By Jenny Redfern
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Doug Ball '97
"Praise and justice go together throughout Scripture. And justice is as much a part of God's character as love."
The late afternoon sun bore down on the worn picnic table seated outside the Forward Operating Base Kalagush in Afghanistan. On its wooden seats, the U.S. Army chaplain relaxed with a tired soldier, perhaps discussing the fear of battle, problems with a superior or the stress of marriage.
A loud “shush” interrupted their conversation, followed by a dull thump. A rocket struck the tin roof of the building a mere 30 yards away and exploded. The slant of the roof directed the shrapnel away from the table, and smoke began to pour from the place of impact.
The chaplain and soldier took a long look at the damage before turning to one another.
“We better go get somewhere safe,” the chaplain said nonchalantly, and together they walked toward the concrete bunker.
Compared to the soldiers he works with, Major Doug Ball ’97, Army chaplain, said he feels his job rarely exposes him to danger. Still, few Americans back home can say they know the feelings of being targeted by lethal ordnance.
“War is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” said the 34-year-old John Brown University alum, who now lives in St. Johns, Ariz.
During these sheer-terror moments, with rockets falling all around, training overcomes the instinct to run and hide for trained soldiers such as Ball. Not until afterward does he realize how close he came to death.
When Ball was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, he became chaplain over 13 base camps. Though Ball’s duties rarely put him in the middle of direct combat, he faced danger of being under fire when traveling between locations. Whether by helicopter or convoy, the chaplain always had to be in full protective gear.
Yet, Ball was not completely insulated from the dangers of battle. He accompanied his soldiers wherever they deployed to get to know them better.
“If I’m with them when they’re being attacked, I’m in the middle of that,” Ball said.
One group of his soldiers was called to a remote location to train local police in order to reclaim a town from the Taliban. They were the only soldiers in the village. Each day bullets hummed past as they made their way to and from the train. At night, they huddled together in their small lodgings for safety. They were fortunate to have no fatalities, Ball said.
After about a month, the soldiers returned to base. They stayed a week before deploying again for another month. Ball was one of the first to talk the men through their situation when they arrived home each time.
“My role was to step into their danger and talk to them about it,” Ball said. “I got to be a part of history. Those were my soldiers, and I got to hear their stories when they got back.”
Ball also worked during the aftermath of the Battle of Kamdesh, when the Taliban assaulted the American Combat Outpost Keating in October 2009. U.S. forces rallied back, resulting in hours of fighting. Ball described the battle as a scene out of a war movie. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and 22 were wounded.
Ball responded to an outpost where they were taking casualties. The heavy feeling of uselessness hung in the air as he and the others waited for the Medevac helicopters to arrive. Soldiers impatiently shifted back in forth, desiring help for their fallen comrades or the opportunity to fight.
One soldier lay wounded with a golf ball-sized hole in his calf, a possible broken leg and multiple shrapnel wounds. He refused pain medication for 12 hours because there was a limited supply and he felt others needed it more.
Ball and another chaplain worked their way around the outpost, pausing to talk each soldier through their situation. Ball watched the surgical team work for hours in an unsuccessful attempt to save one soldier. Ball said a final prayer and a surgeon pronounced him dead.
After the memorial ceremony a week later for the eight heroes who gave their lives, multiple soldiers from the battle reenlisted for service.
“I think at no time have I been more impressed by the resiliency, determination and selfless sacrifice of the American soldier than during that entire experience,” Ball said.
When he’s not joining his troops on training missions, debriefing soldiers about life-threatening situations or holding the hands of those injured in battle, Ball’s duty as chaplain has two focuses.
The first is to provide religious services for those deployed into the field. Since the soldiers are not able to attend church on Sundays, Ball’s job is to provide worship opportunities and Bible studies for them.
Ball compared his job to that of an old-school circuit preacher. Once he arrived at a location, he would grab his guitar and a chaplain kit for communion and spread the word that there would be a worship service. Then, it would be on to the next location, allowing him to see each base once a month.
“While I’m away from a location, mental health doctors and psychologists will come through,” Ball said. “I had to trust that God would find other ways to help the people I was supposed to take care of while I was away.”
