Experiencing God’s Presence in my Military Service (Part 1)

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(Note: This is the first article of a two-part series on this topic.  You can read part 2 here.  This article was also posted on the Coram Deo blog.)

In preparation for an upcoming podcast interview later this month where I will have the opportunity to share my unique career journey, I have been reflecting on my military experience over 34 years of serving in and with the U.S. Army.  There is abundant evidence that God has been and is present with me in this work:

  1. God led me to serve in the army
  2. God brought me through every challenge I faced
  3. God enabled me to perform beyond my expectations
  4. God developed my character and caused me to grow in spiritual maturity
  5. God met my family’s needs
  6. God used me to love my neighbors by meeting their needs
  7. God gave me understanding about the eternal value of military service
  8. God was with me as I transitioned from active duty to civilian government service
  9. God provided a position that fits my unique skillset and background as He designed
  10. God continues to use me in a critical role to advise senior leaders and staff

This is an appropriate day to post this article, as I enlisted on February 7, 1986.

Let me expand on each of these points and illustrate with a few stories to help my readers better understand how God has been present with me in every single assignment where I have served.  Here, I will address the first five out of the ten points listed above.  I will discuss the second set of five in a subsequent article.

It is important for me to note that my military experience was preceded by short seasons of math education and ministry.  (See article on my career journey.)  I am only able to share biblical insights about work due to God’s presence on the long and winding road on which He had gently led me.

God led me to serve

I was in a tough spot in early 1986.  I had started seminary in the fall of 1982.  Due to a number of doors that God had closed after three years of struggling, it was clear that I had exhausted all options to continue pursuing my master’s degree.  I had to let go of my dream.  My pastor of the church that we attended gave me some wise advice.  He said, “When your dream dies, find a new dream.”  Little did I know that God was going to answer my prayer in a most unique way.

Be all that you can be!” was the U.S. Army slogan at the time.  Perhaps I needed to be willing to consider joining the military to get some financial stability for my young family.  The medical benefits were a plus, as was the G.I. Bill and Army College Fund which would help me get my seminary degree down the road if I still felt led to pursue furthering my education.  After much prayer, I decided to enlist for three years in early February.   I shipped out to begin my basic training five weeks later, just one week shy of my daughter’s first birthday.  I was 27 years old.

Thirty-four years later, I am still with the army.  After serving on active duty for twenty years, six months, and seventeen days (but who’s counting?), I continued my service as a Department of the Army civilian.  I had no idea how amazing this answer to prayer was going to turn out.

God brought me through every challenge

I can easily say that there were a lot of challenges when I first joined the army.  In basic training, there were the physical challenges of long days, running for miles and miles, and doing hundreds of pushups.  In my next phase of training, there were mental challenges to learn new technical skills.

When I got to my first duty station at Fort Stewart, Georgia, I had to learn how to submit to my squad leader’s authority.  He was a year younger than me, a staff sergeant with ten years in the Army.  There were things I had to learn about the way things were done, and quite often my pride got in the way.  During these humbling times, I had to trust God and depend on His grace, mercy, and wisdom to strengthen me and get me through on a daily basis.  It was years later before I knew what I was doing and had developed confidence in my abilities as a Soldier.

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God enabled me to perform above my expectations

There were many occasions when God blew me away by enabling me and allowing me to perform way beyond my expectations.  I found unexpected success as a Soldier throughout my twenty years on active duty.  I was promoted quickly.  I did well in the schools the army sent me to attend as I strove to compete for top honors.  I was the distinguished honor graduate at my chemical basic noncommissioned officer (NCO) course, honor graduate (#2 spot) at my chemical advanced NCO course, and made the commandant’s list at the Battle Staff NCO Course.  In Korea in the fall of 1988, I was chosen as the Eighth Army NCO of the quarter, and in February 1991 I was selected as the Fort Lewis NCO of the year.  Every time I achieved something, I sought to give all the glory to God.  It was abundantly clear that I could have done none of it on my own.

With each new assignment, I never knew how it was going to turn out, but God usually enabled me to learn and adapt fairly quickly.  Several jobs stand out in my mind.  By the grace of God, I had a positive experience working on the III Corps headquarters as operations NCO in the chemical section staff.  I also thrived as a company operations sergeant, working at division headquarters, and especially as an observer/controller trainer.  There, I conducted numerous chemical training exercises, provided mobilization support with deploying Army Reserve and National Guard units, and wrote a few articles for Army publications to share some of the lessons I had learned.

God developed my character

However, among these many successes, I also had some unexpected failures, which humbled me, and made me more Christ-like.  As an Army recruiter for sixteen months, I failed miserably, despite the fact that I had gotten myself sent to Fort Collins, Colorado, my old college town.  Several years later, as a platoon sergeant in a chemical company in Kitzingen, Germany, it became obvious after about eight months that I was ill-prepared for that job also.  This was mostly due to conflicts with my platoon leader, but it also had to do with my lack of leadership experience.  (See article I wrote last April, “How God Uses our Failures at Work”, published by the Nashville Institute for Faith + Work.”)

It was during these difficult assignments, God caused me to depend on Him as my source of confidence and identity.  The fruit of the Spirit grew by leaps and bounds as I increased in compassion, patience, kindness, and peace that passed all understanding.  I also came to appreciate those times when God had truly blessed my efforts.  I did not take them for granted.

I also saw God graciously work out all things for my good in spite of my failures.  After my assignment as a recruiter came to an abrupt end, I was sent to Fort Hood, Texas in the spring of 1993.  It was there that I saw God use me in a mighty way to be a catalyst behind the scenes, which resulted in 168 Soldiers from multiple units across post attending the Dallas and Houston Promise Keepers Conferences in 1995.  This was a huge faith-building experience for me and a life-changing event for these men and their families.

God met my family’s needs

I am ever grateful how God provided abundantly for my family while I was on active duty.  Although the starting pay wasn’t great, by the grace of God I was promoted fairly quickly, which always helped.  My wife was able to be a work-at-home mom for about fifteen years, which gave our three children immeasurable security and stability.  The medical benefits were a blessing and housing was more than adequate.  It was a good quality of life.  We lived, worshipped, and served with great Americans from all backgrounds and races, which was a beautiful gift.

Not only were our family’s financial needs met, but our physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs always seemed to be met as well.  We literally saw God answer hundreds of prayers as we journeyed through life by faith.  Our children (known for the rest of their lives as “Army brats”) thrived as we were stationed in six states and Germany.  We had some great adventures as a family.  Our kids learned independence and resiliency as we had to move every three years or so, saying goodbye to friends and having to make new ones.  We all made some lifelong friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, some of whom we have stayed in contact for twenty or thirty years.

My experiences are not unique.  There have always been Christians serving in the military.  I hope there always will be.  God is faithful.  He will always lead His children, guiding, strengthening, comforting, and providing for us so we can be His ambassadors serving Jesus around the world.

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Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 39 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

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