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Military families seek shelter in faith

11/5/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

Photos are available.

A UMNS Feature By Kathy L. Gilbert*

HINESVILLE, Ga.- Nestled among the pine trees in a small southern Georgia town is the U.S. Army's largest armor training base east of the Mississippi River.

In January, more than 15,000 men and women left the pinewoods of Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield to head to the Iraqi desert for war. By the end of August, more than 30 soldiers from the post had died in the war.

Among those returning to Georgia were three United Methodist chaplains and several members of the Hinesville First United Methodist Church.

For Chaplain Maj. Mitchell Lewis, coming back to his home church has been a healing experience.

"I'll go into church and sing a hymn and it overwhelms me," he says. "It is like putting an ankle that is sprained in a whirlpool for a massage. Going to worship for me massages my spirit, putting my spirit in a whirlpool."

On a warm October Sunday morning Lewis and his wife Sheri, along with three other couples, reflected on war-what it is like to be in combat, and what it is like to be waiting at home.

For many of the soldiers, Psalms 91 was a constant companion and comfort.

United Methodist Chaplain Capt. Jerry Sieg left his wife Karlyn and their four children Jan. 25 to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He returned home Aug. 25.

"Prior to my going, there was assurance I would come back," he says. "All the time I was over there, seeing all the violence going on around me, a verse from Psalm 91 'you will only see it with your eyes but it will not come near you,' kept coming back to me."

Serving in a unit that was "the tip of the spear," Sieg was many times only 100 yards away from the shooting.

Capt. Michael O'Neill, his wife Nannette and their young daughter Emma are also members of Hinesville First United Methodist Church.

"Struggling in combat is very taxing and your human strength is nothing, it doesn't last," O'Neill says.

After hearing a story about a frontline, combat unit in World War I that read Psalm 91 together each time before going into battle, and suffered no casualties, Nannette O'Neill "asked me to memorize the chapter before I left," Michael O'Neill says, smiling and holding his wife's hand.

"Whenever I would feel weak or lonely or afraid, I had the word of God at my fingertips," he adds. "Whether it was dark and I couldn't see to read or I just didn't have time to take out my Bible, the word was with me."

Maj. Ben Matthews agrees that having the word of God in one's heart is essential.

"In any kind of military conflict, the one thing you have to rely upon is your faith," he says. "You are away from your family; you are with your fellow soldiers to your left and to your right but the one thing personally to hang onto is your faith."

Matthews has been in the Army for 14 years. He and his wife Catherine, members of Hinesville First United Methodist Church, have been married nine years and have four children ranging from 1 to 8 years old.

"There were several times when you didn't know if you were going to make it through the next five minutes," Matthews says. "You can always say a quick Bible verse to get you through the moment, to give you personal courage to continue on and do your job."

Both Nannette O'Neill and Catherine Matthews said Hinesville First United Methodist Church was a place of comfort and support for them while their husbands were gone.

"If by the end of the week I was feeling down, church really did get my spirits back up and help me get through the next week," Catherine Matthews says. "I relied on my friends in the church and the community. Everyone here understood so much more than my family did."

"I have never been through a war before," Nannette O'Neill says. "I learned I have to go to God's word and I have to go to church. I have to reach out and ask God for help."

When your husband is so far away and so close to danger, sometimes daily tasks are just overwhelming, she says. "The church was always here."

Sheri Lewis, quoting Psalm 91: 9-10, said the passages spoke to her and others she knows during the tough times, especially the reference to a tent.

Watching the daily news reports and hearing from imbedded reporters was both a blessing and a curse, Sheri Lewis and Karlyn Sieg say.

"Every morning I would get up and turn on the TV and hear how many persons were killed," Sheri says. "I would go look outside to see if a car was parked out there waiting for me to get up. It was like getting kicked in the stomach every day. Then again, I couldn't stop watching it. I wanted to see his face."

Chaplain Sieg says the most important he will take from this experience is recognizing "the power of prayer and the importance of doing the right thing."

"Having seen the lifestyle of the Iraqi people and the way Saddam lived and how he treated them, I believe we did the right thing. It was about basic rights and human freedom. There is something to be said about doing the harder right--prayer does change things."

"When you see the enemy melt before you, you realize God's hand is there."

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*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer.

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