According to business consultant Robin Lewis, “what the world needs now is great leadership.” Nowhere is this truer than in the United States military services. To meet its need for leaders, the military annually commissions over 17,000 new officers each year. Of these, over 70% receive their commissions through ROTC – the Reserve Officers Training Corps, a system of training conducted in concert with colleges and universities around the country. At over 450 campus locations, students take classes in military instruction, leadership and skills which prepare them to serve as leaders of the armed forces of our nation.
Several ministries exist to augment this training by focusing on the spiritual needs of this specific group of young men and women, helping them develop the “spiritual fitness” and “resilience” necessary to help them stand up to the rigors of combat, and life in general. I am personally forever grateful that one of these ministries was in place at the college I attended on my way to an Air Force commission. Let me share my story:
How It All Started
It began during the first semester of my junior year as a cadet at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. I had come to this school for the purpose of subjecting myself to a rigorous and challenging environment, in pursuit of an Air Force commission. The Citadel had been everything I expected – and more: steeped in military tradition, deeply rooted in the better values and romance of the Old South, demanding yet wonderfully connected to the genteel society which characterized the beautiful, historic city of which it had been a part since 1842. Not really knowing what to study, but with more of an interest in the “social” sciences than the hard ones, I had chosen history as my major. What better subject to tackle in such an environment?
But every major area of study has its “crunch course,” and History of England was that course for most of us in the History Department. Lieutenant Colonel Charles “Fat Jack” Martin was known for being the nemesis of many aspiring history scholars. He was enormously intelligent, exceptionally knowledgeable and wonderfully entertaining as a lecturer. As his nickname implies, he was, moreover, quite imposing. But he was also famously demanding, brooking no half-heartedness in our pursuit of a Bachelors credential in this most important of all the liberal arts. And for all my love of history and of his class, I was struggling. That semester, a circumstance arose that challenged, not only my academic pursuits, but my total person.
It actually started one day during class. As Colonel Martin lectured that day in his usual, captivating way, suddenly, without warning, and for no reason I was aware of, I was seized with a strange, overpowering feeling of approaching doom. It felt like I was either about to die, or to go blind, or lose my mind. I felt suddenly disconnected with what was going on around me, and was filled with an immediate sense of panic. I remember grabbing the front of the armchair desk in which I was sitting, in order to somehow hang on – to this life, to reality, to keep from sliding toward some unseen abyss of non-existence. Thankfully, the feeling passed, but I left that class shaken, knowing something had happened for which I had no explanation.
Living With Fear
The rest of the day passed normally, with no further incident – that is, until ESP. ESP, or Evening Study Period, was a time of enforced study hours following supper, during which there were very few other options regarding what to do with ourselves. We couldn’t leave campus, couldn’t go downtown for a beer, had no phones, no computers, no TVs. If we were caught sleeping, or playing cards, or sneaking “over the fence,” we would be written up and receive demerits. If we received too many demerits in a given month, our freedoms would be further restricted. So – we studied. (It is probably this kind of rigor that enabled me eventually to graduate.)
That evening, as I studied, I couldn’t help reflecting on the strange, scary incident in History of England class that day. Then it happened: the same feeling returned. I was suddenly gripped with the sense that I was going “over the edge” – not knowing what “edge” exactly – but it was terrifying. Again, grabbing desperately onto reality, I got up, left my room and went to find some classmates to visit for a few minutes, hoping the feeling might pass, which it did. Of course, I made no mention to the others of what was happening; didn’t want anyone to think I was losing it – even if I was. Cadets were not known for having great compassion toward anyone they perceived to be weak.
But even though the feeling passed, now I was most definitely shaken. I had absolutely no control over what had occurred; it had just “happened to me,” – twice in one day – and I could identify no cause. I began to greatly fear the return of this unaccountable fear. Fear of fear began to take over my life. If I were alone I felt especially vulnerable, and sure enough, sometimes in that circumstance, this thing would come back, reinforcing the fear – of the fear. Sometimes the thing would start to creep in just as I was drifting off to sleep, so bedtime also became a thing to be dreaded.
I don’t know how many times this occurred in the months that followed, but I know I lived in private fear. So even if I weren’t seized by another episode, I became rather controlled by constant fear that I would be. It became a very uncomfortable way to live – in an environment with enough discomforts of its own. This continued for months, at times driving me to distraction, wearing me down because I resisted going to bed, afraid that the panic might return during the “aloneness” of trying to go to sleep.
Somehow, in spite of the exhaustion, I managed to continue my studies, and to carry out my cadet responsibilities. Outwardly, I don’t know how I came across to others, but inwardly, I was a mess. I wondered if perhaps God was judging me for the many, many sins I had committed since becoming a Christian back during high school. Back then, when my best friend’s brother, a US Marine, had been killed during the Vietnam conflict, I had heard for the first time what a real Christian was, and had presented myself to Jesus, trusting in His death on the cross the payment for my sins. But there were so many times since then that I had been unfaithful to Him by the way that I lived. So now I wasn’t sure where I stood with God.
Finding Community and New Direction
In April of the following semester God, in His grace, had me cross paths with another cadet who was reading a book, entitled, “Know Why You Believe,” by Paul Little, of InterVarsity fame. We began a conversation in which this other cadet asked me about my faith. When I affirmed that I was, indeed, a Christian, he lit up. He said he needed someone to “fill in” for him at a retreat he was scheduled to attend the following weekend, because another event had come up for him, and he was not going to be able to attend. At first I was reluctant, but I had a strong sense that maybe God wanted me to go. I couldn’t shake that feeling, so the next day, I asked the cadet in charge of our company if it was too late in the week to gain approval to leave the campus during the upcoming weekend. I was pretty sure it was, so his disapproval would let me off the hook from attending. Remarkably, when he found out the purpose, he gave me immediate permission, so I was actually “on the hook” again!
