Philip T. Smiley (CPT) is a Seventh-day Adventist military chaplain currently serving with U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. He was willing to take some time for CQ to interview him about his unique ministry in a tense part of the world.
CQ: Why did you choose to serve as a military chaplain?
PS: Most denominations, including our own, tend to be uncomfortable with taking up arms in defense of our country, so the individual soldier is not always as welcome in the local congregations as he or she should be.
In 1998 I accessioned to active duty, leaving the traditional pastoral ministry behind. My current assignment is with the 297th Military Intelligence Battalion out of Fort Gordon, Georgia. I have been most recently in Kuwait and Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
CQ: Paint for us a word picture of the conditions in which you and those you serve have been operating during the past several weeks.
PS: When combat actually began, things became very tense here in Kuwait. All of us were in full “battle rattle” (protective masks, body armor, Kevlar helmet, etc.). When you can finally remove the mask and chemical suit, sometimes many hours later, you are drenched in sweat and smell like you haven’t bathed in days! But everyone else around you looks the same-and smells the same!
CQ: How would you describe the general spiritual atmosphere of today’s military?
PS: Most military members have an active faith in God and are very spiritual. Because military service puts service members in harm’s way, most soldiers must come to grips with their own mortality right from the beginning of their careers.
CQ: What change in attitudes, if any, have you observed in the men and women you serve since the beginning of the war in Iraq?
PS: We know each other more intimately than most blood relatives. Our strengths and weaknesses cannot be hidden, but instead of that dividing us, it draws us closer. I think it is a thing of beauty. It makes real Jesus’ words, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” You cannot die for someone you do not love.
CQ: What are the core Christian beliefs that have proven to be absolutely necessary in order for a soldier to survive spiritually within the horrific physical and emotional ambience of war?
PS: The assurance of salvation, a personal relationship with Jesus, the power of prayer, God’s presence with you at all times, forgiveness of sins, God’s strengthening of the individual to overcome fear and strength to accomplish the mission. Soldiers are interested in the basics. Faith to them must be simple.
CQ: How do you feel about serving as a spiritual leader for people of other faiths in the military?
PS: I love it! I get to hear different points of view and where they come from. I get to share the Bible and help people see things from another angle, and I can compare what I believe with many wonderful believers. I am happy to paint the first loving word picture of our wonderful Saviour and let Jesus finish the process according to His perfect plan.
CQ: What have you found to be the most common request soldiers make of you during conflict?
PS: Pray for me. Pray for my family. Help me through this hard time. Being in the same bunker with them during an air raid lifts their spirits. Somehow, because you are there representing God to them, they feel safer!
CQ: They say there are no atheists in foxholes. To what extent have you found this to be true?
PS: When danger arises, soldiers want God to be there with them. Much disbelief in God comes from bad theology and wrong perceptions about how God interacts with humankind in this world. Given the opportunity, a good chaplain can help soldiers with these traumatic experiences and lead them on the path of faith.
CQ: How can a soldier who has discovered a new awareness of God on the battlefield extend that experience into normal life after peace returns?
PS: This world will always be a dangerous place to a soldier. When soldiers go through a war, there are images and experiences they will never forget. And God’s presence in their life going through those times will also stay with them.
CQ: How can young people who are contemplating military service prepare themselves spiritually to face what may come on the battlefield?
PS: Attend church every week. Read your Bible faithfully and consistently. Renew your prayer life and talk to God often every day. Start a pattern you will follow from the beginning of basic training to the end of your career. Work harder than everyone else, so when you ask for exceptions because of your faith, you have earned the respect of your superiors and they will be inclined to help you because you are one of their best soldiers.
CQ: How is the God of the battlefield perceived differently from the God worshiped in churches around the world?
PS: The God of the battlefield deals in humankind’s greatest needs, where all around is noise, injury, terror, trauma, and great distress. He stands beside soldiers and strengthens their trembling hands.
The God we worship in church seems far above and distant from the noise and terror of battle. There is always time to complete our time with God. It is easy to feel His presence.
The God of the battlefield and the God we meet in church are one and the same, just different aspects of the same infinite Being.
CQ: What have you personally found most intriguing about your corner of the Middle East?
PS: This is a country of contrasts-barren wastes of sand and towns with large, intricate, beautiful mansions for single family dwellings. They are rich in oil, but live in the hottest country on earth. Side by side you can find BMW’s, Toyota pickups, camels, goats, and sheep.
CQ: What have you personally found most disturbing about your corner of the Middle East?
PS: The cities and highways are filthy. Trash is strewn everywhere. The air and gulf are polluted.
This is a dangerous place and so much suffering has been perpetrated in the name of God. The terrorist threat is ever present, and we can never let down our guard. It is so sad to see such hate, revenge, violence, and human suffering.
CQ: Any words of advice to young people today who are searching for God on their own personal battlefields?
PS: Be assured that as you are searching for God, He is searching for you. Sometimes we don't hear God when we call to Him out of our despair and personal trauma because our pain and fear overwhelms our ability to hear His voice. That is why He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
CQ: As a spiritual person and a military person, how would you define "heroism"?
PS: Heroes sacrifice their own lives that others might live. Heroes do the right thing regardless of what the cost might be. Heroes move forward in spite of their paralyzing fears to do what must be done.
“Hero” is just another way we recognize that someone is saying, “I am your man or woman, Lord. Use me wherever you need me!”
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