Far Flung

Chaplain (Maj.) Geoff Bailey, MDiv ’01, DMin ’08, is serving overseas as the Command Chaplain for all United States Forces-Afghanistan, where he provides and coordinates religious support for all U.S. forces across the country.

Where are you from originally, and what brought you to Truett Seminary?

I am from Philadelphia and served as a mechanic in the Army straight out of high school. After completing my initial contract, I was stationed at Fort Bliss and chose to join the Army Reserves. I remained in El Paso and attended the University of Texas at El Paso, where I was heavily involved in the Baptist Student Ministries and taught the youth at First Baptist Church El Paso. My pastor, Dr. Levi Price Jr., BA ’64, [a former Baylor Regent and current Truett professor] encouraged me to look at Truett. 

During a Spring Preview visit, I saw faculty and staff committed to Christian ministry and preparation for ministry in community. The seminar-based classes with an emphasis on student engagement and involvement in spiritual formation groups while simultaneously being involved in church ministry affirmed that I would grow, be encouraged and be challenged. 

Why did you become an Army chaplain? 

Honestly, I did not want to be an Army chaplain when I entered the ministry. I wanted to be a seminary or college professor. I served as a chaplain candidate and absolutely loved serving soldiers and their families. 

I found that exercising initiative to prayerfully seek places where God needed me to practice incarnational ministry filled my path with people in need. I continued my studies at Baylor while serving in a local church in Hamilton, Texas. However, the events of Sept. 11 changed my understanding of God’s call upon my life. I realized that God had prepared me to serve as a chaplain and was calling me back to active duty. I have absolutely loved the service and ministry opportunities it’s provided.

Tell us about some of your assignments.

Since returning to active duty I’ve served as a battalion chaplain in air defense (Patriot missile), aviation (Blackhawk) and combat support hospital. I’ve also had the joy of serving with an armored brigade combat team in Georgia and a light infantry division in New York. During my yearlong clinical pastoral education (CPE) residency at Walter Reed and Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, I grew in my pastoral identity while serving heroes and their families. At each of these locations I also served as a pastor in one of the chapel programs on post.

In my current assignment, I serve as the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) Chaplain, providing training, logistical support, religious support planning and pastoral care for 24 American religious support teams spread across Afghanistan. In one role, I coordinate the movement and support of a rabbi providing Chanukah observances across the country.  In another role, I coordinate for two Roman Catholic priests to move about the entire country providing sacramental support, pastoral care and religious education across the forces. In another role, I serve as the senior pastor of a Protestant worship service each Sunday preaching and teaching just like I would back home in a Baptist church. In yet another role, I oversee the worship services schedule for Bagram Airfield and often guest preach as chaplains take a break. In yet another role, my master chaplain assistant and I travel around the country meeting with Religious Support Teams and their commands in order to see how we can best support them.  

What does it look like to coordinate religious support for U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

On a typical day, I attend a lot of staff meetings, work on religious support plans and conduct office visits throughout the headquarters building. We analyze the service member population across Afghanistan, the calendars of various religions and the demographic representation of our population in determining requests for support to facilitate the free exercise of religion for all the troops. We also look at ongoing operations and the impact various operations might have as we leverage religious support assets to provide an intentional ministry of presence through visits, informal conversations and scheduled pastoral care appointments.  

What do you find to be the most challenging or rewarding?

Conditions can change rapidly here, requiring a rapid response to a mass-casualty situation at the hospital, a critical event debriefing and pastoral care, or a ramp ceremony and memorial ceremony for a fallen hero. In all of it, our job as chaplains is to be that calm and steady presence of Christ in the midst of the storm, speaking hope, solace and comfort to people reeling from a traumatic event or loss of a brother or sister in arms. These are the moments which are the most challenging and rewarding. We’ve experienced a few casualties within the last few weeks and as the USFOR-A Chaplain it was rewarding to see all of the chaplains and chaplain assistants working together across unit and service branch lines to provide compassionate and effective ministry in a manner which nurtured the living, healed the wounded and honored the fallen.

