By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneJuly 22, 2014
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- One small piece of paper.
That's all it took to remind then Lt. Jared Vineyard of his faith in God.
And it was a reminder that he sorely needed.
Vineyard, then an artillery officer, carried a card-sized piece of paper on which he had scribbled the words of Psalm 27:4 -- "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life."
He was hunkered down in a ditch near a dirt road on April 29, 2004, south of Baghdad, Iraq, in an area known as the "Triangle of Death," reading the words of that psalm right before an explosion ripped his unit of nine men apart.
Vineyard's platoon, part of the 1st Armored Division, were assigned to maintain security for a group of Army explosive ordnance engineers. It was tensely quiet as his platoon -- with nine Soldiers hiding in the ditch and the rest of the platoon hiding in a wheat field -- waited to move the engineers through the area. In such times, Vineyard often reached in his pocket for a piece of paper on which he had scribbled a random Bible verse. He would read the verse, put the paper back in his pocket and then carry God's words in his mind as he went about leading his men on combat missions.
On this day, he read the verse and then looked up at the road. Coming toward the Soldiers was a vehicle.
"It was one of those moments in life when you know something isn't right. I didn't know what. But something was not right about the whole picture," said Vineyard, now an Army captain who shared his story of redemption with members of Willowbrook Baptist Church during their Independence Day Sunday services.
On that day in Iraq, the Soldiers began to leave the ditch to stop and search the vehicle.
But in the next moment, their lives ended.
"I was in a fireball. I was in the air, flying. I had no idea what was going on," Vineyard said. "I felt like I had been hit in the face with a baseball bat. I landed on my hands and knees."
Disoriented, Vineyard touched his head and felt blood. His helmet had flown off. A Soldier near him was on fire, and Vineyard got the fire out.
"I was in a daze. I stood up and that moment was the loneliest moment of my life," he recalled.
As the smoke from the explosion lifted, Vineyard saw a huge crater, an engine "and scattered around me the remains of my platoon. I said one of those prayers: 'Help me.' Eight of my guys were killed right there. The guys were all around me."
The vehicle had carried 500 pounds of dynamite, TNT and artillery shells when it exploded. It exploded within 15 feet of Vineyard and his unit.
Vineyard and four wounded Soldiers were airlifted from the scene. Knowing he had to keep his eyes open for fear he would die if he closed them, Vineyard looked at his watch and saw that it was 12:30 p.m.
When the bodies were removed from the scene, Vineyard's first sergeant found his card, now splattered with blood, and returned it to him. That piece of paper stayed with him as he recovered from his head wound and a ruptured right eardrum.
And yet, at the time, that piece of paper wasn't quite enough.
"I began having nightmares. They were pretty violent," Vineyard said. "I began seeing things day and night. One dream I would have over and over again, and it was horrific."
One night, as he struggled with a nightmare in a hospital far from the battlefield, Vineyard woke up in a sweat, and a memory came to him. As a youth, he remembered listening to a radio program called "Focus on the Family" with Capt. Charlie Plumb, a Vietnam veteran and Hanoi Hilton prisoner of war.
And he remembered Plumb being asked on the program if he suffered from bad memories and psychological problems from his days in the Hanoi Hilton.
"I remembered him saying, 'No. I've chosen not to participate,'" Vineyard said.
"At that moment, I realized that what I had gone through was too heavy for me. So I made a deal with God -- 'If you take this, I'll give this to you.' A decade after listening to that show it goes through my mind that the God of Charlie Plumb is the same God I serve. He did it for him. He could do it for me."
Vineyard fell to the floor and began to weep.
"And I prayed, 'God, my prayer is simply this: That you take what is meant for you and you use it for good. Take what has happened and use it for good.' On May 9, 2004, God took away my pain.
Something moved out of my chest, my throat, my head, and it was gone. That was the last time I had a nightmare. God did it for me and it was for his glory."
Vineyard said God healed his mind and, to the surgeon's amazement, Vineyard made a miraculous recovery from his eardrum injury, with his hearing in his right ear now actually better than the hearing in his left.
And then God called Vineyard to the ministry. It was a calling he had felt before, but had not really understood. In the early months of his deployment, the young fire support officer who led Soldiers on patrol in central Baghdad felt God's presence.
"God really grabbed my heart. He said to me, 'Jared, you need to fall in love with this.' God wanted me to get up every morning and pour myself into this. God told me 'You're going to change careers.' I would say, 'God what should I do?' and he would say, 'You're going to pray about it.'"
Even a sergeant in his platoon told Vineyard that he had a dream where God said Vineyard "needs to change careers. He needs to go into the ministry," he recalled.
"This was not part of my career plan. When I called my wife at home and told her, she laughed and said, 'I've known that for months. I've just been waiting for God to tell you.'"
Finally, during his recovery from the explosion, Vineyard heard God's message loud and clear.
"It was awesome. But I still had to write eight letters home," he said. "I thought to myself that April 29th would always be my Memorial Day."
Fast forward a year later, and Vineyard is back home in Germany and his wife is due any day with their first baby. Vineyard was traveling with his unit when he got the call that the baby was being born. He looked at his watch and it was 12:30 p.m. on April 29, 2005.
"In a moment it dawned on me that one year down to the minute that last year I was in a helicopter going to a hospital in Iraq and now I am in a car going to the hospital to see my son being born," he said. "God responded to me with a birthday party. He said, 'You will have a birthday party (on this day) for the rest of your life.'
"God takes what is broken and ugly, and makes it whole. That is called redemption."
He went home to Illinois, and shared his story with family and friends. And he shared the meaning of that little piece of paper he carried in his pocket on April 29, 2004.
"3,500 years ago, a warrior named David wrote that verse. He discovered the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 3,500 years later, a Soldier was doing the same thing as that warrior named David, and he stumbled and fell. And God allowed me to see his goodness in the land of the living," Vineyard said.
"There is a God who is living and active, and he transformed lives then and he transforms lives now. God spared me, called me, humbled me and redeemed me that day."
But he didn't spare the Soldiers who did die on April 29, 2004.
"Each one of these men had plans for the future," Vineyard said. "On that day it was not to be. … My prayer was that they were ready to stand in eternity. What would I show of my life if I stood before God? God reordered my life based on that day. Are you ready?"
After his deployment, Vineyard, a 2002 graduate of West Point, left the Army to go to seminary. He attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and then served as a Baptist youth pastor for four years in Hillsboro, Texas.
Vineyard returned to the Army as a Southern Baptist chaplain and now ministers to Soldiers of all faiths. He deployed to the Paktika Province of Afghanistan in 2010 with the "Band of Brothers" battalion of the 101st Airborne Division as a chaplain, "a missionary to the military."
During this deployment, Vineyard traveled weekly by helicopter to forward operating bases and combat operating bases throughout Paktika Province to minister to the 850 Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. His goal was to have a chapel service for every Soldier at least once a month. He performed church services, baptized Soldiers, counseled Soldiers struggling with troubled marriages and relationships, and went on patrols with the Soldiers he ministered to. Vineyard baptized 34 Soldiers who accepted Christ during his ministry in Paktika Province, baptizing them with the help of things like a big barrel and an inflatable swimming pool. He saw four of his Soldiers killed in battle -- one by an IED roadside bomb and three others caught in small-arms skirmishes at remote combat outposts.
Vineyard is now stationed at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado, where he serves with the 743rd Military Intelligence Battalion. He and his wife Amanda have five children.
"Are you passionate about the Lord? God became real and became new to me in that moment (during the explosion in Iraq)," he said. "Are you seeking him with everything that you have? If the answer is 'Yes,' he will change lives. He will change this country."