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Interview with John W. Brinsfield, December 9, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with John W. Brinsfield, December 9, 2003
December 9, 2003
Interview with Chaplain John Brinsfield, who served in the first Gulf War. Brisnfield recounts his expereince with the bravery and youth of his fellow soldiers along with the technical difficulties of ministering in a combat zone. He goes on to describe and explain the value of the support troops recieved from companies, religious organizations and families while in the field.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Brinsfield, John Interviewer:  Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview:  3/14/1991 Series:  Military Chaplains Length  31 minutes


Zarbock: An Army Central Command Chaplain in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He has a PhD. in history from Emory University and a Doctorate of Ministries and Ethics from Drew University and he is a member of the North Georgia Conference, United Methodist Church. Chaplain, could you tell me what your mission was, as an army chaplain, in Saudi Arabia?

Brinsfield: Yes, I was asked by the Chief of Chaplains office to report over here as an assistant and staff officer for General Thomas Sikora, who's the Commander of Army Central Personnel Command. I also served on the staff of the Arcent Chaplain, Chaplain Colonel Gay Helter. My job is to uh.. follow their directions, but to assign uh.. 561 army chaplains and approximately 530 chaplain assistants to positions throughout the combat zone. These included uh.. 64 Roman Catholic priests uh.. about 4 Orthodox priests and people of other uh.. faith groups and denominations.

Zarbock: What are some of the things chaplains do in combat?

Brinsfield: Well, a lot of times we think about combat as we've seen in Hollywood productions with John Wayne in "The Sands of Iwo Jima" and so forth, but a combat zone includes a forward, a main and a rear area. The chaplains that I assigned and the soldiers in two battalions that I've provided direct religious support uh.. to, were assigned in all three of those partitions of the combat zone. So, chaplains have the mission of performing or providing comprehensive religious support for their units. Uh.. That means uh.. to perform or provide worship services. Uh.. They have counseling duties; we had bible studies; we formed choirs; uh.. we visited soldiers uh.. all the way from the port facilities up to the front lines. Uh.. Chaplains went into battle with their units. Uh.. They rode in trucks; they drove trucks; they drove cutveys; uh.. they went to hospitals; they performed a counseling and religious mission from every unit uh.. from Dhahran to Riyadh to uh.. Kuwait to uh.. the battlefields in Iraq. Uh.. It was an area of over 500.. uh, square miles and it included people doing everything that they could to support the battlefront- stringing wire, to driving trucks to actually uh.. performing combat missions uh.. with regard to the maneuver battalions. So, if I had to say what did chaplains do uh.. there were loads of tasks that chaplains did, but in- in essence whatever unit they're in, they provide comprehensive religious support to that unit.

Zarbock: Since Saudi Arabia's such a conservative Muslim country, what is it like to be a Christian while in Saudi Arabia?

Brinsfield: This wasn't really new for me, because I had served for 13 months in Turkey uh.. 10 years ago or so before I came to Saudi Arabia. But, just like many missionaries have to make uh.. certain sacrifices and have to be flexible in order to be with their people, or in order to uh.. carry the message of the Gospel uh.. the chaplains who came over here, had to be flexible as well. Our basic guidance was that we could wear our crosses uh.. as long as we were within our own troop units; as long as we were conducting a service with our own soldiers. But, as soon as we left those areas that were commanded by U.S. personnel and went into towns or villages where we had contact with the Saudis, then we had to replace our cross with our rank, or with other suitable insignia. That seemed to bother uh.. some of the chaplains because they felt that without the cross uh.. they were not identified as having a true mission here. But, I always felt that the people in the unit knew who their chaplains were, if they had good chaplains- and I think we did have good chaplains here. Uh.. If it was just a matter of changing uniform to move from one point to another uh.. then it wasn't much different than being in camouflage. Uh.. I never had a problem with it; I wore my cross with my soldiers and uh.. I think that- that worked okay.

The other parts, though, of being in Saudi Arabia uh.. were a little more restricting. Uhm.. For example, we were not able to leave compounds frequently to go into towns uh.. simply because the terrorist threat was high; there were incoming SCUD missiles for uh.. about a month. Uh.. Many of these missiles were aimed at the towns and at the airports, and the soldiers who were in other areas simply were not allowed to go there. Uh.. We tried to remain dispersed; we were not allowed to go into mosques. We were not allowed to photograph mosques, but all in all uh.. I didn't see a report, by any chaplain come in, saying he was not able to do his job because he was in Saudi Arabia with his own troops. We were not able to proselytize. We were not able to move around as well as some other places in the world, of course, but in general, we did our job and the Saudis were polite and supportive of the overall mission that we had here. Uh.. I don't know a single chaplain or chaplain's assistant who has a complaint about the Saudi Arabian people.

