Army chaplain attributes life experience to success with Soldiers
January 25, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When people think of a new recruit, they might envision a fresh-faced high school or college graduate ready to conquer the world, not someone with a whole other life of experiences.
Chaplain (Capt.) Steve Love, 277th Aviation Support Battalion, walked a long road of fitness, mentoring and coaching before he swapped his football jersey and pastor's suit for an Army uniform at age 45.
Love was an all-American boy growing up in Illinois. He attended Southwest Baptist University, where he played football and met his wife, Connie. After graduating, he was offered a full-time coaching position at the college.
"If you're a good coach, you don't just coach sports, you coach life," he said. "As I had some coaches who impacted me to really look at why and how I'm living my life and what am I doing with my life, I started growing in my faith."
"As I was growing in my faith, God used (my) coaching (to allow me to work with and mentor) young men," he continued. "I was a young guy -- I was only 25 years old -- and I was very fortunate to be offered a full-time job at a university."
Love said he enjoyed teaching players about life lessons: teamwork, sacrifice and watching out for your friends off the field as well as on the field.
"Those lessons became even more important as I grew in my faith," he said. "God started using coaching to open more doors through ministering and put a passion (in me to find that) the best way to help these young men -- more than coaching -- was to do it through ministering."
The couple moved to North Carolina while Steve Love earned his master's degree in divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary at Wake Forest, N.C., and coached high school football.
For the next 15 years, Love served as a pastor in southern Georgia and later in a suburb outside Chicago.
While the Loves lived in Illinois, they became friends with Army and Navy service members and their Families who worked at Great Lakes Naval Base.
On 9/11, like many Americans, the Love Family's life was changed forever. The Family became more aware of what was going on in the world, as well as how it was affecting their military friends.
"Because the naval base was so close, we were affected a little more; all of a sudden, I couldn't go to my friends' houses on base anymore. I didn't have a (military) ID," Connie Love said.
When American men and women across the country began answering the nation's call, a friend posed the idea to Steve Love.
"The opportunity to minister to the military increased after 9/11," he said. "I (talked) about supporting our troops (during my sermons), and I was looking to relocate to go to another church."
A friend, who was also an Army colonel, told Love he should look into the Army chaplaincy.
"My first thought was 'I'm too old,'" he said. "I was at the tail end (of the cut-off), but (my friend) said as long as I was in good shape (I would be fine)."
Fitness has never been something Steve Love struggled to maintain.
"A lot of guys don't stick with their workout routines like he has (over the years)," Connie Love said. "He has always, since I've known him, consistently been in the gym. There was never a point where he hasn't (stayed in shape). Had he not, he probably wouldn't have been able to physically commit to the Army at 45. I do think that's something God kept in him."
After playing college football and later coaching, Love continued his interest in fitness and sports through his ministry. While serving as a pastor, he organized sports camps and tournaments, and he also was a volunteer coach. During his time living outside of Chicago, Love organized a youth ministry sports camp for more than 500 children and convinced a few Chicago Bears football players he met at the gym to participate.
Love said he used fitness to reach out and relate to children in both the suburban and urban areas of Chicago, and it is complementary to a military lifestyle.
"Soldiers who are attracted to the Army have a certain personality and demeanor that I believe my personality was very adaptive to," he said.
When Love told his wife about his thoughts of joining the Army, Connie Love said she had to sit down.
"There was part of me that was excited," she said. "We've never had roots in one place, so in that aspect, I looked at it as a new adventure. We weren't sure of where it would take us."
Her husband made it clear up front that if he joined, he was committing to it 100 percent, Love added.
"Steve said, 'if we're going to do this, I want to do it all the way. I want to be active duty; we're going full force," she said.
The news that their lives were about to change also affected the Loves' three children: Nathan, 15, Lydia, 13, and Abigail, 8.
"Nathan was about 13, and he asked 'How many wars are going on? Will you have to go there?'" Connie Love said. "We just take it one day at time. I was never hesitant or said 'no, you can't do that.'"
In 2009, Steve Love joined the Army and attended the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Course at Fort Jackson, S.C.
