Vietnam War chaplains helped soldiers through tumultuous era

Baptist Press
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Posted: Nov 11, 2013 5:22 PM
SUMTER, S.C. (BP) -- Army chaplain Charlie Clanton had found it difficult to look at the severely burned young soldier at a makeshift medical evacuation station in Vietnam. The soldier’s face had been charred beyond recognition by a Viet Cong grenade launcher attack.

As Clanton, a Southern Baptist chaplain during the Vietnam War, walked to the gurney and bumped it, the young solder opened his eyes.

"Sir, you were right the other night," the soldier told Clanton.

"Right about what?" Clanton asked, not sure which worship service the young man had attended. Later he realized it had been a service two weeks earlier when he had taught on Psalm 23 in a quickly assembled worship service in the mess hall.

"The other night when you told us about 'the valley of the shadow of death.' I was there tonight, sir," the young man said. "And God kept me going."

Later that night the young man died on a helicopter en route to the hospital.

"That statement to me, a young minister -- 'What you're telling me is right; what God said He would do He did; He kept me going that night' -- that really helped me see that my ministry was worthwhile," Clanton said.

Clanton would later win a Silver Star for his term in Vietnam for leading troops through hostile territory and back to base camp after an injury to a commanding officer.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Although U.S. involvement there began in the early 1950s, the U.S. first sent ground troops to the Southeast Asian country in 1965 to help the South Vietnamese push back communist aggression. U.S. troops officially left Vietnam in March 1973 after eight years of stateside social unrest over the war.

Clanton was one of an estimated 300 Southern Baptist chaplains in a 10-year period who served in the war. Southern Baptist chaplains played a key role in providing spiritual guidance and support for more than 530,000 American soldiers. The North American Mission Board, then called the Home Mission Board, is the endorsing entity for Southern Baptist chaplains in both military and civilian roles.

Chaplain Steve Gantt, who served in Vietnam for a year in the late 1960s, said many soldiers told him they felt safer when the chaplain was around.

"I didn't necessarily feel like that," Gantt said with a laugh. "But I did have a chance to tell them that God cares for you -- even in this hellish place. That was repeated time and time again."

Worship services often were held in dangerous places, Gantt said. For Gantt’s safety, his commanding officer would send a vehicle with a 50-caliber machine gun with the chaplain when he left the base.

"I'll occasionally open up a book and see a place where we held services. If you look carefully you'll see a guy manning a post-mounted 50-caliber machine gun to keep the enemy off of us as we were taking time out of the middle of the day worshiping," said Gantt, who was a member of the same ROTC chapter as Clanton at Furman University in the 1950s.

Both Gantt and Clanton gave a similar description of their ministries. Besides leading worship services wherever they found a place, chaplains counseled soldiers, officiated memorial services, visited the wounded and spent time getting to know their makeshift congregations.

Gantt said much of his counseling time was spent helping soldiers deal with the moral objections to the war, a discussion fueled by the growing antiwar movement in the U.S.

"My observation was that the choice usually came down to, 'Well, I'm in this. That guy that's on my right and on my left, he's here and wants to get home and I'm here and want to get home,'" Gantt said. "I'm going to fight for my brother -- not just myself. Our safety will largely depend upon how well we do what we do even in the intensity of combat. It's a proposition that most soldiers shared once they were exposed to combat."

American social unrest during the period -- often centering around the war -- made the troops’ return difficult, whether in 1973 or earlier. Clanton said he remembers being told to dress in civilian clothes as he traveled back to the U.S. through San Francisco on his way to a new assignment in 1968.

"I see such an improvement today," Clanton said. "You see stories every day about troops coming home. You turn on CNN Headline News, and they do a salute to a soldier overseas. They do that during the morning news still. Now when we welcome troops home, we welcome them home well. I think our country learned a great lesson from Vietnam."

Clanton said he has been "welcomed home" numerous times in the last few years along with Iraq veterans. Often, he said, churches and other organizations will add Vietnam veterans to their welcome because they know many weren't treated well upon their return four decades earlier.

The improvement in the treatment of returning veterans has been seen throughout Southern Baptist life as well, Gantt said.

"Quite frankly, I think our denomination has done a much better job of bringing the needs of our troops overall and the ministry of our chaplains in particular in front of our churches," he said.

Chaplains Clanton and Gantt continued their ministry on active duty with the Army until retirement in the early 1990s. Clanton now serves as pastor to senior adults at First Baptist Church in Sumter, S.C. Gantt serves as the transitional pastor of Sandy Level Baptist Church in Blythewood, S.C.

The North American Mission Board serves as the endorsing entity for Southern Baptist chaplains in the military. Southern Baptists have 1,355 endorsed military chaplains and a total of 3,547 endorsed chaplains, including those who serve in hospitals, prisons and other settings.

To view a video about NAMB chaplains, visit www.namb.net/chaplaincy. To learn more about how a church can support veterans, click here.

Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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