Zarbock: During the Gulf crisis and the Gulf war, did you have any personal ethical issues which bothered you?

Brinsfield: Well uh.. I first wondered uh.. if we were doing everything we could in order to avoid war. And I also wondered how we would justify the delay between the time that Saddam Hussein uh.. invaded Kuwait and the time that we actually ordered the ground attack, because in the ethical traditions that I know, and I used to teach it at the United States Military Academy at West Point uh.. we tried to stress that uh.. a ground attack or armed attack on another country is a last resort. And I think the President and the other members of his Cabinet are well aware of that. It's one of the criteria for the just war theory; however, after I got to Saudi Arabia, my perspective changed a lot. Most of the soldiers than I was ministering to- many of the chaplains felt that they were here for different kind of reasons that just to satisfy some kind of ethical criteria. Uh.. They were not here for oil uh.. They realized that oil was an important commodity worldwide because oil drives our trucks and our aircraft and so forth, but I really believe that they felt they were here because they had a commitment to their unit and to their country, and because many of them believed that Saddam Hussein was in their words, "A rat's main maniac," and that they were doing a service not only for our country, but for o- other countries in uh.. limiting his power and uh.. striving to reduce his influence over this region. Uh.. Eventually, we came to realize, especially under SCUD attack, that we supported one another; there was no question about that. Uh.. I remember, I went up to the 5th Special Forces camp uh.. near the Iraqi border, the day before the ground attack began, and I was talking to one of the chaplains up there whom I knew. And uh.. he said that the odd thing about this theater is that even though people come in with certain questions, very soon they realize that they're there to support one another and their friends and their buddies and their units. Uh.. And the further north you went, the more dust you saw blowing at 40 miles an hour, and the more dirt you encountered uh.. for some strange reason, that the higher the morale went with the soldiers and the chaplains. Uh.. One chaplain told his commander uh.. that he had been out visiting the soldiers. The commander said, "Well, how is the morale, chaplain?" And he said, "Well uh.. sir, the food is messed up and the showers are messed up and nobody could sleep without uh.. dirt in their ears and their face uh.. but the morale is sky high." And the commander said, "Well, how do you explain that?" And he said, "Because uh.. the soldiers feel like they're doing something not only for their country, but also for the world." Uh.. Eventually my ethical issues were resolved because I was convinced that.. uh, our soldiers didn't hate the Iraqis, but nobody wanted Saddam Hussein to accumulate as much power as he would have, had he been allowed to capture the Saudi Arabian oil fields as well as the Iraqi oil fields.

Uh.. As you may remember, when 82nd Airborne Division got here, there were already Iraqi troops on Saudi Arabian soil uh.. The guards, the border guards, the Saudi border guards had already been killed. Uh.. And I think it would've been just a matter of days before the Iraqis had taken the Saudi oil fields, as well. Uhm.. What was the war about? Uh.. I think it was a punitive action. I think it was about uh.. restoring the sovereignty of a member state of the United Nations, Kuwait, and hopefully taking a giant step toward peace in this region. So most of my per- personal ethical issues uh.. I worked through. And those were important to work through; there's still some that I'm sure other people would debate. Uh.. Was our massive bombing justified? What happened to the innocent people who were killed? Uh.. But, all I can say is that if this was a last resort, and I believe it was, given the stakes that were uh.. in the discussion uh.. I think we fought a legal and limited war. And I think that's what is important for us to take back.

Zarbock: I'd like to follow up that question. I'm sure some soldiers had some doubts or inner feelings before going into the ground offensive. What, as a chaplain, would you tell that soldier?

Brinsfield: Well, uhm.. some soldiers did come to us and indicate that they had some doubts about going, not so much into combat with their peers, but they weren't quite sure what they should do, in the event they encountered Iraqis. Some didn't want to kill Iraqis. Uh.. We told them that it was our obligation to go forward as a team in order to remove the aggressors who had come into Kuwait and this was the best and the fastest way that we could do it. But uh.. we- we told them that we would pray for them; that we recognized their freedom of conscience; it was okay to doubt; it was okay to be afraid, but they had a duty to do and we wanted to count on 'em uh.. to help their buddies and their friends, and most of them understood that. But by the time the ground war started, believe me uh.. 99.9-percent of the soldiers were thoroughly convinced that Saddam Hussein's troops needed to be out of Kuwait. They knew that there was an oil spill, and that the wildlife and the ecology of the region was in danger, and it had no military value. Uh.. They knew their oil wells on fire; they knew that uh.. some children had been killed in Kuwait; they knew that some women had been raped in Kuwait. They knew that the bank deposits had been stolen from the banks in Kuwait; they knew that most of the furniture had been transported back to Baghdad. They knew that people had been murdered, decapitated and then put on the doorsteps of their families. They regarded this action as a terrorist action designed to break the resistance and the will of the Kuwaiti people to remain a sovereign nation. And our soldiers thought that those people deserved a chance to live in freedom, and they were willing to put their li- lives on the line for an ally.