"Fort Drum was one of our top (choices for assignment)," Connie Love said. "If you're going to go in and do this, and you want to minister to people, this is the place to be."
Steve Love agreed.
"I prayed to God for him to put me in a battalion where I'd be used," he said.
While he expected to be assigned to one of the brigade combat teams, he said working with 277th ASB Soldiers has been a great experience.
"(During the deployment), I got to fly in Black Hawks," Love said. "With the support battalion, I got the largest battalion in 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, and I also got a lot of opportunities to work with Soldiers."
Because 277th ASB's Soldiers were located in different areas, Love traveled to 10 forward operating bases and outposts to provide chaplain support to the unit's more than 700 troops, according to Lt. Col. Albert Stiller, 277th ASB commander.
"Chaplain Love vastly increased the size of his congregation, which is a testament to providing relevant sermons and relating them to what is important," he said. "I think that we were so lucky to get Chaplain Love assigned to our unit."
The Love Family found out firsthand that deployment is tough, Steve Love explained.
"Deployment is hard and is a lot of work. There's no question," he said. "It's hard on both Soldiers and Families, but I think it's harder on the Soldier if he is worried about home. If the spouse and kids are involved (in the community) and have a good support system, it helps."
When Soldiers know their Families are strong and capable of functioning without them, it strengthens the Soldier's resolve and dedication to duty, he added.
"For me, not only when you're gone, but when you come back, you think 'can I do this again?' knowing that I can do it again because my wife and kids did well," he said. "Did they miss me? Yes. Is it hard on them? Yes. But, adversity isn't always something you always need to run from. You need to embrace it and grow in it and through it."
The Love Family's strong ties and faith helped them get through their first yearlong deployment and subsequent reintegration period.
"We definitely (relied on our faith during the deployment)," Connie Love said. "We relied on the chapel ministries, and that was a huge support for me. The unit ministry teams on Fort Drum are wonderful."
"Getting into the military life side of it, deployment most likely is inevitable," she continued. "I'm glad to jump in with both feet and just do it, but you can't avoid the inevitable."
"This has been a place where I could learn more about Army life and was given the opportunity to ask questions and try to understand things without being made to feel like I should already know that," she continued.
"It has been exciting. Obviously, there are moments that are frustrating or things I get anxious about, but for the most part, it's been exciting. It's another part of our life and a way to meet new people."
While faith helps on the homefront and on the battlefield, Connie Love said reintegration is still hard.
"Redeployment has been harder (than expected)," she said. "Redeployment has had just as many challenges, if not more, than during the deployment. People talk a lot about how hard deployment is. You look forward in anticipation and the great reunion, but I think people are hesitant to talk about how hard redeployment (phase) is because you don't want to minimize how grateful you are that they're home safe."
"You have one interaction during R&R where your issues with money, kids or the house get pushed to the side," she continued. "When they're home for good, you just have to start dealing with life again."
Reintegration and relationship building are key topics Steve Love said he has been trying to address with 277th ASB Soldiers and Families.
"One of the significant roles of a chaplain is to help with relationships," he said. "Soldiers and Families have expectations."
Before the reunion, people hope for certain things, but sometimes their wishes don't happen as they would have liked, Love explained.
Stiller said Love's focus on Soldiers and Families has positively impacted the entire unit before, during and after the deployment.
"Chaplain Love's first unit and Army experience is 277th ASB, and he was given quite a challenge," he said. "However, his previous football coaching and life experiences really set both him and the unit for success. He is an exceptional counselor (for both) Soldiers and Family Members."
His focus on Family led him to provide financial classes, monthly lunch meetings for Soldiers and Families, and his focus on high-risk behaviors has been beneficial, Stiller added.
"Chaplain Love is an exceptional chaplain who has stayed engaged with our Soldiers and their Families, and (he) was also the lynchpin for our battalion-level reintegration training," he said. "Soldiers listen to him, and he can keep them engaged while they learn."
"His personal commitment, exceptional counseling and positive attitude directly increased the morale of the unit, reduced serious incidents and allowed our Soldiers and their Families to grow prior to deployment, during deployment and during reintegration," Stiller continued.