One goal I have while here, is to visit every chaplain and chaplain assistant in country at least once a quarter. They enjoy absolute confidentiality with those whom we serve. This enables service members to have complete confidence and trust in those providing pastoral care, but it also can be a heavy burden on providers with no one to talk to if they operate in isolation. I want to create time and space for each chaplain and chaplain assistant to find release and safety to talk and receive pastoral care. I think this is a key to preventing pastoral burnout and fatigue. 

How does being a chaplain in Afghanistan differ from being a military chaplain stateside? What are some of the biggest differences between being a military combat-zone chaplain and being a chaplain outside of the combat zone?

Being a chaplain in a combat zone differs in the intensity of trust and speed of relationship building. While the tasks are similar at home station, the risk is higher and the danger inherently more imminent. This requires more immediate responses and often results in deeper conversations with someone who was a complete stranger just minutes prior. 

When we are faced with crisis we ask questions of ultimate importance. When we witness the tragic loss of life, whether coalition forces, innocent civilians, enemy combatant or terrorists, we cannot help but ask questions regarding suffering, the existence of evil, the will of God, salvation, our own mortality, etc. chaplains and chaplain assistants are right there with the service members prepared to discuss these issues. This is why seminary and CPE are so important in the formation of pastors. Pastors must be trained in theology and skilled in pastoral care, knowing their own beliefs, challenges and concerns. 

From your experience, do you see servicemen and women using chaplain services in war zones more than at a military base stateside?

There does seem to be a higher percentage of service members seeking out the chaplain in theater. Part of this is due to the gravity of our situation. Another, is due to the availability of chaplains and chaplain assistants 24/7. We live with our congregation, eat with our congregation, work with our congregation and find time to laugh and enjoy life with our congregation. chaplains and chaplain assistants become part of the family over here and through relationships and respect we engage in conversations to learn, grow and encourage spiritual growth.

How did your time at Baylor impact your life? What kinds of things did you experience at Truett? Who was influential to you there? If there are specifics that come to mind, what did you learn at Truett that helps you in your role today?

 Baylor was an incredible experience. I met Sara Hahn Bailey, BSECE ’03, who has been an incredible wife, mother and support throughout this journey of Army chaplaincy. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the seminar-based learning, the trust of the spiritual formation small group, the approachability of the faculty and staff, and my time at Blue Ridge Baptist in Hamilton, Texas. Each of these shaped and informed who I became and am still becoming as a pastor. 

I would say that Dr. (Liz) Ngan’s classes were demanding and thorough. I will always respect her approach and her heart for solid intellectual, emotional and spiritual development of ministers. By challenging students in the relative safety of the classroom, she is preparing them for the crisis in the emergency room, funeral home, battlefield, etc., where clichés and trite responses are meaningless and ineffective. 

Likewise, Dr. (David) Garland and Dr. (Roger) Olson combined academic regimen with pastoral hearts. The staff around campus was committed to the successful development of students. They joined our spring break mission trip to Juarez and lived in some fairly austere conditions out of their love for Christ and the students. It truly was a community experience.

What is the most important takeaway for our readers to know about your role? What is the best way for people to support our troops?

 My role is to be a pastor to the senior commanders, their staffs, and to the chaplains and chaplain assistants who really carry most of the direct ministry workload. We have a team of dedicated professionals from a wide array of denominational and faith backgrounds who all work together while remaining true to his or her respective faith group/denomination. It is a joy and pleasure to work with them and hopefully be a resource for them.  

The best way to support troops currently serving is to pray for them, send words of encouragement, and tell their stories to your churches, communities, and civic groups. Hold them up as examples for your children to emulate and welcome them home when they redeploy. If you are given the opportunity, let them tell their story and understand that every story is different, unique, and possibly difficult to fully grasp. But, know that these troops volunteered to ensure your freedom and safety and will do it again, no matter how old they are, at the drop of a hat. America is truly blessed by these heroes who’ve served whenever and wherever their nation has called.

 Far Flung features Baylor alumni who have “flung their green and gold” to the ends of the earth. If you’re interested in being featured or know someone who should, contact Baylor Magazine at magazine@baylor.edu.