Chapter Sixteen

The Soldier Who Got His Wish

Gaylord Gunhus

My best friend in high school, Gaylord Gunhus was a real character. He and I and a group of cohorts majored in running through a tunnel system under King's High School that caused our irate shop teacher to come reprimand us. We lured our befuddled teacher, Mr. Nobel, to walk blindly into a large vertical steam pipe.

   Gaylord, or "G.T." as we called him, was there. I couldn't see him in the pitch darkness, but trust me, he was there. Yet, none of us who were in that tunnel's inky darkness realized our comrade was destined for another mission — and well-earned acclaim.

   G.T. graduated from theological seminary and was ordained to the ministry of the gospel on June 17, 1967. Twenty-one days later he was in the Army's chaplain officer basic training, then assigned to the Artillery Officer Candidate Brigade as chaplain. By the following year he

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and the men he served huddled in the jungles of Vietnam where the ground shook from enemy rocket and mortar fire. He knew God had called him to be a chaplain but he hadn't bargained for this.

   "From the moment I had arrived in Vietnam, "G.T. remembered, "I carried the image of my kids' noses pressed against the window as I drove away from our home in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. I was plagued by the thought of what would happen to them if I was killed.

   "Night after night we were under heavy attack by the enemy. On one particular evening we were under intensive attack. My chaplain assistant and I were hunkered down in a sand bag bunker. I cried out to the Lord, 'Why me Lord? Why have you brought me here?' As if the Lord stood by my side to assure me, I heard words from John 15:16 ring in my ears.

You did not choose me, but I chose you to go

and bear fruit — fruit that will last.

   "It was then I really became a chaplain. The Lord gave me peace, hope and courage. I became free to be the person God wanted me to be."

   G.T. survived two tours in Vietnam. In 1973, he also survived the Army's severe cutback from 3,600 chaplains to 1,800. He may have been the only Army chaplain to come from the tiny evangelical Lutheran Brethren     

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denomination. "From my perspective," he recalled with a half-smile, "the Lord sneaked me in."

   There must have been a reason. "Being an Army chaplain means you go with the soldiers. Normally, in the early stages, a chaplain is assigned to a battalion consisting of 500 to 700 men. You have a ready-made parish. Regardless of the person's faith or belief, my responsibility was to provide pastoral support. I would provide worship and ministry according to my own faith. If the soldier needed a priest or a rabbi to provide worship and sacrament of a faith other than mine, I would find them the priest or rabbi."

   He rose through the ranks, from a battalion chaplain to the post chaplain of a small missile defense facility in North Dakota. In 1975 he attended the Officer Advance Course which prepared him to serve in larger units and supervise four to five chaplains and chaplain assistants.

   "My dad, a World War II and Korean War veteran, challenged me to take whatever opportunity I was given in life and make the most of it, to be the man for the moment." One of those turning-point moments came unexpectedly during a Sunday worship service for soldiers and their families in Heidelberg, Germany, home of United States Army European Command Headquarters.

   Minutes after G.T. began his sermon, a soldier who had volunteered to accompany the choir on a bass guitar, shouted, "I've had enough of this precipitous dribble!"  

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   G.T. dialogued with the man for a moment and the man sat down. G.T. continued preaching. Again, the man shouted, "I've had enough of this!"

   G.T. looked up. "What is it that you've had enough of?"

   "This gobbledygook! This nonsense! You're all a bunch of hypocrites."

   In the midst of audible chaos, G.T. quietly refocused the congregation's attention to the gospel story, while ushers helped the distraught man from the sanctuary. "In all the meetings I've had with powerful, high ranking military officers, civilian officials, congressmen, senators and even the President of the United States, nothing was as difficult with this man at that moment," recalled G.T. "I believe God gave me empathy, patience and a willingness to be vulnerable and hear him out, even when his comments put the worship service at risk."

   G.T.'s superiors took notice. His promotions continued and his responsibilities increased, in May of 1994, after 27 years of military service, he stood on the brink of the ultimate career promotion.

   Some 104 Army colonel chaplains were evaluated for the Deputy Chief of Chaplains. From that group, my high school buddy was selected and promoted to brigadier general. With the signatures of the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of Defense, confirmed by the United States Senate, it was official.

   G.T. served five years in that position at the

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Pentagon, then in 1999 was appointed by the President as the Chief of Chaplains of the U.S Army and promoted to the rank of major general. He became responsible for the 1,300 Army chaplains on active duty and another 1,200 in the Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserves. He now oversaw the Army's effort to recruit, educate, assign, train and retire the men and women responsible to serve the spiritual needs of the 1.2 million Army personnel around the world.

   The early morning news of the September 11 terrorist attacks reached G.T. at his summer home on Pickerel Lake, Minnesota. He and his wife, Ann, had gone to close their home for the winter.

   Before the attacks his staff had been relocated to Pentagon City, Virginia, for renovations to the Pentagon. Only two weeks before G.T. had gone to Minnesota, he had requested that his staff be permitted to return to the offices in the Pentagon. He was denied the request and other Pentagon staff was moved into the newly renovated office space. Those offices were at the spot where the plane crashed, killing 55 Pentagon employees. G.T.'s entire staff could have been killed.

   Of course, there were no flights available, G.T. and Ann drove non-stop throughout the day and night to return to Washington, D.C. The next morning, he was at the Pentagon supervising the teams of chaplains who provided pastoral care to the search and rescue workers.  

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One chaplain heard the complaint, "The soldiers are saying they didn't sign up for this and that they aren't going in to bring out burned and broken bodies."

   "What is it you are doing?" the chaplain asked them. "Are you going in and picking up bodies and dragging them out? That is not what you are doing. You are helping bring your fallen comrades out of the darkness into the light. You are treating them with dignity and respect because of the sacrifice they have made. You become an instrument of peace, a soldier of peace. You are here to help and assure and confirm for the families that their husbands, fathers and uncles were attended with care that honored them on behalf of our country."

   To General G.T. Gunhus the message was this, "When you have an eternal perspective of what life is all about and what your mission is, you can change hearts and lives through God's grace."

   I was privileged to be at Fort Meyers, Virginia, in 2003 when General G.T. Gunhus retired from the Army. "It is God we honor today," he told his family, friends and fellow soldiers. "My father once told me that when you get the opportunity to be promoted to the next level, it isn't because of you. The credit I receive today, for 36 years of military service, goes to everyone I was privileged to serve. It's because of you that I'm here."

   Surely the One most responsible was looking on, saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant." 

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The Story Lives On . . .

G.T. and I grew up in the same grade school, junior high and high school. For years we sat next to each other. What childhood friend made a significant, positive impact on your life? Have you tracked down this person and shared your gratitude?

Have you ever felt like you were in a life-and-death battle against a brutal enemy? What was the outcome? How did the struggle change you?

If you were to die today, what would cause the Lord to say you, "Well done, good and faithful servant"?

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Hosea states of God: "I'll call nobodies

and make them somebodies; I'll call the

unloved and make them beloved. In the

place where they yelled out, 'You're nobody!"

they're calling you God's living children."

Romans 9:25-26 [The Message]

Because you are God's beloved nobody

you really are somebody on His eyes.

How does that you make you feel? 

Chapter 17 || Table of Contents