And uh.. I spoke to them about different texts to help them think through those things. One was uh.. Second Chronicles the 32nd Chapter: "He who is with us is greater than he who is with him." It's the story of uh.. the sparing of uh.. Jerusalem from a.. Syrian king in uh.. Hezekiah's reign. We talked to them about uh.. verses from Joshua uh.. "Be strong and of good courage, for the Lord is with thee, where so ever thou goest." We talked to them about Jesus uh.. prays at the Centurion uh.. in the Gospels when he says, "I've not seen such faith in Israel." Uh.. We told them that, in so far as possible, they could be sure that God was with them as long as they attempted to do their duty in conjunction with the Geneva Conventions and attempted to spare as many lives as they possibly could, without endangering themselves and their friends. And I'm proud of what our soldiers did because I think in comparison with many wars, this war was conducted in accord with the Geneva Conventions and with the guidelines that our leaders had for us, to remain as lawful and as ethical as we could be.

Zarbock: So, you believe it was a just war. (Pause) Sir, do you believe this was a just war?

Brinsfield: Well uhm.. the uh.. direct answer is yes, but I would prefer to use a little different terminology. Uh.. In a recent issue of Christianity Today, James Turner Johnson from Rutgers University uh.. defended this uh.. punitive expedition I call it uh.. in terms of "just war" criteria, but I would rather say, instead of calling it a just war, I'd rather call it a- a lawful and limited war, and I'll tell you why. The "just war" criteria from the tenets of Saint Augustine to the present, has always stressed just intent. And it's always stressed uh.. use in the low, as well as use ad bellum- that is uh.. waging war with justice, as well as having a just cause for going to war. Now, there were innocent people killed during this action. Uh.. Those people who happened to be in Baghdad; those people who happened to be in Israel; those people who happened to be in Dhahran uh.. during the exchange of fire uh.. I think there were lots of people who didn't know what was going on, who were simply caught in crossfire and bombing and SCUD attacks who were killed. Uh.. War is evil. There is no doubt in my mind about that. That's really why chaplains originally went to the battlefield, to give absolution to Christian soldiers who wanted to be absolved of having to kill anybody, but there are things worse than war. And John Stuart Mill wrote back in the 18th century- excuse me, the 19th century, that one of the things that's worse than war is slavery, and I am quite convinced that this was an issue not unlike that, because the power that would've accumulated to Saddam Hussein and his people- whom I equate uh.. with the Nazis early in the uh.. second World War, because they were fighting a total war using terrorist methods and propaganda and all sorts of things, whereas the Allies were attempting uh.. to convince them to get out of Kuwait to uh.. restore the sovereignty of Kuwait and to observe international law and order.

So, rather than try to say everything that happened in this war was just. I would rather say there was clear, legal precedent under the Charter of the United Nations for collective defense of a member state of the United Nations, which Kuwait was and which Iraq was and which the other members of the coalitions were. There was a clear, legal authority for the defense of that and uh.. as working up to that, the use of the embargoes and the use of statesmanship to try to resolve this beforehand. Then when it occurred, I think everything that we could do to limit the number of casualties and to get it over with rapidly was done. Uh.. The people who- who ran this operation are absolutely brilliant. Uh.. I know there were 25 West Point instructors who came over here from the United States Military Academy uh.. most of them were majors and had been through Command and Staff School at Fort Leavenworth. They were staff officers, for uh.. some of the sections in the Pentagon that came over. Uh.. Our leaders were just outstanding in terms of planning this to preserve lives and to get the action uh.. over as soon as possible. Uh.. Was it a last resort? I think so. Given the things that were happening to Kuwait, if we had waited much longer, we might've had some real problems uh.. with other weapons, as well as with tactics. Uh.. Was it fought with good intent? I think so. I didn't know any soldiers that hated Kuwaitis. They thought Saddam Hussein was an evil person. Uh.. They wanted him removed from power, but nobody wanted to assassinate him. They simply wanted the Kuwaitis uh.. to be free and the Iraqis to get out of Kuwait. Uh.. We took prisoners. We did not uh.. mistreat them. They were turned over to the Saudis. We fed them for the first 10 days. Uhm.. Most of the criteria I know of, supports a view that there was justice done. I would prefer to say it was legal; it was uh.. legitimate uh.. a punitive action waged by United Nations forces and it was done in a limited manner and I have no moral problems with it.

