This article originally appeared in the November 12, 2006 (Morris County NJ) Daily Record and on the Daily Record web site.
Mother, pastor, soldier
Armed with faith, Drew seminary student follows calling into war
BY LORRAINE ASH
BOB KARP / DAILY RECORD
BOB KARP / DAILY RECORD
BOB KARP / DAILY RECORD
BOB KARP / DAILY RECORD
COURTESY OF ARMY STAFF SGT. SHARON BROWNE-BURRELL
In a war birthed and fought amid lots of “God talk,” Army Staff Sgt. Sharon Browne-Burrell found a unique niche during the year she was based at the Taji National Depot north of Baghdad. The kind of niche a youth pastor and a divinity student can fill.
Day in, day out, the Americans trained the Iraqi army in warehousing and supply operations during her deployment from May 2005 through July 2006.
“We have to teach them to re-supply themselves,” she said. “They can have all the bullets in the world, but if they can’t get them where they need to be, they won’t be effective.”
God. Bullets. The Bible. The Quran. The war. Heads of state and religious leaders have discussed these topics ad infinitum and publicly, but at the depot the talks were soldier to soldier, person to person. After all, those topics had brought them all there.
“Working together with the Iraqi men was strange for them at first because I was a female,” said Browne-Burrell, who was trained in the repair of small arms. “They would always say to me, ‘No, no, madam, you don’t do.’ I was like, ‘I’m a soldier. You’re a soldier. You grab one end of the table and I’ll grab the other end, and we gonna move it.’ ”
They wanted to know what Browne-Burrell did in America. She was about to finish her master’s degree at Drew Theological School in Madison when she was deployed. To their confusion, she replied she was a pastor at a Methodist church in the Poconos. She recounted the conversation:
“Oh, so you’re a nun?”
“No. I’m a pastor.”
“You’re a nun, right?”
“No, I’m not a nun.”
“So you have children.”
“Yes, ages 13 through 19.”
“Oh, so you’re Catholic.”
“No, I’m not Catholic.”
“That conversation lasted five to seven minutes,” Browne-Burrell said. “Then, one of the soldiers, Sami, looked at another guy and said, ‘They can do these things in America.’ ”
The statuesque staff sergeant, born in England and raised in the West Indies, clapped her hands and laughed when she recalled that day. She spoke about her experiences in-country from the sunny comfort of the serene sitting room in the theological school, her home away from home. These days, as she works to complete the last courses she could not finish before she went to war and contemplates the papers she will write, she ponders the meaning of her experiences “in the sandbox.”
It was a time filled with seeming paradoxes, as her worlds met — the world of the sacred and the world of combat.
She learned to compartmentalize her life quickly, she said. She was clear her job was to protect those in her unit so they came home safely and that that protection could mean taking a life. She never was confronted with that situation.
Like the rest of her unit — the 80th Institutional Training Division — Browne-Burrell was issued a 9-millimeter handgun and an M4 assault rifle with an M203 grenade launcher.
Unlike most of her unit, she was a single mother whose first thoughts after deployment were about providing for her four children during her absence. She was concerned but she gladly went to war while three of her children stayed with other members of her family. A fourth is in college.
“If that’s God’s will,” she said, “of course I’m going.”
Indeed, Browne-Burrell was not surprised to be mobilized for a 14-month tour of duty starting in May 2005. She even saw it coming.
Returning to the fold
During the second year of her three-year theological program, Browne-Burrell discerned her calling as a military chaplain, knowing they are in short supply. But in order to make that dream come true, she had to do two things: finish her master’s of divinity degree and enlist in the Army by the age of 42. Time was running out, so she enlisted on her 41st birthday in March 2004.
More accurately, she re-enlisted. In her youth, Browne-Burrell had put in 15 years of Army service — seven on active duty, eight in the reserve — so she knew the life of the soldier. At the time of her re-enlistment, though, she had been out of the military for nine years.
“At 41, I was an old-timer, as far as the Army is concerned,” she said. “There’s a low crawl, a high crawl and a three- to five-second rush. Trying to teach me to low-crawl again was a challenge. I don’t move that fast anymore, and I found muscles again that I didn’t know existed.”
By age 42, candidates for the Army chaplaincy are expected to have earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s of divinity and have had some ministerial experience, according to Chaplain Col. Richard Pace, director of personnel and ecclesiastical relations in the U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains. In Browne-Burrell’s case, she was called to war before her studies, or chaplaincy training, were finished. So, during this tour of duty, she went to Iraq as a soldier bearing arms. Not a chaplain.
A connection with Iraqis
Once there, she learned some of her soldierly counterparts in the Iraqi army were as concerned with the beautiful profundities of spiritual life as she was. Like her, they pondered their fates, their souls, their country’s crisis.
Quickly, she learned that those among the Iraqis who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca were respected as holy men. Those of higher rank would defer to those of lower rank who had made the pilgrimage, she said. One day, Capt. Ali, who had been to Mecca, approached her to talk of holy matters, in part because she was a pastor and in part because of her Army nickname — BB, which translated to them as “grandmother,” a woman whose status inferred wisdom.
“They’d call me ‘Mrs. BB’ or ‘Madam BB,’ ” Browne-Burrell said. “So Captain Ali said, ‘Mrs. BB, I am a holy man. You are a holy woman. We must sit and talk about holy things.’
