The Last Amen
March 25, 2014
CAMP SHELBY, Miss. - The view from Greer Chapel's steps gives pause. To the left is a plaza of new cottages, built for visiting dignitaries. Directly in front is the White House, in that spot since 1937, serving first as the camp commander's quarters and now as the adjutant general of Mississippi's camp command post. To the right stand rows of monuments dedicated to soldiers whose lives abruptly ended while in service to United States of America.
Between Greer Chapel and the White House lies the parade field, a lush swathe of green, replete with grand stands and ceremonial cannons, ready to host up to 4,000 soldiers at a time as they are mournfully celebrated by politicians and loved ones alike before marching off to war.
For 10 years, Greer Chapel served as a spiritual oasis for the 200,000 or so troops that have come and gone from places like Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan; a sanctuary for those contemplating their own mortality, hoping to not join their brothers-in-arms as a name on a monument just a few yards away.
The view from the chapel's pulpit is equally impressive, reminiscent of most any small-town Mississippi church. Equipped to serve most any faith group, with modern amenities such as ceiling mounted projectors and professional audio systems, the space imparts serenity though stained glass windows ornate with soaring eagles, magnolia blossoms, and doves bearing olive branches.
But Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Terry W. Partin's view from the pulpit this Sunday morning is very similar to that from the front steps: emptiness. Partin and today's assistant, Master Sgt. Vincent E. Burnwell, are fully prepared to lead worship for any that walk through the door this morning, even for just one soldier, but none come.
It's not unexpected, for today marks the end of full-time pastoral care at Camp Shelby. Greer Chapel's last Protestant service and Catholic mass for soldiers returning from the battlefield have been completed.
"We've had services here every weekend ever since 2004, and it's the end of an era," said Partin. "It's a bittersweet moment."
"At the peak, we had four chaplains and five chaplain assistants. There has been a chaplain on call 24-hours a day for the last 10 years. In the last drawdown, a decision was made to keep two chaplains [Partin and Lt. Col. Ramsey E. Coutta, the installation chaplain] on staff in order to provide around the clock care," said Partin.
The Joint Forces Training Center Camp Shelby Ministry Team supported not only the soldiers preparing for war, but their families and the local community. Most times, one of the chaplains served on the Mississippi team that went out with the casualty notification officer to deliver the wretched news of a loved-ones death.
Asked what he will miss most, Partin pauses and his eyes mist.
"The day-to-day with the soldiers. Soldier ministry is so unique. soldiers are just real; they will just tell you things. It's just honest, gritty, down-to-earth, 'I need help, can you help me, can you give me some direction, can you get me through this few moments.' It is real ministry, it's tiring, but at the end of the day you feel like you helped somebody keep moving. They've left home, especially in the early years of the war, having been in the Guard for years, never thought they would have to deploy to war, and it just hits them."
Partin's two combat deployments with the 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team to Iraq in 2005 and 2009 well prepared him to serve those going overseas as well as those stationed at Camp Shelby.
"I'll miss the comradery of the crew that worked Shelby. They'll say years from now that 'we spent four to five years working together at Shelby,' it was an era for the state of Mississippi for the however many thousands that served here. Later we'll drive through and say 'I was in that building' or 'that's the place we used to do dental', that kind of stuff. I think it will affect Mississippi for years, and the World War II generation may have done the same thing but it's been so long ago that we've forgotten."
As the page turns on Camp Shelby's latest contribution to Mississippi's military history, it remains in Camp Shelby's favor. The post has bones that date back to 1917. Soldiers from across the world trained for World War I and II here. The 101st Division formed here, later adding "Airborne" to their designation. The famous Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion trained here, and German prisoners-of-war were kept here (with many returning to settle after the war).
Greer Chapel itself was built in 1939 as a warehouse, and was converted in 1965 at the direction of Maj. Gen. Walter G. Johnson who noted that Camp Shelby didn't have a chapel. It was named in honor of his mother and her late husband, Ruth Nunnery Greer and Dr. Joseph E. Greer, and rededicated in 2005 as Camp Shelby again became a mobilization center.
For the near future, the chapel will be available to units attending annual training at Camp Shelby. Pastoral care for the few full-time soldiers that remain will come from their assigned National Guard units, local church community, or the command chaplain's office at the Joint Force Headquarters, Mississippi National Guard.
The view from Greer Chapel is expected to change little in the years to come. The Mississippi Armed Forces Museum next door will most likely grow, and the World War II barracks under renovation behind it will eventually wrap up. More artifacts from the first infirmary location across the street will surface, causing the post archeologist to shut down any nearby construction while she righteously digs for more clues in the dirt that has seen so many of our nation's bravest prepare for the worst of endeavors.
This historic spot, sitting atop a small hill, will wait reverently for the next greatest generation, ready to provide a sanctuary, an oasis, a place to consider one's mortality. Until then, soldiers can follow the example of the building itself, allowing their eyes to lift with the chapel's spire - upwards to the heavens.