Zarbock: What type of support do you believe that the United States provided? Was it good in your opinion?

Brinsfield: I saw chaplains who were delighted with the support and also with the soldiers. Uh.. Frequently we would get whole boxes of supplies from uh.. people like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and uh.. Burger King sent us uh.. little walkman cassette players. Uh.. We got Frisbees from Chevrolet; we got all kind of uh.. packs for soldiers with toothpaste and- and uh.. razor blades and that sort of thing. And it- it was quite uh.. moving to see these evidences of people's support. But, we also got messages from churches and civic organizations. We got uhm.. any soldier mail- poured in by boxes. Uh.. At any given time, I know soldiers who could've written 20 letters a night if they were trying to answer all of these. And sometimes I wrote from 19 to 30 letters in the daytime. At times even Xeroxing them so that I could put a little personal note and send them back again. Uh.. The support by churches such as Stuart Avenue United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia and Trinity United Methodist Church and the North Georgia Conference and- and uh.. other places throughout uh.. the South and- and America as a whole, were quite moving. We knew we had lots of people praying for us, and it didn't matter whether you were Protestant or Catholic or whatever uh.. people would write and they would send banners and Valentines and Christmas cards and all kind of things. But, our soldiers knew that other people were praying and sending the best they had. Uh.. I remember Vietnam. I was a Reservist during the Vietnam War and there was not this kind of support at that time. Uh.. We couldn't have had better support from our country and our churches, I don't think. And uh.. it was quite moving and the guys felt very good about it.

Zarbock: As a soldier yourself, how does the support make you feel?

Brinsfield: Well, uhm.. I feel like I owe my family and my friends uh.. something because uh.. they kept sending everything to me and I couldn't send anything home. Uh.. So, you know, I was quite moved that all of a sudden I'd get a box and in the box I had coffee or something I hadn't been able to get. And uh.. there was no way I could pay them back, except to tell them thank you, so I hope they know that we're grateful.

Zarbock: Do you believe other soldiers across Saudi Arabia and throughout the Gulf, feel the same way?

Brinsfield: Oh, yes. Uhm.. I heard a lot of guys say that uh.. their- they kept a list of all the companies who sent stuff and as soon as they get back, they're gonna' go uh.. get a hamburger at the places that- that sponsored this or buy a car from a certain company. Uh.. Because they knew they were with them over here. And it was- it was great.

Zarbock: What are some of the personal lessons that you learned as a chaplain from Operation Desert Storm?

Brinsfield: Well, there are personal, professional lessons and then there are some sort of personal emotional lessons. Uhm.. Professionally, my job was in two parts, as I've al- already indicated to you. I was responsible for assigning and tracking chaplains and chaplain assistants for all their personnel matters. And that meant being sure that we had enough priests and enough Protestants and enough people of other faith groups scattered through the 18th Airborne Corps and the 7th Corps and the Support Command and First Cavalry Division, and all the rest- to do their religious support mission. Uh.. My other job was to personally visit some of the first com units that went up uh.. almost to the Iraqi border, and included one unit over in Dhahran and then one down in Riyadh. Uh.. So, my parish was basically northeastern Saudi Arabia for my own direct support, but in terms of the assignments it included all of this. Uhm.. I guess the first thing I learned was that we were having a very difficult time tracking chaplains uh.. because some chaplains volunteered and came in through the reserves and were unknown to forces command before they got here. So, we had to find them and make sure they were all right and then supported by the unit, and then report them back to the United States. So, one lesson that I learned quite early is it's very difficult to find people in a combat zone. It's very difficult to communicate at times. Uh.. Some of the people in the United States seem to believe that we should be able to talk to them, but at times, it would take 25 uh.. phone calls or- or efforts to make a phone call before you ever got an overseas line. Uh.. Some of the folks didn't understand how difficult it was to communicate overseas and with each other over here. Uhm.. I learned that uh.. fatigue is an important factor in a combat zone. It doesn't matter whether you're up front or in the main or the rear areas. Uh.. When you go to a 24-hour schedule and you have SCUDS coming in or artillery fire or you're standing guard, that people uh.. simply begin to miss things. Their eyes don't focus as well; they don't think quite as sharply and so it takes more time to get things done. Uh.. Combat is the most fatiguing uh.. single uh.. long term activity I know. Of course, running a race in the Olympics or a marathon might be fatiguing but uh.. over the course of a few months, if you don't get but four hours sleep a day uh.. you have uh.. fatigue casualties. And we had fatigue casualties, even in the rear areas we had guys who uh.. suddenly were not able to function. They wouldn't take their uh.. protective suits off and this sort of thing. But they were very few in comparison to the over 300,000 soldiers who were in that area.

