Aug. 12, 2010

Virginia Guard chaplains serve Soldiers responding to Gulf oil disaster 

By Bob Donaldson
U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Army Chaplain (Capt.) Jeffery Hicks of Elkton, Va., and Pfc. Robert Mathis, a chaplain assistant from Spotsylvania, Va., navigate their way through the marsh lands of southern Louisiana near Buras.  Their mission is to serve the spiritual needs and improve morale to responders of the Deepwater Horizon Response Gulf Coast oil spill.

 
Chaplain (Capt.) Edward Paul of the Virginia National Guard speaks with Staff Sgt. Timmie Keinsey of the Louisiana National Guard near Gonzales, La. Paul is one of two Virginia National Guard chaplains providing chaplain services to Louisiana National Guard Soldiers responding to the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil spill. (Photo by Bob Donaldson, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary)

On this particularly hot day in July they traveled to the work site of the Louisiana Army National Guard’s 843rd Engineer Company, where large sandbags are filled and transported to a helicopter pick-up site.  The bags are dropped near shore, creating a storm surge and oil barrier.

As their Humvee bounces along the dusty road leading into the staging area, men could be seen in the distance filling the large white bags.  As the chaplain and his assistant, both from the 1030th Transportation Battalion, approached it was obvious that the troops had been awaiting their arrival.  They first spoke to individuals and then invited them all to pray together underneath the camouflage tent that provided some relief from the direct rays of the sun.  Every Soldier in the unit mustered to pray together. 

“We are blessed to have someone praying over the sites and every soldier here will agree with me on that one,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Davis, from Hammond, La.

As they arrive at the helicopter pick-up site, Soldiers migrated toward the Humvee as if a general assembly had been called.  Some came alone and some in small groups. As before, they all came. As they stood in the burning sun Hicks asked if they would like to pray. Their shadows stretched across the hot, white sand as they bowed their heads.  Most of the Guardsmen are from the affected oil spill areas and as Pfc. Kevin Robinson from Kentwood, La., said when asked how he feels about being there, “Great!  I’m helping out my state … can’t go wrong with that.”

Hicks speaks of his gratitude to those who have helped him, especially his family and employer, in his efforts to serve.

“It’s all about the troops,” he said. “This is a ministry of presence; you have to be with the troops.”  He and Mathis continue to serve wherever they are needed, traveling in their 25 year old Humvee.

Across the state another chaplain team arrives at the Boom Operations and Distribution Center just outside of Gonzales, La. Chaplain (Capt.) Edward Paul, 29th Special Troops Battalion from Virginia Beach, Va., and Staff Sgt. David Paulson, a chaplain assistant with Headquarters Company,  116th Brigade Combat Team of Staunton, Va., are greeted by Capt. Bryan Bridges of Bossier City, La. 

This small detachment receives and ships to local destinations literally hundreds of thousand feet of boom that is used to create a barrier to trap the oil before it washes onto the shore. The Soldiers work in torturous heat and are continuously reminded to take frequent brakes and keep themselves hydrated, according to Bridges.

 
Chaplain (Capt.) Jeffery Hicks (center) of Elkton, Va., provides chaplain services to Louisiana National Guard Soldiers responding to the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil spill. (Photo by Bob Donaldson, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary)

Upon his arrival, Paul begins to visit with the troops. One of the first was Staff Sgt. Timmie Kinsey of the 1083rd Transportation Company, Menden, La.

“In a situation like this, you often feel alone,” Kinsey summed up after speaking with Paul. “The chaplain lets you know that you are not alone and that the Army cares.” 

Next, the team establishes a temporary church in an unused portable building.  Announcements are posted for a 3 p.m. service. The Soldiers begin to arrive from near and distance locations throughout the compound. It is an extremely hot day and the air conditioned building welcomes them with comfort and a few minutes to reflect on their spiritual needs.

Paul greeted the troops with prayer and the song “Now Is the Time to Worship.” The words flash on the screen and everyone sings to the music produced by his portable computer. He speaks to the troops about sharing, forgiveness and the Army values. Their faces reflect the strength of his message.

“I love my job,” Paul said while driving back to his temporary home base at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans. “It’s my passion. To encourage the troops, to bring the Word of God and share the Gospel are my love.”

The chaplains and their chaplain assistants continue to travel the highways and back roads of the affected oil spill area bringing a message of respect and concern for all those who are serving Operation Deepwater Response.  

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