By Jeff Brumley
As if the tempo of military operations and deployments aren’t stressful enough, U.S. Air Force members were jolted by news this week the service will slash nearly 3,500 positions over five years.
But that announcement — including that most of the reductions would be “aggressively” sought in the next 12 months — may be taken in stride by Air Force members who belong to Baptist and other churches which cater to military members, pastors and former servicemen say.
“It plays a huge and important role to have that sense of family and that sense of place” provided by a church, said Jeff Stinson, 41, former Air Force security forces personnel and member of Freedom Life Church, a Baptist General Association of Virginia congregation in Hampton, Va.
Located near several military installations, the multi-site church was instrumental in helping Stinson through the grief and loss of a career due to a forced medical retirement following a heart attack two years ago.
“It’s a place where you can feel safe and let all your emotions out,” he said, adding he knows a lot of active duty airmen will feel the same way when they are let go.
Virginia will see more Air Force cuts than any other state with nearly 750, the Department of Defense said.
“A lot of times in the military, you can’t always express yourself without repercussions,” Stinson said.
Stinson’s experience is par for the course for servicemen and women willing to imbed themselves in congregational life, say the pastors of churches located near bases. Undergoing the dangers and pain of separation from multiple deployments, injuries and death is often eased by the love and support provided by churches sensitive to the challenges of military service.
But the benefits go both ways, ministers say. Congregations often reap deep spiritual rewards from the gratitude for life and family — and willingness to embrace community — that military members often bring to church with them.
‘A zeal for life’
Scot McCosh said he’s seen soldiers seek out churches as a way to broaden their lives beyond the Army.
“There’s a lot of people who want to be out there with other folks so their life is not all camouflage,” said McCosh, senior pastor of Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Fayetteville, N.C.
The church is located near Fort Bragg, home to the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, 13th Airborne Corps, the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and several other commands.
About 40 percent of Mount Pisgah’s congregation consists of active duty or retired soldiers and their families, he said. McCosh is also military: a chaplain with the Army Reserve who served eight years on active duty, including deployments to Afghanistan.
The Army members and their families who worship at Mount Pisgah, he said, come with a strong focus on living in the moment.
“They bring a zeal for life and, having dealt with a long war and been in difficult situations, they tend to live life to the fullest,” McCosh said. “These young families work hard and play hard and bring an energy to the congregation.”
Offering comfort, confidence
The families get just as much in return. McCosh said full involvement in church translates into a support system for soldiers, their spouses and children that brings unparalleled comfort — especially during deployments.
McCosh recalls serving in Afghanistan when he received cards and letters from friends at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church in Fayetteville to which he belonged at the time.
Some of the correspondence was from members he barely knew, but still put his mind at ease.
“They said ‘hey, I saw your wife and daughter at church and I gave them a hug and we’re looking in on them,’” McCosh said. “That gave me all the confidence in the world that I could do my duty down range and they were taking care of my family.”
‘Lean into community’
In Virginia, Freedom Life Church Senior Pastor Freddy Villarreal said ministering to military members comes with a responsibility to be vigilant and nimble in dealing with a range of crises — of which deployments are only one.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a Department of Defense new release that the cuts would be aggressively pursued and save the service about $1.6 billion. Virginia will see deeper cuts than any other state, with nearly 750 on the chopping block.
Villarreal said the airmen members of his church, which is located close to Langley Air Force Base and other Army, Navy and Air Force installations, aren’t panicking about the announcement.
Nor are those who attend Freedom Life’s campus near an Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas.
“They are just waiting to see who’s on the list and at that point it will get a little more intense because families will have decisions to make,” he said.
But no special meetings are being held at Freedom Life Church because the needs and challenges of military personnel are discussed routinely already.
Plus, existing ministries — providing financial and food assistance, crisis and transition counseling and job networking — are already in place and used in an ongoing way, he said.
Meanwhile, service members already know what to do when faced with challenges.
“They are trained to lean into community,” Villarreal said. “We see that a lot in church: a willingness to share struggles and burdens — they latch onto neighbors and lean into community.”
That’s what got Stinson through his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, during which he was subjected to insurgent attacks, boredom and loneliness.
It also helped Stinson and his wife when he faced medical resignation from what he had hoped would be a long Air Force career.
The church “has given us a sense of family that helped us through the whole situation of dealing with an emotional rollercoaster.”