One church, one war

One church, one war

November 30, 2005
Written by Daniel Hazard

Nevada church deals with the anxiety and tragedy of combat

The recitation usually comes at the end of the pastoral prayer. The Rev. William Chrystal reads off the 16 names. Those 16 names belong to members of the congregation who are in military service.

Congregants probably don't need the reminder, but something about the recitation is comforting, so long as it is just a reading. If there is an interruption in the reading for comment, it can mean bad news, as when Ruth Hart's cousin Dean Lockhart was singled out after he was seriously injured in Iraq in the same incident that killed another Reno-area native.

The 16 are also remembered with wood plaques in the shape of yellow ribbons over the doorway that leads into the earth-toned, triangular sanctuary at Reno's First Congregational UCC. Not all of the 16 are at war. They are just the servicepeople who are actually members of the church. And the 16 aren't the congregation's only links to the war.

There is, for instance, church member JoAnn Dunnican. Years ago, she helped raise Russel and Bud Minto after their mother's death.

"Both of them are in Iraq," she says in her living room, surrounded by framed photos. "Buddy has been a lieutenant's driver, and then he's also been driving around other large equipment. He's always been the kind of kid that loved his trucks; even as a baby, [he] was pushing his trucks around, so that was just a natural for him."

"[We] just really encourage ROTC, in a way, for the kids to have a step, a safe step out into a much larger community. And this way, when they went into the service, there was food, a uniform, a bed, somebody kind of telling them what to do. Because for many of them, it was really difficult to leave Gerlach [Nev.] ... So we really encouraged a lot of kids to go into the service. Actually, Buddy's class, the class of 2001, I'd say that probably at least 75 percent of the kids went into the military that year."

This is a nation of 300 million people fighting a war with only 114,000 troops serving in Iraq (or 311,000, depending on whose figures one believes) and yet this one UCC church has more than a dozen links to soldiers in the Iraq-Afghan theaters of war.

Rooted in military service

Founded in 1871 at a meeting in a Reno schoolhouse, First Congregational UCC is deeply rooted in its community. In the 1920s, its board president was Prince Hawkins, a banker and lawyer whose succeeding family generations became known for local philanthropy.

First Congregational UCC's members are also deeply rooted in the military. On March 4, the congregation lost one of its older members, James Inman, a veteran who had been injured by a sniper's bullet during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and received the Bronze Star.

Church member Liz Knott's son, John, is 22 and in the Army. He, like the church, is steeped in things military.

"His father was in Vietnam," she says. "Both of his grandfathers were Army people. My brother was a lieutenant in the Army; his father was a lieutenant in the Army. ... He's been surrounded by patriotism his entire life."

John Knott is now a medic at Fort Irwin near Barstow, Calif. Medics are always needed in a war zone.

"I don't think he'll be going over into Iraq or Afghanistan," his mother says. Then, after a pause, "However, I don't know."

She has reservations about the Iraq War but worries constantly about those reservations being taken for opposition to the troops themselves, sometimes turning on a verbal dime in her effort to digress and reassure her listener that her first loyalty is to the troops. Her body language suggests discomfort with the tension between the two stances.

She is a teacher at Reed High School. So far, three former Reed students have been killed in Iraq.

Church member Jerry Thompson is part of his son Tony's military ancestry. Jerry served in Vietnam and was injured there. His son is serving in Iraq, near the Syrian border. It is a very dangerous spot, and access to cell phones and email is considerably less than in other areas of Iraq. Jerry is stoic and supportive.

"You never want your children to go into harm's way, but it was his choice. He made the decision."

Honor bound for Iraq

Some church members marvel at the way Chrystal is able to read the list smoothly, not usually pausing in any way when he reads his own son's name. Phillip Chrystal is serving north of Kirkuk in Iraq.

The younger Chrystal went in spite of his opposition to the war and, of all things, out of a sense of embarrassment. He was working in a Reno guard unit doing anti-drug education activities, speaking in schools and to community groups. But so many of his fellow guard members had gone to Iraq.

"I kind of felt embarrassed because I was wearing the uniform every day, and I hadn't gone over yet, while everyone else had gone over at least once," he says, shifting his shoulders in a kind of shrug. "I just didn't like that. I kind of felt embarrassed, so I pursued it. I figured, you know, even though I didn't agree with this war whatsoever, I figured it doesn't matter. You still have an obligation ... to go, to do what the soldiers do."

Given the tricks and machinations being used to get soldiers to Iraq and then keep them there, it wouldn't seem to take much to get sent. But Chrystal had to get out of the Nevada Guard to get there.