Now convinced that this really was from God, and since I no longer had any excuse not to attend, I drove up on Friday to the retreat, which was being put on by a ministry I had known nothing about until that weekend – Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru). There I discovered a group of really wonderful young men and women – Citadel cadets and others – who genuinely loved Jesus. This was a first in my experience, and it was both refreshing and amazing. To that point, I had had no idea there were cadets who were boldly pursing their relationship with Jesus Christ. My own spiritual nourishment had only been through the weekly chapel services, mandatory at that time.
I am so very grateful that there was a ministry to Citadel cadets, and that a loving God led me to that Cru retreat, because it was there that I had my very first “quiet time.” Through that quiet time – in a borrowed Bible – God revealed His intention for me, not only for that weekend, but for my entire life. As I was reading in John 6, a verse figuratively reached out and “grabbed me by the collar.” It seemed as if God were speaking directly to me – and I am now convinced that he was! Verse 27 says, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him God the Father has set His seal.” In short order, it occurred to me that I had been chasing – “working for” – a whole lot of things that would not endure, that would fade, rust, wear out, die, or ultimately amount to nothing. Jesus was telling me that he had a new direction for my life.
A New Calling
As the day progressed, and as I reflected on what God had showed me in the Bible, and as I observed those godly, young men and women who were pursuing God, I realized I needed to surrender my life unreservedly to Jesus for His purposes. That evening, I raised my eyes to heaven, and breathed out a prayer: “OK God, I will go where You want me to go, do what You want me to do, and be what You want me to be – but” (knowing my considerable failure to live up to commitments like this, I also added), “You’ve got to help me.” A simple prayer but I meant it.
And He took me up on it. That verse and that day set me on the course on which I’ve been traveling all my days since. Later that summer, I was able to attend a huge Cru gathering of Christians in Dallas, Texas, where we were taught how to share “The Four Spiritual Laws” and were given sectors of the city in which to go knock on doors and share the good news of Christ with all who would listen. Many came to faith in Christ that week, and I learned that God could use me to reach others for Him.
That week I also discovered another ministry called Officers Christian Fellowship (OCF) which exists to military leaders and cadets come to know God through Jesus and His Word, and helps them live integrated lives – with Christ as Lord, not only of their faith, but over their profession as well. As a cadet, I was eligible to join, and I did so on the spot, one of the best decisions I ever made. Through OCF I was able, following graduation and commissioning, to link up with other Christian officers for Bible study and prayer at my very first base of assignment.
The Vision at Officers’ Christian Fellowship is the military community positively impacted through Christlike leaders. The Mission is to engage military leaders in Biblical fellowship and growth to equip them for Christlike service at the intersection of faith, family, and profession.
Check out the Officers’ Christian Fellowship ministry!
Through OCF I was then introduced to yet another ministry, The Navigators – a worldwide ministry committed to advancing the gospel of Jesus into all nations, through spiritual generations of disciples who intentionally live out their faith among those who do not yet know Jesus. Through Navigators I learned how to help another person go deep in his relationship with Jesus, and become a reproducing disciple. Several years into my Air Force experience, The Navigators asked my young wife and me to enter into staff training for the purpose of becoming full-time missionaries to the military, helping even more cadets and others come to know and follow Jesus.
For 43 years with The Navigators, we have had the privilege of helping many others, active duty and cadets, to “know Christ and make Him known.” We’ve served at numerous military bases, including the US Air Force Academy and the Army War College. Most recently, we’ve been tasked with reaching cadets enrolled in ROTC at colleges and universities around the nation.
Navigators Military shares the love of Jesus Christ with the men and women of our nation’s military and their families. We walk alongside them as they become disciples of Jesus. Then we equip them to do the same for those they know.
Check out the Navigators Military ministry!
At Home In Military Ministry
We’ve also been privileged to partner with both of other ministries that were so significant in my own life: Cru and OCF. Together, we host regional retreats around the country, retreats like the one I attended back in college. All these are focused on helping ROTC cadets – the future leaders of our military services – to follow Jesus and help others do so as well, wherever they are, and wherever God sends them.
It has also been our great privilege to partner with the Armed Services Ministry of the American Bible Society in getting God’s word into the hands of these young men and women – many of whom have never read the Bible, nor studied it! We are so grateful for the resources ASM provides as we reach out each year to literally thousands of cadets and midshipmen around the country!
New Life with Jesus
As a “p.s.”, I’d like to say my fears went away immediately after giving my life to Jesus, but it took a little time. That Spring, after I told my parents of the decision I’d made at that Cru retreat, they gave me a beautiful New American Standard Bible, and I began to read it. One day I came across a passage that really hit home and set me free. Proverbs 3:21-26 says,
“Keep sound wisdom and discretion. They will be life to your soul and adornment to your neck. Then you will walk on your walk securely and your foot will not stumble. When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden [panic], or the onslaught of the wicked when it comes, for the Lord will be your confidence, and will keep your foot from being caught.”
Well, God gave me the grace to believe Him at His word. I latched onto those verses and clung to them as being authoritative because they are from Him – for me. And to my relief, that took care of my panic attacks, as well as the fear of their returning. I’ve slept soundly ever since. Praise God!