By Army Chaplain (Major) Jeffrey Mitchell

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was serving as both an Army Reserve company commander and a pastor in the Southern Baptist Church. I vividly remember the news of the towers being struck.

I wasn’t working at my church that morning, but undergoing routine inspections required for my Reserve unit.

More than a year later—on Valentine’s Day 2003—I received word my unit would deploy for the initial invasion of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I spent eight months in Iraq as a company commander during what is now known as Operation Iraqi Freedom I.

Because I was uncertain about the length of the deployment—it turned out to be one year—I resigned from my role as a pastor to focus on commanding the reservists I was called to serve.

As a civilian pastor and Army officer, I think one of the hardest parts of my combat experience was that I didn’t seem to have much access to an Army chaplain as I made many tough decisions.

I returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom in December 2003 with lots of emotional damage, but stayed on active duty until May 2004, when I returned to my civilian church ministry in Pensacola, Florida, for five years. During those years I continued to serve as an Army Reserve officer while I worked as a pastor for college students and single adults in Pensacola. Because of our proximity to several Navy and Marine bases, I had lots of interaction with young flight students, flight instructors and other service members coming and going to Iraq and Afghanistan. During these years, God also helped me work through much of the emotional damage my experiences in Iraq had caused.

In early 2009, I was convinced I was being called to serve both God and country, so I requested to return to active duty as an Army chaplain. My request was granted and I entered active duty in May 2009, completing the Chaplain Basic Officer’s Leaders Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

I was convinced God would use me to help others who were struggling with the emotional trauma caused by war. My first duty assignment as an active-duty Army chaplain was at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. My unit—an Airborne Combat Engineer battalion—deployed immediately after I arrived with the mission of clearing travel routes of IEDs.

During these missions, the focus of an Army chaplain remains the same—to minister to the living, care for the wounded and honor the fallen. During that 12-month deployment to Afghanistan, more than 100 of my soldiers were severely wounded in combat and 13 made the ultimate sacrifice.

Nobody returns from war without wounds. God’s providence gives chaplains and chaplain families their security. The belief that God cares about the details of a soldier’s life is what fuels a chaplain’s work.

We returned from Afghanistan in December 2010 and I remained with that unit for another 2-and-a-half years. During that time, I had the opportunity to sit down with each family member who lost a soldier in that battalion and share reflections of my interactions with their loved ones. Ultimately, I performed the memorial ceremony for each of my fallen brothers.

To honor them, we erected a memorial just outside the dining facility at Smoke Bomb Hill on Fort Bragg and brought back all of the Gold Star families for its dedication. Those soldiers saved a lot of lives, but at a personal cost. By bringing closure to what we all went through and having their names etched in stone, they’ll always be remembered for the sacrifice they made to our nation.

Since the inception of the Army, soldiers have volunteered. Some have given everything. Words cannot express the full impact of the valor of these young men who made the ultimate sacrifice. We have a future because of those brave men and women and we will never forget their sacrifices.

As an Army chaplain, I am given a small glimpse into the lives of soldiers and military families. I have celebrated with families when babies come into this world. I have prayed with soldiers during celebrations or when soldiers accept responsibility for others. I’ve grieved with family members as they received the news their soldier fell in combat, and I’ve mourned those I’ve cared very deeply for as they died in my arms.

From my perspective, no greater privilege exists than to be a chaplain in the United States Army. Whether during peace or war, serving as the shepherd for America’s heroes is the greatest responsibility on earth. Serving as a chaplain is truly the best job in the Army.

–Army Major Jeffrey Mitchell serves as the brigade chaplain for the 8th Military Police Brigade at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.