"I first went over in December, but I've been gone [from Reno] since June [2004]," the slender, soft-spoken soldier says. "I was in the Nevada Guard here. I was with the armor unit, and they were getting ready to mobilize to Fort Irwin for a year to train people that were going over. And I'd been trying to go overseas for about a year, so I hooked up with the Oregon Guard in May ... and then we got mobilized in June."

Phil Chrystal and John Knott are friends, and Liz Knott says of her son, "He set up a huge trunk to send to Phil because he knew what Phil would need." Other members of the church have also pitched in, sending goods and prayers Phil's way. He turned 21 in Kuwait on his way to Iraq.

Phil's brother, John, is a television photographer and satellite-truck operator who has been in Iraq for news coverage, but those trips have not yet taken him to his brother's area.

Mary Chrystal, Phil's mother, says when he came home on leave in the spring, it wasn't all he would have wanted it to be.

"What he found out was that none of his former friends understood or cared, that he had nothing in common with them. Most of our young people are not involved in that. Life goes on normally. And for him to have had such a major experience and to have no one know or care — they'd say things like, 'Oh, how is it?' And he'd start to talk and they'd change the subject. You know, they just weren't interested. So he felt very alone."

The games played with soldiers' and sailors' tours of duty make it difficult to know when Phil Chrystal will get home. There were recent rumors that his whole unit's deployment would be extended, but that is considered less likely now.

"They honestly haven't told us when we're supposed to come back, but I'm guessing we'll come back after the [Iraqi] election [scheduled for December]," Phil says.

Phil's father, mother and brother, and some other members of the congregation, have supported him by protesting the war every chance they get. Phil is grateful.

"I'm all for it. If I were here, I'd probably be protesting also. I've never been in favor of this war from day one. I think we need to get out."

Inspired congregation

As the months have passed, the members of the congregation have worked concern and support for their servicepeople — sons, nephews, cousins, and so on — into their church routines. A list of items to send to service people is posted on an easel with names and military addresses. At Christmas, a list of prayer requests had items like, "In honor of Marine PVT Zachary Withrow, our grandson, and all in military service from Bruce and June Thomas."

Zachary Withrow is not in Iraq, and June Thomas doesn't expect him to go, but as with Liz Knott, nothing about Iraq is certain. The shortage of military forces is a constant threat. At Easter, Bruce and June Thomas added guardsman Shane Papp to their prayer request.

Church member Ruth Hart, whose cousin Dean Lockhart went to Iraq, was already troubled by the war. What happened to Lockhart deepened those feelings. He was riding behind Josh Byers in a Humvee on July 23, 2003, when a mine was detonated underneath. Byers was killed, and Lockhart suffered terrible injuries. The middle of his body — colon, testicles — was torn to shreds. His wife was flown to his side because "death is imminent."

He recovered, though, and Bush administration officials and allies began using him as an example to sell the war. In a speech at Washington's Ritz Carlton, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said, "[Lockhart's] wounds were so severe they thought he wouldn't survive and, accordingly, he was medically retired for the prospective benefit of his family. I first met Sgt. Lockhart a few weeks ago at Walter Reed. ... All he could talk about was how he wanted to get back on active duty. He was full of the fighting spirit that has made our victory in Iraq possible, and I am pleased to report that Sgt. Lockhart is now back with the Army."

U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado said on June 1, 2004, "[Lockhart] still wants to spend seven more years in the Army and he still believes in the U.S. mission in Iraq."

Lockhart is certainly dedicated to the military. Hart says he fought when the Army tried to discharge him (what Wolfowitz claimed was a beneficial retirement), has undergone repeated surgeries — some successful, others not — in an effort to become a more productive soldier, and now trains recruits at Fort Stewart, Ga., while still wearing the accoutrements of his terrible wounds.

Lockhart's valiant fight has inspired other members of the congregation.

"We pray for him all the time," says Liz Knott.

Jerry Thompson, the Vietnam vet whose son Tony is now in Iraq, once went to Fort Collins to visit Tony. He and Tony went to visit Lockhart, then at the Fort Collins hospital.

"I was humbled by him," Jerry, who is wheelchair-bound himself, told congregation members. Hart's husband, Loren, also has someone in the military — his grandson Steven Johns on the USS Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier. The Roosevelt is scheduled for deployment in September — but no one knows to where. Johns served in the first Iraq war on the Ranger. Loren and Ruth Hart's faces are impassive, but their voices convey deep emotion when they talk of the men.

So it goes. This one UCC congregation prays for Rick Hendrid in Iraq, Chris Cosota in Kosovo, Dene Leonard in Iraq, Tom Rowell on the sub Providence, Ray Johnson in Djibouti (across the Red Sea from Yemen), Mike Evans in Afghanistan, Anthony Rovetti in Korea, and, stateside, Lucas and Marta Jung at Norfolk Naval Station, and Justin Neal at Fort Bragg, all of whom could find themselves "going."

