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Hard tour in Vietnam became chaplain’s ‘greatest ministry’

 


Hard tour in Vietnam became chaplain's 'greatest ministry'

May 27, 2005

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (UMNS)—In 1961, while the United States was going through turbulent times, the Rev. Billy M. Whiteside felt called to serve his country. He signed up for a three-year tour in the Army.

Thirty years later, he retired from a ministry that always made him feel needed.

"I would not change a single assignment," he says of his years as a United Methodist chaplain. "Serving soldiers and their families is where real ministry takes place."

Whiteside is a gruff, no-nonsense military man. He speaks frankly and affectionately about what it means to be a chaplain in the military.

He served as a chaplain during the Vietnam War from 1967 to 1968. "I hated Vietnam, but it was my greatest ministry.

"Vietnam was the next thing to hell that you could imagine," he says. "Young guys gave up their lives for such a useless cause. It was heart wrenching."

He has painful and lingering memories from that year. He once served communion from a C-ration can using crackers and water. A week later, three of the young men he had served communion to that day were in the morgue.

"They were three young men with so much to live for, one had shown me a picture of his little girl, another told me he planned to go to college after he returned home. I felt such a surge of rage at their deaths."

As he was leaving Vietnam the troops presented him with a communion cup they had made from 20mm rounds.

"They took something deadly and turned it into a symbol of life and forgiveness. I cherish that cup."

Meanwhile, his wife, Bernice, was at home in Charlotte, N.C., in the "waiting wives club."

"It wasn't like it is now; I couldn't call him," she says. "When he moved, I didn't know where he was. It might be weeks before I would get a letter. We had two small children. It was hardest on our oldest son.

"We lost a lot of husbands in that waiting wives club."

Their oldest son told his father years later he would get up early in the morning and sneak downstairs to watch TV because on the early morning news they would print the names of those killed in Vietnam.

"He told me he hoped and prayed my name would not show up," Whiteside says.

The protests of the war back in the United States were also scarring. "It was painful to see the protesting of the war."

He remembers a soldier who had just killed someone and had come to talk to his chaplain. He saw a copy of the latest United Methodist newspaper lying on Whiteside's desk. The lead story was about supporting those going to Canada to escape serving in the war.

"He told me, 'It is terrible when your own church turns against you.' It was gut wrenching. Anytime a person kills another person, they are never the same."

He says he came back from Vietnam "screwed up."

"I was filled with rage and doubted God's love—God's love was the last thing I felt," he says. It was another chaplain who helped him find his way back to God.

"He listened to me, and I felt understood. It turned my ministry around. Unless you feel understood, you don't feel loved."

Whiteside served at the disciplinary barrack at Fort Leavenworth from 1976 to 1981. There, he developed a holistic pastoral care program for soldiers confined to confinement facilities. The program was adopted by several state and federal confinement facilities.

After retiring in 1991, he served as director of pastoral care at Middle Tennessee Methodist Hospital and developed a marriage and family private practice. From 2002 until now, he has devoted his time to his private practice. He is also on call as chaplain at the Veterans Administration Center, Fort Leavenworth, when needed.

Whiteside says he knows it is difficult for some people to see military chaplaincy as a ministry. "There are no church walls."

He treasures the fellowship of other chaplains and says it is nothing like ministry in civilian life.

"We support and take care of each other. It is a great life."

With a hint of a smile, his parting words were a reflection on what he has seen during his service in the military. "If I die and end up in hell, I will probably look around and say 'Hey, this is pretty nice.'"

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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