REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Gary Payne has come home to where he found God.
As a young Soldier, Payne was stationed at Redstone Arsenal, where he went through a year of training with the Ordnance Munitions and Electronics Maintenance School as a Nike test equipment repairman in 1977 and then stayed on for two more years working at the schoolhouse.
"I did a lot of soul searching for about a whole year while I was at Redstone, a lot of introspective evaluation. God was dealing with me in an intense way," Payne recalled.
"I needed to make a commitment one way or the other. I had to come to grips with myself and with God."
Fortunately for the Army, Payne chose God, eventually switching out of his electronics career to become an Army chaplain, a journey that has now brought him to Redstone as the new Garrison chaplain at Bicentennial Chapel.
"I've learned with God that you never say, 'Never,'" Payne said. "I never thought I would serve in the Army. I never thought I would be a chaplain. But God has a vote in this. He has taken me on quite a journey."
But before he began ministering to Soldiers, Payne separated from his active Army career to become an ordained minister. He served in the Alabama Army National Guard while attending a Bible college in Florence and then went on to get his Master of Divinity as a Church of Christ minister at Harding University's School of Religion in Memphis.
"The Church of Christ religion appealed to me because it is built on a strong respect for the scripture. It encourages its followers to study the Bible for themselves," he said. "I also liked that it was an ecumenical movement, a unity movement of all Christians. It's not wrapped up in labels but rather encourages people to be disciples, to be Christians.
"It's based on the greatest commandment to love God and to love your neighbor. That means getting beyond checking some religious boxes and seeing other people for who they are as God's people."
He then joined the Reserves while serving two churches in North Carolina, during which he deployed to Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield with the 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion.
Although he was a civil affairs specialist during that deployment, Payne took on many of the chaplain's responsibilities because the unit's chaplain had a medical condition that prevented him from deploying.
"It was a ministry opportunity for me. It let me see what it was like to minister to Soldiers and to take on some of those chaplain responsibilities that a lot of preachers don't ever get to do. It was a new challenge for me to reach out to Soldiers," Payne said.
"When things are the darkest you have the opportunity to let the most light shine. As a chaplain, you are there for Soldiers when they need it the most. You are winning hearts and minds for God."
After returning from the deployment, Payne was determined to become an Army chaplain, a direct commission he received in May 1993. He continued with the Reserves, serving as the assistant brigade chaplain for the Reserve's 80th Training Division and then as the battalion chaplain for the 230th Support Battalion in the North Carolina National Guard.
In 1997, he entered active duty, serving as the squadron chaplain for the 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Drum, New York. He then served as the battalion chaplain for the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, from 2000-02 and the 82nd Signal Battalion from 2002-04, during which he deployed to Kuwait and then to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Other chaplain assignments were with the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany; 902nd Counter Intelligence Group at Fort Meade, Maryland; Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina; and Army Support Group at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar. Prior to coming to Redstone, Payne served as the training and leader development officer in the Chief of Chaplains office at the Pentagon.
"I've not had a bad assignment. I've enjoyed them all," Payne said.
"But I have especially enjoyed the assignments where I was coaching and training and mentoring. The one with the readiness center in Germany allowed me to observe Soldiers while they were doing war gaming exercises. I got to watch what they did and how they reacted, and then I interacted with them to find out why they did things the way they did. I also especially enjoyed being a career course instructor at the chaplain's school."
Payne, whose many military awards include two Bronze Stars, acknowledges that he is able to serve as an Army chaplain because chaplains are guardians of the constitutional right of every Soldier to the freedom to practice their religion.
But beyond the legal and constitutional reasons, Payne sees a need for Army chaplains that goes much deeper than that.
"On a personal level, a lot of Soldiers look for the hope and the spirituality that their faith can bring," he said. "For most of them, chaplains are a reminder of what they grew up with and an example to continue their faith in this military environment. Chaplains can show Soldiers how faith can work out even when they are in the military."
Although peer and cultural pressures can keep Soldiers from practicing their faith, Payne sees today's faith environment ripe for God's work.
"I came into the Army at the tail end of the hippy movement, the God is dead movement. In a lot of ways, it was a low point for religion and spirituality in the United States," he said.
"Studies today show that young people are very spiritual. They may not have a religious affiliation, but spirituality is very important to them. I don't see that waning at all."
Besides leading Soldiers in developing their faith, chaplain ministers are also called on to advise commanders on issues pertaining to Soldier spiritual well-being and, during deployments, on relationships within the general population and among leaders in the area of service.
Such was Payne's role while serving in Kuwait, Iraq and Qatar.
"In those kinds of environments, the commander relies on chaplains quite a lot in advising them about the religious relationships within a community," Payne said. "The chaplain can give the commander insight into how those relationships will affect the mission. Sometimes the chaplain meets with local figures in order to understand the religious aspects of the mission."
At Redstone, that means managing religious support operations for the Arsenal community on behalf of Garrison commander Col. Bill Marks and senior chaplain Col. Scott Carson the Army Materiel Command.
"My goal anywhere I go is to lead people of faith to a greater discipleship," Payne said. "Folks don't need to be comfortable where they are at. They need to be able to serve wherever they go. I hope to facilitate them for future service by helping them to grow as disciples."
Payne grew up in North Carolina, the son of a Vietnam veteran from the 82nd Airborne who is a retired National Guard master sergeant. Although his father's career as a Soldier probably influenced Payne's decision to enlist in the Army, he credits his Boy Scout leader for his spiritual decision to become a minister.
"When I was 11 or 12, I attended a small church. I had friends there and my Boy Scout leader was a Sunday school teacher there," Payne recalled.
"From our troop, three of us have gone on to become active duty chaplains, me for the Army and the two other for the Air Force, while others in the troop have gone on to be missionaries or preachers. That Boy Scout leader had a lot of influence on me and I didn't even know it."
Payne and his wife Ellen, who attended Hartselle High School and who still has family in Cullman and North Alabama, have settled in Grant. They have a grown daughter and son, and a college-age son. Their oldest son -- Pfc Nicholas Payne -- is serving as an Army satellite imaging technician in Hawaii. Payne and his wife enjoy riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Payne is also a clock maker, specializing in reconditioning antique clocks.