One Sunday in September, the church prayed for "the wife of an Iraqi servicemember whose home was broken into, and she was raped."

Minister of peace

At the head of the congregation is Chrystal. The sandy-haired minister is a former military chaplain, who is deaf in his left ear — "not a surprise for someone who spent so much of his career in the noisy part of the military," he says.

But his personal history may make him just the person to guide the congregation through a war like Iraq.

During worship, when the children's service is going on or the gospel reader is speaking, Chrystal is seated, often catching the eye of congregants and offering smiles or rolling eyes. When he is at the pulpit, he sometimes throws his arms up to indicate amusement.

Standing beneath the tall, red cross behind the altar, he sometimes makes reference to the war in his sermons or in comments after the reading of the list. Those sermons usually start with jokes ("If you get to thinking you're a person of influence, try ordering someone else's dog around") then go into theology, usually tied to a particular scripture.

But the war is often in the thoughts of congregants, and Chrystal is sensitive to that. Sometimes his comments are practical. On March 20, he said, "It's a different kind of war, you know — they have the e-mail and cell phones, but the little comfort items that are few and far between remain needed."

His prayers embrace U.S. servicepeople and the Iraqis and Afghans — and, on Aug. 21, during the removal of settlers from the Gaza strip, the Israelis and Palestinians.

"We think of those in harm's way, either because they are in the service or because they live there. ... Life is by definition a difficult and precarious balance sometimes."

Chrystal leads the congregation in prayers for "those who make laws and rule countries" but also sometimes expresses exasperation with those who are "waging war but always claiming God is on their side."

At Christmas, he spoke of the worship service providing "a reminder, though there isn't much sign of it in the world, of peace on Earth and goodwill toward people."

On July 24, Chrystal told the congregation, "We've added Chris Bucknell to our list of people we are praying for and remembering." Bucknell is a soldier home on leave from Iraq who befriended a member of First Congregational UCC in an airport.

At times the normally mild-mannered Chrystal is angry, and not just at the Bush Administration. With his own son in Iraq, one can only imagine what went through Chrystal's mind when he was asked to preside at the funeral of Eric Morris, another area student killed in Iraq. The Sunday after the funeral, on May 8, Chrystal told his congregation, "Now I'm going to get, not political, but I'm going to put an edge on what I say."

At the funeral, he said, not a single Nevada politician, state or federal, was on hand nor sent a representative.

"Soldiers are sent to war by politicians. ... I think it's unconscionable to send people to war and then don't even show up for the funeral."

Eric Morris, he said, did "more than his fair share" for the nation.

"Sorry to make this such a serious service today, but, my golly — unconscionable! ... I think the social compact is broken, and I think we should do everything we can to let them know this is unacceptable."

Then he tore into the Reno Gazette-Journal, which he said had charged Eric Morris' widow more than $300 for an obituary. (Chrystal told the newspaper to send the bill to him.)

There is no doubt that Chrystal feels great sorrow over the war. On July 3, he became tearful while making an appeal for peace at all levels in everyone's lives, "hoping and praying that peace on Earth might somehow follow." The congregants may not have known what caused the tears, but he explained to individuals during the week and then to the congregation the next Sunday.

"My tears ... were occasioned by some things that Phil has undergone lately, but also because it hit me at that moment that for the rest of my life, American soldiers will be fighting and dying and killing — for the rest of my life!"

One particularly poignant moment came at Christmas when candles were being lit. Chrystal said it had taken so long because "my candle lighter ... is in Iraq."

Paradoxically, Chrystal, the pastor, has been trying to get back into the service himself — as a military chaplain.

"Yes, he's actually been trying to get over here," Chrystal's son, Phil, says. "He retired out of the guard but he's trying to get called back up so he can go. ... There are units without ministerial support, and he's probably the best chaplain I've ever encountered, even though he is my father. ...He would be doing his job, and he'd be doing it very well."

The Chrystals are easily able to stay in touch with Phil in this day of rapid communications. They've also learned danger signs. The military controls the access of servicepeople to the Internet. "When something happens, they take the Internet, down so no one can write home," Chrystal says, presumably until the next of kin of the latest casualties are notifi ed. So suddenly not being able to reach Phil can be a heart-stopping moment.

First Congregational UCC's experience with the war is not unusual. While many may not realize it, the same kind of intersections with soldiers in Iraq likely affects many churches and service organizations. The war's tentacles reach everywhere.

Members of First Congregational UCC, like so many, live with a daily vulnerability to impending tears. And sometimes they must count their fears, 16 names at a time.

"One church, one war," first appeared in the Reno [Nev.] News and Review. It is reprinted with permission.

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