Ball also plays the important role of pastoral counselor. Often commanders would bring soldiers to Ball’s attention and ask him to “fix them.” The stress of war brings many problems for both old and new soldiers. Some soldiers have been through four or five deployments. Others have marriage issues. Still others question the morality of their actions. They ask if it is right or wrong to kill.
There are no easy answers for such tough questions, but Ball always responds with biblical truth. He tells soldiers that killing is vastly different from murder. In the right context and for the right reasons, it can be a good thing — not a necessary evil or even an allowable thing, but a holy and God-honoring thing, Ball said.
His theme scripture for deployment is Psalm 149. He specifically points out verse 6, “May the praise of God be in their mouths, and a double-edged sword in their hands.”
“Praise and justice go together throughout scripture,” he said, “and justice is as much a part of God’s character as love.”
Aside from the big questions, some need help just working through the fear of it all. Unit problems are also common when groups of 30 people are required to live in close proximity for a year. All are situations that Ball shepherds the soldiers through. Soldiers could go to him when they did not feel comfortable talking to their superiors.
Despite the danger and the problems, Ball knows that this is exactly what God has called him to do.
At home or on the field, Ball cannot escape the call God has placed on his life. Each day is confirmation that this life is what God has made him for.
“When you do exactly what God has made you to do, you are able to do far more than what you would expect or that others would think possible,” he said.
Ball’s military journey started at JBU, where he was a part of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. He knew his future would be connected with the military. After a mission trip to Australia, where he worked at a children’s camp on an aboriginal reservation, Ball said he was called into ministry. With a background in military and a call to missions, army chaplain seemed like a natural fit.
After graduating with a degree in Broadcasting, Ball attended seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. Before he could become a chaplain, though, he had to have a couple years of experience. After seminary, he pastored the Auburn Evangelical Free Church in Auburn, Neb. for five years.
During his time in Nebraska, Ball became an army chaplain for the National Guard. His first appointment came in 2003 when his unit was deployed to Bosnia. The cavalry unit was part of a peacekeeping mission, so the dangers were limited to minefields and unexploded remnants left over from the war.
In 2005, Ball became a full-time Army chaplain and was stationed with an aviation unit in Fort Drum, N.Y. along the Canadian border. That same year he deployed with his unit to Iraq in the middle of a combat zone.
Three years later, he was transferred to Fort Carlson in Colorado Springs, Colo. There he became chaplain over a military police battalion, which deployed to Afghanistan with in 2009.
Ball returned from Afghanistan in May of this year. He currently resides in Yuma, Ariz., with his wife Sarah (Rittenhouse) ’97 of 13 years and his four children: Rachel, 10; Rob, 7; Laura, 4; and Levi, 2.
Instead of being attached to a unit, he is assigned to the post. The units at Yuma are too small to have their own chaplain, so Ball is able to work with all the soldiers located there. As the only chaplain, he is in charge of both the Protestant and Catholic chapel services. He performs and leads the Protestant service, but simply arranges the Catholic service. Ball said he just keeps all worship services focused on Christ and a life-giving relationship with God through Him. “The nice part of this assignment is that I won’t deploy as long as I’m here, because I am attached to the actual post,” Ball said.
The largest activity at Yuma is the Military Free Fall School. Special operators, Navy SEALs and Air Force rescuers are taught how to jump from a plane. Recently, Ball had the opportunity to free-fall for the first time. Ball said that jumping from 14,000 feet was not as scary as he thought. “It’s so high that your brain just can’t comprehend it,” he said. “We fell for a whole minute before we pulled the cord.”
When discussing the future, Ball said the next deployment was not a matter of “if” but “when.” After two to three years, Ball plans on stepping back into a deployment position.
Ball said he thrives in that combat situation. “If I didn’t have to be away from family, I would almost prefer deployment,” he said.
What others view as dramatic and dangerous, he considers natural. Jeopardy, risk and casualty do not feel overwhelming, but like home.
“It’s normal to me because this is who God made me to be,” Ball said. “I’m a warrior chaplain.”