By Jeff Brumley
Gerry Hutchinson attended a Memorial Day ceremony with state officials in Georgia last week, leaving him free to enjoy the holiday weekend with family.
But Hutchinson, who oversees chaplains and pastoral counselors for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said his mind and heart will be with Sgt. James S. Lee, a Marine who died in 2005 while serving in Afghanistan.
Hutchinson, a Navy chaplain assigned to Lee’s helicopter squadron at the time, said the unit was about to return home when it happened.
“The Army helo he was on crashed and all aboard perished,” he said.
Hutchinson, who described Lee as an active Christian, was one of the first to learn of the death. He remembers squadron leaders calling the unit together to make the announcement.
“I remember seeing one of his fellow Marines crumple to the ground…,” he said. “We were standing in formation and he just crumpled.”
That, Hutchinson said, is what he will be thinking about on Memorial Day. It’s what he was thinking about in the days leading up to it.
Recently Hutchinson took time out of his day to describe for Baptist News Global what Memorial Day means to him and to others who serve as military chaplains.
Is it a given that any chaplain in uniform right now will be pretty busy on this three-day weekend?
I don’t know that it’s an absolute given. Certainly for the active duty there are Memorial Day observances; that’s more likely than a reservist or a Guardsman. But I can assure you that every chaplain has people they have known and served with who have died. So it becomes a very personal day of remembrance for them.
What kind of extra responsibilities do military chaplains generally have around Memorial Day?
You would be part of the planning for the Memorial Day observance, either taking the lead or being one of the members of the planning team. Most likely you will have a part in a Memorial Day observance, offering the invocation or benediction or being one of the speakers yourself.
Is it a pretty exhausting time for chaplains, given the emotional demands of the holiday and all the extra duties involved?
It would vary from person to person. I have a friend in the Navy who served with Marines in Iraq and they lost 28 members of their unit. That’s a heck of a lot of funerals and memorial services to carry out. And … you know these people — they’re your coworkers, your shipmates, your fellow soldiers, depending on your own frame of reference it would vary from chaplain to chaplain. … It just makes the day of remembering more than a holiday. It’s a day of personal remembrance and reflection.
Does it ever annoy you that many civilians fail to realize Memorial Day is more than just a holiday from work?
I don’t know that it annoys me. For me, it’s a personal thing. For me it’s about a Marine who died [in 2005] four days before we left Afghanistan. We had been there 18 months without incident. It was such a devastating blow to the whole squadron.
Is it rewarding for military chaplains to play such a central role during Memorial Day observances?
I think generally chaplains feel a sense of satisfaction doing their jobs, whether it’s participating in a ceremony or sharing their faith. It’s a sense of “Hey, I am here, I am making a contribution.” Even in the hard times — when you are giving a death notification to a family or ministering to troops who have lost someone — the opportunity to be the presence of Christ, to make a constructive difference provides a sense of satisfaction that counterbalances … the hardship of it.