Sixty-four rigged soldiers on the C-130 recheck their equipment -- straps, harnesses and buckles. One soldier's heart starts to pound. Thump thump, thump thump. Two more commands are yelled over the roaring engines of the plane. Everyone stands.
The soldier reaches, hooking his static line. What if the chute doesn't open? Thump thump, thump thump.
"Sound off for equipment check!"
The relay starts. His shoulder is grabbed.
"OK!" he yells.
His hand lands on the shoulder in front of him. With the last OK, the ramp lowers. The screaming wind whips by at 130 mph. Thump thump. Thump thump.
Twenty seconds left. Thump thump. First guy's in the doorway. Thump thump. Thump thump. Now they must trust the jumpmaster -- the one who checked all the parachutes back on the ground. The plane approaches the drop zone. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump.
Silence. The hard part is over.
Capt. Jeff Struecker is a jumpmaster for the 82nd Airborne Division. If one soldier dies in this maneuver, he has failed.
His responsibilities as a chaplain carry the same weight. With the souls of 650-plus soldiers on the line, Jeff longs for each of them to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And timing is everything.
Jeff's battalion maintains a 2-hour recall status -- they must stay within 2 hours of Fort Bragg, N.C.
"Within 18 hours we could be lifting off of Pope Air Force Base flying anywhere in the world," says Jeff. "But what my soldiers don't understand is they may never come back alive. I understand that all too well."
A decorated Army Ranger, Jeff served in Panama and Desert Storm and received a Bronze Star for Valor for his role in Mogadishu, Somalia, featured in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.
When he signs copies, Jeff describes the 1993 event as the most intense 24 hours of his life with Jesus Christ.
"It could happen in 50 other places in the world -- like Kandahar, Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines," says Jeff, "and it could be tomorrow. Once my soldiers get on those airplanes I may never have a chance to share Christ with them again."
After experiencing the spiritual openness of the soldiers in Somalia, Jeff decided to become a chaplain.
"I want to see soldiers in love with Christ. I want to see Him make the difference in their lives that He made in mine."
But Jeff is also known for being tough, hence his nickname: Evil Christian. In a real combat situation, he wants his soldiers to survive. One told Jeff's pastor, "Sir, he is the meanest Christian I know."
Jeff pushes soldiers to the brink of their limitations, never over.
Once, at an obstacle course, specialist Bucky Harris froze 30 feet above the ground.
"I can't do it," Bucky said, staring at the rope just out of reach. "If I grab it I am gonna fall."
Immediately, Jeff climbed the obstacle course. Oh no, here he comes, Bucky thought. Jeff surprised Bucky by coaxing him to sit down next to him.
"Just look out across the horizon. Let everyone go ahead," Jeff continued. Fifteen minutes later Bucky completed the course.
"There are times when I am in a tough situation," Bucky says with a Southern drawl, "and I think, What would Jeff do?"
Serving on active duty as a chaplain, the father of Aaron (8), Jacob (6), Joseph (5), Abigail (3) and Lydia (10 months), sleeps less than most. Up at exactly 4:35 a.m. to spend time in prayer and Bible study yet make it to the office by 6:00, Jeff completes his required PT (physical training) on the base.
"He is one of the most mentally and physically tough soldiers I've ever met," extols his commander, Lt. Col. Richard Clarke.
Jeff runs longer than most soldiers, then crams in situps, pushups and pullups. Just 2 days after starting to lead his battalion's PT he was asked to quit; the troops were too worn out.
In his afternoons, Jeff may visit a soldier in the hospital, plan a marriage seminar or research Sunday's sermon. But when he visits his battalion on the field, he sheds his office-quality battle-dress uniform for another with frayed edges and faded camouflage green.
With his unit out sweating and crawling in the dirt, Jeff explains that they will resent him if he shows up neatly pressed. One soldier told him he was the dirtiest chaplain he's ever seen. Jeff considered it a compliment.
With one glance at his badges, a serviceman or woman immediately knows Jeff's credentials; to most soldiers, those badges are the goal of their career.
Sitting in his office at a drab metal desk, he points to the chaplain's badge with a cross on his shoulder.
"When I stand before God He's not going to be impressed by this or this or this," indicating his other badges. "Right here [the cross that represents Jesus Christ] is all that is going to matter."
"He is not looking for notoriety or acknowledgment of what he has done or where he is," says Gen. Joe Gray, past national director of Campus Crusade for Christ's Military Ministry. "He wants to pass it on to someone else who will maybe go through the same experience."
Once unwelcome, the publicity of the Black Hawk Down book and subsequent movie now provides Jeff opportunities to recount that experience and the message of Jesus Christ.
With hundreds of requests, from churches and from Congress, Jeff takes advantage of this fleeting platform whenever possible. The urgency of Christ's message motivates him.
"I can share Christ with my soldiers '24/7' and not get through all 650 before half of them leave," says Jeff, "and another 300 show up." This is where Military Ministry's influence is vital.
"I don't have the budget or the personnel, and [other than] the Holy Spirit at work, it is an impossibility to adequately minister to this battalion," laments the brown-haired, blue-eyed Ranger.
His role in the military assigns him all the responsibilities of a pastor.
"But I praise God that the Holy Spirit is at work, and Military Ministry has products and resources just for chaplains."
One Military Ministry resource essential to him is the Rapid Deployment Kit. Inside a sandwich bag, a New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs, an Our Daily Bread booklet, and a gospel tract fit compactly enough for soldiers to put the RDK in their pocket.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, more than 1.5 million RDKs have been given away by 1,000 military chaplains.
When his unit entered the desert for a 2-week training, Jeff handed each person an RDK. He told them to read the Bible, read the gospel tract, then think and pray about it.
"In the middle of their firing missions and shooting howitzers," Jeff beams, "I just pulled a couple of them aside and said, 'Let's have a field chapel service.'"
Throughout those weeks at least 13 men accepted Christ.
Soldiers also seek Jeff for counseling -- often for their marriages. Dana Greenly found himself frequently yelling at his family and generally unhappy since his father's death. He came to Jeff's office hoping baptism would make a difference.
As the 2 men sat face to face behind a closed door, Jeff pulled out a gospel tract.
"You know what?" Jeff asked. "You can go down in the water with sin in your life, and when you come back out, all you are is a sinner that just got wet."
Dana agreed: "You're right; you're absolutely right."
"What you need to do," Jeff continued, "is get your heart right first."
He explained about receiving Christ by faith through prayer, but with an intense voice, Jeff warned Dana not to make the mistake of saying that prayer and not meaning it.
"I can make that commitment," Dana replied, "but I'm not going to be like you."
"I am not the standard by which you need to measure yourself," Jeff said.
That day, Dana trusted Christ.
With every life that Jesus changes, Jeff gets fired up to keep going. But with the responsibilities of a large family and being husband to Dawn as his priority, the souls of his soldiers a close second, and constant speaking requests, Jeff struggles to find balance.
"I have not had a day yet where I felt like I got it right," he says.
Throughout his career of leadership in the Army, and currently as a jumpmaster, his job is to prepare soldiers for combat -- to prevent death. As a chaplain, he explains the purpose of life -- to love Jesus Christ: "Every morning when I roll out of bed I think there's another soldier that I can see come to Christ."
Soon enough, Jeff knows each soldier will face the silence. They will all have to jump.