “You can never go back to what you left behind.”
A stirring, thought-provoking memoir of faith in wartime and a must-read for the worried families of deployed Christian soldiers.