Veteran chaplains reflect on service

By Alexandra Toy 

Chaplain Sam Lee is one of many who has committed his life to sharing Christ with those within the military. Lee immigrated to the United States when he was 20 years old to receive an education. While attending Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana, he felt the Lord call him to the chaplaincy in the U.S. Army.

“I had been seeking God’s will for my life, and I knew that I wanted to serve the Lord and my country,” said Lee. “I wanted to repay the United States—a country where I had been welcomed, met my wife and received an education. So, when a chaplain came to my church and explained that he served both God and country, I realized my calling was in chaplaincy.”

Pastor Parker Thompson, a 90-year-old former chaplain for the U.S. Army, also recalls the day he decided to become a chaplain.

“When I was young, I knew many veterans who helped to mold my life,” said Thompson. “They fought in the Spanish-American War, World War I and even the Civil War. After hearing their stories and experiences, I knew that I wanted to become a solider and spend my life in the military. With my love for ministry, I specifically decided to become a chaplain after I graduated seminary and heard an advertisement for chaplains during the Korean War.”

Throughout Lee’s and Thompson’s extensive years of service, they were both subjected to many challenging and mentally grueling experiences. 

“In 2007, I was deployed to Iraq with my unit for 15 months,” said Lee. “During an especially volatile time, we lost 35 soldiers—33 in combat and 2 to suicide. Because of my role as chaplain, I would travel to the hospital to view the bodies of the deceased. I would close their eyes and pray over them before their bodies were shipped back to the United States. One particular soldier who had been killed was a friend of mine who had four young children. When I saw him, I closed his eyes and sent his body back, but I couldn’t stop thinking about his children who would grow up without their father.

“His memory reminds me of how precious freedom is,” Lee continued. “It is not free; it’s very highly paid for. Many people lay down their lives to make sure that we have freedom. He is a reminder that we have great privilege that comes from greater responsibility.”

“About a week after the Korean War ended, those of us who were left alive walked in a fog,” said Thompson. “The thought that we were not going to make it out alive crept into our souls, and we became accustomed to the thought because every time we took one hill, there was another hill to be taken. That we were going to die became a part of us, whether it would be that day, the next day or the next week. So, when the war was finally over, we all asked, ‘What are we going to do now?’

“I eventually decided to become a pastor because I wanted to deal with my own struggles from the war and help others deal with theirs as well. One particular young veteran who I ministered to explained that, as a solider, he was in the killing business. So, he didn’t believe he had a place in the church. I wanted to help the soldiers like him who didn’t know how to handle living after they came home from the war.”

Lee believes the best way to express gratitude for chaplains and soldiers alike is to respect them.

“Veterans are proud people,” said Lee. “They are proud of their country and of their service. They just want to be treated with dignity and respect, and when we do that, they are grateful. I, as well as other veterans, would also challenge people to serve when the nation calls them, instead of passing it to someone else.”

Thompson explains that one way Americans can express their gratitude to veterans is by utilizing the freedoms for which veterans sacrificed.

“I would encourage people to maximize or use the things that veterans fought for. On election day, a few days ago, I went to the polls and voted. I utilized our free election in our free country. This is why veterans serve and give our lives; so, we can have freedom.”

Currently, both veterans are active in ministry. Chaplain Lee serves as the Command Chaplain for the United States Army South in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. He is the first Asian-American Division Chaplain and the first Asian-American resident War College selectee in U.S. Army history. Lee has also won many awards including the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the National Defense Service Medal with two Bronze Stars, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal and the War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal.

After retiring from the chaplaincy, Thompson became pastor of North Fork Baptist Church in Purcellville, Va.—a church that many veterans attend. At 90-years-old, he is the lead pastor of the 252-year-old church and continues to preach faithfully.

“While I was in the war, I never thought that I’d live to be 25,” said Thompson. “I was on the frontlines three times and wounded five times, but God has given me life. As long as God continues to give me life, then I will utilize it.”

The North American Mission Board serves as an endorsing entity for Southern Baptist chaplains serving for the U.S. military. To learn how you can support and pray for chaplains visit:  

Alexandra Toy writes for the North American Mission Board.

Published November 10, 2017