Guard chaplain works Christmas magic anywhere
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For American soldiers serving in far away places, Christmas is a melancholy, difficult time, a challenging emotional hurdle.
Col. Bruce Reed knows the feeling. Been there. Done that. Twice. It was his job to help downhearted soldiers get through it.
State chaplain and full-time support chaplain for the Joint Forces Headquarters of the West Virginia National Guard, he spent two Christmases deployed with Operation Iraqi Freedom. Even in the desert, he found ways to bring the magic of Christmas to the troops.
His resume brims with commendations, including the Bronze Star. The honors reflect a warm, caring personality well suited to the joys and sorrows he deals with in God's work.
He's 59, a native of Parkersburg.
"I was born in Ohio. We moved to Parkersburg when I was five. My dad works for the post office as a postal inspector.
"My dad asked me one time what I wanted for Christmas. We had always played Army with the boys on the block. One kid had a little machine gun. I thought I would be big stuff if I only had one of those. I told my dad, 'If you just get me one of those machine guns, I don't care about anything else.' He said I was a cheap fix because they cost 99 cents. It didn't take much to please me.
"I grew up a United Methodist. My parents made sure every Sunday we were in church and at youth group on Sunday evenings. My wife and I met at a youth group at church.
"I was in Scouts. I didn't make Eagle, but I was a Life Scout and made Explorers. Wherever I preached, I tried to make sure the church had a Scout troop. I think that's important. It taught me to wear a uniform, how to lead and be outside and to respect a chain of command.
"I was a cheerleader at Parkersburg High School. I was in the orchestra, percussion, and the choirs. I started teaching piano when I got out of high school. My undergraduate degree is in organ.
"I went to Parkersburg Community College, then to West Virginia Wesleyan to study church music. By the time I was out of high school, I knew I wanted to be a preacher.
"I felt a call to the ministry when I was at a church youth retreat. We had a pastor give the sermon at a campfire. I felt like I really wanted to do that, to tell the people about the Lord and the message of Christmas and Advent and having Christ in your life.
"At that campfire, I sat around until everybody else left, and the Lord and I had some conversation. I told Him what I wanted to do, and He warned me in an almost audible voice that it would be hard. I didn't realize how hard.
"The hard part is being with people when they are suffering. I've probably done 13 or 14 next-of-kin notifications, the first one on the family's doorstep. That is hard.
"It's also hard leaving your family during difficult times. When my granddaughter was born, I was called to New Orleans after Katrina. I had just landed with the National Guard and got word I was a grandfather. I was joyous. I tried to find cigars to hand out. Where do you find cigars after a flood?
"The next morning, I got a call from my wife saying that there was something physically wrong with the baby. I could deal with that. We would work through it. Then my son said, 'Dad, I wish you were here.' He needed me. The people in New Orleans needed me. My granddaughter is OK, but there were trying moments.
"I started serving churches in college. I had seven churches in Barbour County. My first time as pastor at those seven churches, I thought I would just pick one church and get to their Christmas service. That was the wrong choice.
"I didn't know how previous pastors did it. Somebody at the church finally told me. You walk in the door and go right up and read the Christmas story. When you are done, someone will say, 'Thank you for being here,' and you go to the next church. Seven times in the same night.
"He said I missed something else, that there is usually an envelope in the tree for the pastor. He was nice enough to bring some of those envelopes with him.
"In Barbour County, they took a guy who didn't know how to be a pastor, and they let me do stupid things and grow for three years. That's a wonderful gift for a young pastor.
"I've always loved the Christmas dramas in church, when you see little kids learning about the story for the first time. Where was Jesus born? What's a manger? I love to see their eyes brighten up.
"I joined the Army Reserves as a chaplain in 1990 when I was 37, 17 years after I joined the ministry. That was my midlife crisis. I was serving at Nighbert Memorial and Holden Community in Logan as full-time pastor for both churches. I finished my doctorate of youth ministry in '91.
"The previous church I served was in Terra Alta, very close to Camp Dawson, the National Guard camp. All my people at the church worked at Camp Dawson. When a chaplain would show up, they would send him to tell me I would make a good chaplain for the Guard. I started thinking about that.
"In 1994, I transferred to chaplain with the Guard. I'd been serving in the Reserves in Big Chimney for four years. That brigade slot went away. A National Guard slot opened in Parkersburg, so I took that and pastored at First United Methodist for three years.
"In 2002, a full-time position was opening here for state chaplain. Three of us interviewed for it. That night, they called and asked if I wanted to move to Charleston. A year later, I was deployed for a year. Had I stayed in Parkersburg, they would have been without a pastor for a year.
"I spent two Christmases on deployment. Every holiday is tough. We tried to make it the best we could in the desert for our soldiers. We sing carols. We have decorations sent. It's a busy time at the chapel.
"We were in Kuwait in December '03 at Camp Arifjan. We were in tents, so we couldn't do candlelight services. Instead, we ordered maybe 400 glow sticks in all different colors and put them all around the outside of the chapel tent.
"A couple of musicians and I decided to get a volunteer choir together and prepare a Christmas cantata. Most of the members of the choir were choir members in local churches across the U.S. Gathering to practice brought some welcome distractions from the war.
"At one point, I looked across the sand at a light in the distance, and I wondered if it was like that for the shepherds looking toward Bethlehem when they saw the star.
"One of my soldiers was so depressed. He said he was always Santa Claus back home. I called the state chaplain and told him to send me a Santa suit. This guy played Santa for three days. He went around to all the tables in the dining facility and to all the battalions. It just sparked him up. It's the simple things that you miss.
"Chaplains don't get sent to battles, but we talk to soldiers who have done those things. If you let them touch your heart with their story, you get to carry it, and it's lighter for them because you are carrying it, too.
"I performed a wedding in the dessert on my first trip over, one of the only weddings in Kuwait for service members. We've done baptisms in the dessert. If you are going into battle, you want to make sure you are good with the guy upstairs.
"There's a place in the movie 'Patton' where Patton is looking over the battlefield, and you hear him say, 'God help me, I love this.'
"Well, God help me, but I think God has me where he wants me. God called me to be here. I look back to the training. He let me do youth ministry so I could deal with kids, and what's a soldier if not a big kid? Most of our soldiers are 18, 19 and 20, so they're still kids.
"He let me do music because when you are out trying to do a service, music touches these soldiers. I play piano for Morris Memorial Church in Kanawha City every Sunday that I can.
"He had me do Scouting so I could learn chain of command and that uniforms are worn a certain way and how to stay in tents and take care of myself in the woods. Going through that in the military was a piece of cake because I had already done most of it.
"On deployment, I've missed two of my kids' high school graduations and two of my six grandkids' births. Both times, on the day I left, my daughter has come up to me and said she just found out she was pregnant.
"I always say I'm having a good day because I'm one day closer to retirement. I just mean I'm one day closer to being able to spend more time with my wife and kids. They are the ones who have suffered so I can serve."
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.