Photographs and audio are available with this report.
A UMNS Feature
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Mikita and James Green are newlyweds who have spent most of their married life thousands of miles apart.
It has become a familiar story. A young couple planning a big wedding is suddenly forced to go to a courthouse for a quick civil ceremony before one of them is deployed to Iraq.
James Green, a National Guard reservist, was called into active duty, so instead of a May wedding he went to war.
For them, and countless others, phone calls home have become a lifeline.
Generous United Methodists have opened their hearts and pocketbooks and given many U.S. soldiers one of most precious gifts of all - time to talk to their loved ones.
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the United Methodist Endorsing Agency, Board of Higher Education and Ministry - the agency that oversees military chaplains endorsed by the church - sent out a message asking church members to consider sending long-distance phone cards to soldiers.
To date, the agency has received letters containing 1,326 cards with 133,375 minutes from 24 states. Those have been distributed through 42 United Methodist chaplains to soldiers around the world.
"We've got cookies and Gatorade. We've got e-mail and Armed Forces Network television. What we don't have, and can't get back, is time lost with our loved ones," says Maj. Matt Woodbery, an Army chaplain serving in Iraq.
"Phone cards are a wonderful gift of time with our loved ones, even if it is brief and on the phone. We are very thankful for the love of our fellow citizens and brothers and sisters in Christ."
The Rev. Greg Hill, a director with the agency and a retired Army colonel, says this project is reaching countless young men and women and sending them a message of love from the church.
The idea for collecting phone cards for soldiers came from a phone conversation with Woodbery, Hill says.
While the cards are given to United Methodist chaplains, they are also distributed to any soldier who expresses a need to call home, he says.
"One thing we have discovered too is it is not just people who are overseas who have needs for phone cards," Hill says. "Reservists (within the United States) can incur pretty steep phone bills as well."
"In my particular area, I can say we are allotted two 15-minute phone calls a week on Uncle Sam," says Capt. Jack Stanley, an Air Force chaplain stationed in Italy and currently deployed to the desert. Stanley says the phone cards came in handy recently when a soldier was having marital problems and trying to work things out via phone calls.
"When his 15 minutes are up, the fact that he has to hang up makes it almost worse than not having called at all," he says. "Thanks to these phone cards, I can help him out."
The Rev. Love Loftis, pastor of Brightwater Memorial and Bland Chapel (Rogers, Ark.) United Methodist churches, sent 23 cards with more than 4,500 minutes. Her contribution to date is the largest of any church. The membership at Brightwater is around 100, and at Bland Chapel it is around 50.
"Both of these congregations are very generous and very mission-minded," she says. "We really felt like this was a way we could show our support for the troops in Iraq."
Lorene Abel, a member of Bland Chapel, says the war in Iraq is a different kind of conflict from the one in Vietnam, where two of her sons served.
"It seems like a different kind of war," she says. "It seems they don't know who their friends are or who is the enemy, and the families are so worried about them. I think it is good they can contact the families."
The chaplain endorsing agency has received many e-mail messages expressing how much the cards mean to the soldiers.
"I quickly wanted to take a moment to say again 'thank you' for the calling cards," writes Cmdr. Rendell Rozier, a Navy chaplain serving in Okinawa, Japan. "I wish it was possible for those involved to see the faces of our young sailors and Marines as they were given a calling card on behalf of God's love and a grateful nation. Nearly all became speechless with senses of real surprise and immediate relief."
"As a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain, I cannot begin to express how grateful my soldiers are to have the phone cards, especially during the holidays," says 1st Lt. Robert Crawford, a chaplain with the 357th Corps Support Battalion out of Athens, Ga.
"It makes all the difference in the world to have two minutes on the phone with your little boy or girl, especially at Christmas. This ministry of the church to young people and their families is most appreciated and effective. Thank you for making the difference when we need you the most."
The Rev. Roger R. Dodds, with the Air Force Reserve out of Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, visited soldiers and handed out the phone cards and wooden crosses in early January.
"These women and men were very thankful to the United Methodist troops for the phone cards. One had a tear in his eye and was visibly shaken just to know that we (United Methodist chaplains) cared."
Cmdr. Jack Lea, a chaplain with the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, Djibouti, Africa, says he uses the cards "as morale boosters for the junior people and to provide connectivity in the event of a pastoral emergency - a death or need to call home immediately."
"The church is meeting a need here, just a very practical need. People don't need to think just because Christmas season is over this isn't important anymore. This needs to be an ongoing process," Hill says.
Mikita Green says she spent two weeks in agony when James was first shipped to Iraq because phone lines had not been set up yet.
"I was wishing I could hear his voice and make sure he was all right," she says.
James says being able to talk to his wife "lifts his spirits and is a blessing."
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.