Vietnam War chaplains helped soldiers through tumultuous eracomment (0)
November 7, 2013
Army chaplain Charlie Clanton found it difficult to look at the severely burned young soldier at a makeshift medical evacuation station in Vietnam. The soldier’s face had been charred beyond recognition by a Viet Cong grenade launcher attack.
As Clanton, a Southern Baptist chaplain during the Vietnam War, walked to the gurney and bumped it, the young soldier opened his eyes.
“Sir, you were right the other night,” the soldier told Clanton.
“Right about what?” Clanton asked, not sure which worship service the young man had attended. Later he realized it had been a service two weeks earlier when he had taught on Psalm 23 in a quickly assembled worship service in the mess hall.
“The other night when you told us about ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’ I was there tonight, sir,” the young man said. “And God kept me going.”
Later that night the young man died on a helicopter en route to the hospital.
“That statement to me, a young minister — ‘What you’re telling me is right; what God said He would do He did; He kept me going that night’ — that really helped me see that my ministry [in the Vietnam War] was worthwhile,” Clanton said.
Clanton would later win a Silver Star for his term in Vietnam for leading troops through hostile territory and back to base camp after an injury to a commanding officer.
The year 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Although U.S. involvement there began in the early 1950s, the U.S. first sent ground troops to the Southeast Asian country in 1965 to help the South Vietnamese push back communist aggression. U.S. troops officially left Vietnam in March 1973 after eight years of stateside social unrest over the war.
Clanton was one of an estimated 300 Southern Baptist chaplains in a 10-year period who served in the war. Southern Baptist chaplains played a key role in providing spiritual guidance and support for more than 530,000 American soldiers. The North American Mission Board (NAMB), then called the Home Mission Board, is the endorsing entity for Southern Baptist chaplains in both military and civilian roles.
Chaplain Steve Gantt, who served in Vietnam for a year in the late 1960s, said many soldiers told him they felt safer when the chaplain was around. “I didn’t necessarily feel like that,” Gantt said with a laugh. “But I did have a chance to tell them that God cares for you — even in this hellish place. That was repeated time and time again.”
Both Gantt and Clanton gave a similar description of their ministries. Besides leading worship services wherever they found a place, chaplains counseled soldiers, officiated memorial services, visited the wounded and spent time with their makeshift congregations.
Chaplains Clanton and Gantt continued their ministry on active duty with the Army until retirement in the early 1990s. Clanton now serves as pastor to senior adults at First Baptist Church, Sumter, S.C. Gantt serves as the transitional pastor of Sandy Level Baptist Church, Blythewood, S.C.
NAMB serves as the endorsing entity for Southern Baptist chaplains in the military. Southern Baptists have 1,355 endorsed military chaplains and a total of 3,547 endorsed chaplains, including those who serve in hospitals, prisons and other settings.
“Military chaplains can go places that the local church cannot go,” said Otis Corbitt, director of missions for Covington Baptist Association and a National Guard Chaplain who was deployed to Iraq in 2010.
“The ministry of presence that chaplains provide takes the love of God to ships, airfields, fighting positions and forward operating bases,” he said.
Several dozen military chaplains serve in Alabama, and three Alabama Army National Guard chaplains are currently deployed overseas, Corbitt said. One of those, Ken Harrison, is pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, Deer Park.
According to NAMB, Alabama also has 20 military chaplains in the Army, Air Force and Army Reserve.