“So, we sat down and we talked about what was right, proper. Just not whose book said what. We did not talk about what the Quran said. We did not talk about what the Bible said. Separate from the books, if you’re going to take the cup of coffee I’m drinking and throw it on the ground, then that’s not right.”
Such conversations, or God talk — encouraged at the Drew seminary — blossomed at the Taji National Depot, drawing Americans and Iraqis onto common, not separate, grounds.
As time passed and the need for basic support grew in an environment of danger and uncertainty, a service was offered every day of the week.
“The coalition soldiers and civilians needed something to maintain a sense of self, to maintain their sanity,” she said. That included Browne-Burrell, who earned a combat action badge when her convoy was hit by small arms fire on the road to Baghdad.
“The classic irony of it was that my vehicle was the only one that got hit in the door and right behind my head,” she recalled. “But we kept moving. The two Humvees put out suppressive fire, and we were able to proceed and arrive without incident.”
Iraqis living double lives
The bravery of Iraqi soldiers and civilians who worked at the depot with the Americans impressed her for two reasons, she said. First, they have nowhere near the equipment or training American soldiers have. Second, they must live double lives to work with Americans on the rebuilding of their country.
“A lot of their families don’t know what they do for a living. If it is known, they can get killed,” she said. “A lot of those deaths you see on television of people being executed, those are soldiers being killed. They are Iraqis working toward rebuilding Iraq. It’s not abnormal to have soldiers leave the base and be followed home and gunned down in front of their houses.”
Browne-Burrell’s capacity to lead and engender the respect of others does not surprise the community at Drew Theological School. Anne Yardley, associate academic dean, said Browne-Burrell’s leadership skills have been evident since she served as president of the Theological School Association.
“She has an effervescent, optimistic personality that goes along with a kind and compassionate spirit,” Yardley said. “There are many people here that she supported and ministered to — fellow students and staff members.”
But coming home was not an easy transition.
‘I should have stayed in Iraq’
When Browne-Burrell returned from Iraq this past July, she found that the transmission on her car had slipped and that the toilet tank in the Poconos cabin she calls home apparently had been dripping for months, dry-rotting the floor, lifting the tile and cracking the bathtub. The roof had leaked, too.
“I called my battle buddy, Cassandra,” Browne-Burrell said. “She and I were together in Iraq, and I said to her, ‘Girl, I think I should have stayed in Iraq. All I had to do was worry about mortars and bullets. Now, I got to deal with cracked bathtubs and toilet tanks. I’m not ready for this.’ ”
She still does not remember to take the garbage out on Wednesdays. After war, normalcy comes hard, though she relishes the renewed camaraderie of her buddies at the seminary’s Cyber Café and getting back to her studies. There are papers to write and presentations to give, too. She will pair those opportunities with her military experience to create works exploring the ethos of today’s American warriors. Lately, she also has been reading Stephen Mansfield’s book, “The Faith of the American Soldier.”
Her shields of strength
As she spoke, she fingered her dog tags and mused.
On one tag are engraved the words of Joshua 1:9 — “I will be strong and courageous. I will not be terrified or discouraged for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go.”
A second lists the Army Corps Values — loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage.
A third reflects the Warrior Ethos — “I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
“These are the things we walk with,” Browne-Burrell said. “We like to think that we have evolved to a state where we are non-theistic in that we don’t need a God in our lives. But what does the warrior ethos look like now? I want to explore where we are pulling it from now, in this time, when we’re suggesting people don’t need a God?”
How, she asks, do modern soldiers prepare to approach the thin divide between death and life? How can the sacred enter the act of preparing for war, as it did in ancient times?
In the future, she will again be back among soldiers she loves — caring for them, helping to give them what they need to balance their consciences and allay their fears. By the next time, though, she hopes to be a chaplain, which means she cannot bear arms.
But she still will lead services and eat flatbread and cucumbers with the guys in the mechanics shop. She still will drink chai tea with the Iraqi soldiers, using cups made from the cut-off bottoms of plastic water bottles.
She will follow her calling into a place where fear runs so deep, only faith can reach it.
In search of many, good chaplains
The U.S. Army needs more soldiers like Staff Sgt. Sharon Browne-Burrell. A lot more.
The Army is short 90 chaplains among those on active duty, 250 in the Reserve and 350 in the Army National Guard, according to Chaplain Col. Richard Pace, director of personnel and ecclesiastical relations in the U.S. Army Office of the Chief of Chaplains.
The reason is in no small measure because it takes a long time to grow a chaplain, who must earn a bachelor’s degree, a master’s of divinity degree and rack up experience as a minister before joining the Army under the age of 42.
“We have had quite a few ministers who have wanted to be chaplains since 9/11, but they don’t meet the military’s requirement as far as age,” Pace said. “They’re a little bit too old. But on the other hand, a large number of people in seminaries now are there for a second career, and they are in their 40s. So, by the time they get out, they will have surpassed the age limit for the chaplaincy.”
The war on terror has exacerbated the problem for Guard and Reserve units, who have been deployed abroad in huge numbers.
For more information
For information about the U.S. Army’s “Consider the Call” campaign for chaplains, visit www.goarmy.com/chaplain/about_army_chaplain.jsp.
The war in Iraq and Afghanistan is being fought by Morris-area sons and daughters, fathers and mothers. The Daily Record’s year-long series, “Back from the Front,” offers readers a look at the personal challenges and sacrifices local servicepeople have faced on the battlefield and as they return home.