Faith on the Frontlines

Chaplain Mike Zell serves the Army Green Berets.

Jennifer Abegg

"We've got a live one, guys!" shouts Chaplain Mike Zell as he drags a soldier out of a Humvee that was destroyed by an enemy grenade.

Other soldiers rush to help. They're part of the elite Special Forces branch of the Army. Commonly called the Green Berets, these men are trained in unconventional warfare such as sabotage, high-risk rescues and intelligence gathering, with the enemy unaware.

Chaplain Zell, a captain by rank, checks the camouflaged soldier and yells, "We have a chest wound!"

He and another Green Beret pull the 250-pound soldier by his bulletproof vest 50 yards across the dry grass.

Beads of sweat run down the chaplain's face as he checks for other injuries. Meanwhile, his assistant stands guard, protecting him from potential enemy fire. Chaplain Zell gets close to the wounded soldier.

Battlefield Conversation

"Give me two blinks if you're going to be OK," he says.

The Green Beret partially opens and closes his eyes once.

The chaplain happily declares, "OK, half a blink-I'll take that."

Another soldier nearby teases the chaplain, "Just don't start praying, sir, then he'll think he's dying and that'll really mess him up."

"No," the chaplain replies. "When I pray, people get better."

Today is a battlefield simulation, an opportunity to practice combat first aid before the soldiers deploy to Iraq. Though they are in a field at Fort Campbell Army Post in Kentucky, such danger is very real to these men, most of whom have already risked their lives in the name of freedom.

For Chaplain Zell, it is also a chance to show his faith in action, even while they are practicing.

Although being with his soldiers at life's most perilous moments is part of his job, Chaplain Zell is also a counselor to the men day to day, helping them with their relational and spiritual needs.

Why the Chaplain Leaves His Door Open

So he leaves the door to his office at Fort Campbell open "because even though I'm working," he says, "people are the priority." He wants the soldiers to feel welcome to drop by anytime and talk about anything.

They do. A soldier and his wife recently came to him for marital counsel. However, the chaplain sensed they were intimidated by his rank.

So he pulled off his captain's rank insignia and offered it to the couple, saying, "I work for you."

On another occasion, a soldier popped in and simply said, "Hey, I'd like to learn more about Christianity."

After a brief spiritual conversation, the chaplain gave him The Case for Christ, a book by Lee Strobel.

Filling the Role of Brother

God has used Chaplain Zell to lead numerous soldiers into a relationship with Jesus, but the chaplain usually focuses on developing a relationship with them first.

When Pfc. Jon Kenny's mother passed away in July, he called Chaplain Zell. The private's father had died the year before.

"Chaplain Zell was there 20 minutes after I called him," says the 19-year-old. The chaplain also helped arrange for him to fly home to Colorado the next day.

"He's probably one of the greatest guys I've met so far," says the private. "I can say I am more religious after meeting him. Now I feel like there is Somebody there."

Chaplain Zell maintains contact with Jon, calling him regularly.

"My goal is to develop a relationship with him long term, like a big brother," says the chaplain. "I'll track with him for four, five, six years. For some folks, salvation comes by inches."

The chaplain also takes other steps in helping people know Jesus.

Meeting Needs through Resources

Since his unit will deploy soon, he distributed Family Readiness Kits. Specifically designed for military families, they include videos, devotional guides for couples and spiritual materials for children.

Chaplain Zell gave away 60 at a pre-deployment briefing.

"I want to put something in their hands to develop a unified spiritual front at home."

He ordered the kits through Joan Momany, his liaison at Cru's Military Ministry. One of 1,000 chaplains to whom staff members like Joan provide resources, Chaplain Zell knows that whenever he needs books or prayers, he can call.

"The chaplains are like sons to me. I love them, cry for them, pray for them and worry about them," says the 70-year-old volunteer. She even keeps a picture of the Zell family in her office.

Joan also tracked down other spiritual resources for him when the men in Chaplain Zell's Bible study said they wanted to become better husbands and fathers.

She sent him two separate Bible studies called Defending the Military Marriage and Defending the Military Family.

Meeting Together for Bible Study

The day after the combat simulation, seven soldiers, including 2 other chaplains, show up for a lunch Bible study using those materials.

They meet in a wood-paneled room in the chapel annex to discover more of what the Bible says about relating with their wives and children. They discuss how military duty affects their families.

Chaplain Zell asks one of the questions: "How can the military lifestyle put pressure on a marriage?"

"You marry someone because you want to be with them," says one Green Beret. "Then with our jobs we are gone half to two-thirds of the time."

Another answers, "Women are married to a guy who might get killed this year."

Even when they are not in Iraq, Green Berets often perform covert operations, such as parachuting into countries at night or freeing prisoners in threatening places.

When they go into danger, so does Chaplain Zell. These are his men.

Why the Chaplain Cried

For this reason, his 7-year-old son, Mitch, worries about losing his dad in the war. After a bedtime story one night, the oldest of Chaplain Zell's four sons asked, "Daddy, what happens if you die?"

"Your job is to be a little boy," the chaplain said. "But most importantly, you need to know Jesus, because that way I'll see you again."

Then Chaplain Zell laid his head on his son's chest and cried.

"We're In This Together"

He and Amy, his wife of 11 years, remember when he was considering joining the Army, which he did in 2002.

The married couple was on a date, and "just so he had it in his mind that we're in this together," Amy flipped over a restaurant comment card and wrote on the back, "I, Amy Zell, permit my husband, Michael T. Zell, to follow his heart. If that leads him to be in the military chaplaincy, so be it."

They later framed it as a reminder.

He wears a cheap metal wedding band, leaving his original gold ring in Amy's care.

"I want my wife to have my ring if anything happens to me," he says.

The Reality of Death

Though unlikely, death is a real possibility for even a chaplain to consider.

Chaplain Zell doesn't carry a weapon-and has never fired a gun in the military. So the Army assigned Sgt. Rob Stephens, an enlisted soldier, to be his assistant. On post, the sergeant helps the chaplain with administrative work; in combat, Sgt. Stephens will protect him.

Much like a Secret Service agent would for the president, he knows he could take a bullet for the chaplain.

Although they are hopeful it won't happen, casualties are still a reality. The week before, Chaplain Zell flew to North Carolina to visit a wounded Green Beret he'd never met.

"I assume I am their best friend unless otherwise notified," he says, referring to how he must quickly build rapport with soldiers he doesn't know. The chaplain stays in contact with that young man's family, and even helped break some bad news to his parents on the phone.

"They might want to remove it-amputate," he said to the Green Beret's mother about her son's leg. Then he explained grief and the coping process to her. It's part of his job.

Soon he will be in Iraq with his men. Though it's difficult for him to leave his family behind, he is passionate about being there for his soldiers whenever they are in physical or spiritual need.

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