Now, the other thing I found out as a chaplain is, that it's very important to have a chain of command that people recognize and understand and it's very important to have a technical chain of supervision from one chaplain to another that everybody understands, because if they don't understand the technical chain, then they will not understand how to get supplies or uh.. who gives them supervision and that sort of thing. That was also an area that needed clarifying uh.. here in the theater. Uh.. Personally, a couple of things surprised me. Uh.. I didn't realize how young the soldiers were. Uh.. Maybe it's because I'm getting some age on me now, but when I got here and my assistant told me she was celebrating her 19th birthday; and when I got up front to the 5th Special Forces camp and I found a young lady there uh.. who had just celebrated her 22nd birthday and she was laying wire uh.. all across the Iraqi border uh.. and the people around them were basically college freshmen and sophomores uh.. I really felt that it was a privilege to be here to support these young people uh.. because I was in another generation. But uh.. it was a privilege to be here, help them out and to try to do whatever we could for them.

Uhm.. A second lesson I learned emotionally was, our young people, our soldiers are some of the best in the world. Uh.. They have an innate sense of humor; they have an intense desire to get the job done; they are not cruel and they are incredibly brave, and they're dedicated to each other. Let me mention just one.. uh, young man who was uh.. of interest in that way. Uh.. Private Frank Bradish who came from Idaho uh.. was in the Red Lion battalion of the 3rd Armored Division that was leading the attack uh.. from west to east, across Iraq, on or about the 26th day of uh.. February, two days after the ground war started. And uhm.. Frank was in an armored personnel carrier up front, looking for the Iraqi Republican guards. And he was uh.. he had a TOW missile uh.. tube on the top of his track, but he was not a tank. He was an armored personnel carrier. Uh.. He was the point person for the Red Lion battalion. Uh.. And as he went through the dark, all of a sudden a T-72 tank popped up out of the darkness and fired point blank into the APC and the shell penetrated the armor and exploded and fragments went all around the inside of the armored vehicle. Uhm.. Frank was hit in the waist and had three fingers of his left hand blown off and he evidently was blown out of the track and was able to get out. But when he- when he became conscious of where he was uh.. he looked around and realized his buddies were still in the track. Now, these were people of under 25 years of age. They were young people. Uh.. Without even pausing to get first aid, he crawled back in the track that was on fire and dragged three of his buddies outside of the track; then he went back in to try to get the ammunition out so that it wouldn't go off and kill anybody. And it was at that point that his commander Lieutenant Colonel John uh.. Cab showed up and uh.. saw what was going on. And then they began to give medical treatment uh.. to these soldiers. And Frank suddenly discovered he was covered with blood. Uhm.. His- a relative of his uh.. after she heard this story, said she was not surprised because even if Frank was dying, he still would've attempted to get his buddies out. Now, where in America do we find these values? I mean, you know, we hear so much more back home about people who are on drugs and people who have AIDS and people that uh.. poverty problems and all that. And then all of a sudden, you show up in a crisis and you have young people who have courage and dedication and some of the finest values and virtues and I think occasionally it's okay to pat our communities on the back, and say that our churches and our synagogues and our civic organizations and our families of all faiths are doing a good job with the young people in America. And I assure you, it's a great privilege for me to support them uh.. as best as I could, from where I was uh.. during this Operation. Uh.. Those are a few lessons that I learned. Uhm.. But I came away with the feeling that uhm.. we have some of the finest young folks anywhere and we should be devoutly thankful for them.

Zarbock: Is there anything you'd like to add, sir?

Brinsfield: Well, I think I've probably kept you long enough, but I appreciate your support from the Public Affairs office and from the United Methodist Church. Uh.. Just another example of how we work together as a team. Let me say that what I would urge all of us to do, however, is not to be complacent, but to continue our prayers for all of the statesmen and all of the leaders in this troubled region. Whereas we get close to the Passover and the Easter season uh.. and maybe we'll see this after they're over uh.. this is a holy land. We're seated not far from where Abraham was born. We're seated not far from where Mohammed preached and where Jesus walked. And it's incredible that there have been so many wars here, and there still seeds of warfare in the future. But, I think our soldiers have made a tremendous sacrifice and have given us a leg-up on the peace process, and I hope now, all of us of all faiths and of all religious persuasions will join together and pray for peace uh.. in this region and throughout the world. Thanks a lot. Good luck.

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