Adventist News Network®

The official news service of the Seventh-day Adventist world church

Unprecedented Adventist military veterans program recognizes exemplary service, remembers the fallen

NAD Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries highlights the sacrifice of servicemen and servicewomen in honor of Veterans Day.

Unprecedented Adventist military veterans program recognizes exemplary service, remembers the fallen

Col. Richard “Dick” Stenbakken, former director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, shares how an Army chaplain gave up his life jacket to save Stenbakken’s life during a torpedo attack in WWI. [Photo Credit: Mylon Medley]

Magnifying Glass View Larger

The North American Division (NAD) Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries (ACM) hosted its first ever ceremony in honor of Veterans Day entitled, “You Are Not Forgotten: A Salute to Veterans” on Saturday, November 10.

“We have gathered. We who have served, and those of you who endured while we served, have come today to recognize those who are still with us and those who are not,” said Paul Anderson, director/endorser of AMC.

“Some have described a veteran as someone who at some point in his or her life wrote to this country a blank check up to — and including — their very lives,” continued Anderson. “Others have suggested that these men and women in uniform or who have served in uniform serve as the fabric of security in which we live day-by-day, and the security blanket under which we sleep night-by-night.”

More than 200 people attended the Sabbath afternoon program, which happened to fall on the 242th birthday of the United States Marine Corps, at the division’s headquarters in Columbia, Maryland. Those in attendance included servicemen and women from the five U.S. military services – Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. Each member of the military marched into the auditorium where the program was held according to their service. They saluted a ranking official then received a commemorative coin that was fashioned for the occasion. Spouses, relatives, and supporters also came to express their gratitude for their service.

“My brothers, my sisters, we affirm you, we appreciate you,” continued Anderson. “Welcome home. Thank you for your service.”

Fateful Service

The ceremony was designed to be simultaneously awe-inspiring and solemn. Each chair held a “Buddy Poppy,” the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. A table was set on the stage to remember prisoners of war (POW).

Each element was intentionally placed and held a special meaning, including a white table cloth that represented the purity of motives of those who served; a candle that represented the hope for the return of the serviceperson; and a Bible that represented the strength gained through faith.

A 95-year-old former POW from World War II was recognized for his bravery and service. Rothhacker Smith was drafted in 1943 when he was 20 years old to serve in the 92nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. The regiment was the only African-American infantry division to see combat in Europe during WWII. The following year, his infantry was sent to serve in the war’s Italian Campaign in the Tuscan region.

As a noncombatant medic, Smith accompanied his fellow soldiers who operated machine guns. While stationed in a house across from a German line on Christmas day, the Germans began shooting mortar shells, an artillery weapon that fires explosive shells known as “mortar bombs.” The following day their house was hit three times. Only 10 survived, including Smith who was severely injured. While they were spared from the mortar shells, they were certain their mortality was near.

“We knew Hitler declared ‘instant death’ for any black capture. They surrounded us for almost two whole days before they came in to pick us up. We knew we were going to be dead. There was no question that we were going to die," said Smith.

The soldiers were instead marched on foot for approximately four days before they were loaded in a truck to be transported to a German prison camp. A month later, Smith and other POWs from Allied countries were transferred to Germany. The POWs were freed by American troops three months later on April 29, 1945.

“My advice to you, if you face death get ready to die,” said Smith who asked God to forgive his sins when he thought the Germans were going to execute him and the fellow survivors. Once he had peace that he was forgiven, he accepted his fate because was eager to see Jesus. “It's a beautiful thing when you're ready.”

Honoring Exemplary Service

ACM leaders recognized four servicemen for their extraordinary service in their fields. The honorees included Sgt. 1st Class Joseph D. Anderson, (ret.) for his service to the Army during the Vietnam War, and his leadership as Ward Master for Male Orthopedics at the FitzSimmons Army Medical Center in Denver, Colorado; Frank Damazo, M.D. was honored for the 60 years of advocacy and mentoring for the White Coats – 2,300 soldiers who volunteered as human subjects in experiments from 1954-1973 to develop the science of defensive capabilities against bio-chemical warfare; and Brig. Gen. James Hammond was honored for his outstanding public service in the South Carolina National Guard and the U.S. state of Maryland as a minister, teacher, counselor, and highly decorated military leader.

Leaders also honored Col. Richard “Dick” Stenbakken, (ret.) who helped establish Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries as its first director/endorser after becoming the first Seventh-day Adventist Chaplain to serve as full colonel in the U.S. Army. Stenbakken was also the 13th Adventist chaplain to be assigned to active duty in the military; today there are 104 Adventist chaplains serving on active duty in the uniformed services.

“You can't possibly understand the thrill that's in my heart,” said Stenbakken. “It's been my pleasure to see the growth and expansion, [and] to enjoy seeing this church serve not only Adventists, but many, many, many other faith groups as well.”

Remembering Staff Sgt. Stacey Mastrapa

A section of the program was dedicated to Staff Sgt. Stacey Mastrapa who was killed in 2004 while serving in Iraq. Mastrapa’s mother, Nancy, attended the ceremony to accept an honor in his memory.

“It is our honor to appreciate the fortitude under which you bear the loss of your child and the character that you built within him,” said Anderson while fighting back tears. “On behalf of the president of the North American Division, your grateful church and Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries, it is my honor to present you with this [award] as an appreciation for your life, the life of your son, and your commitment to God and His church."

[Stacey] joined the army to keep us safe,” responded Nancy. “He believed in God and country. May his life and all others not be in vain. Thank you for recognizing our fallen heroes and for remembering our sacrifice. Let us pray for our country, and the freedom we have. God bless America."

Honoring Spouses

The ceremony concluded with a gracious acknowledgement of the men and women who support their loved ones who serve.

“We want to take this time … to salute and acknowledge the strength behind the veteran,” said Debra Anderson, wife of Paul. “ACM would like to give you a token of appreciation for all that you have done when you are home alone, when you're raising the kids all by yourself.”

Spouses of military personnel in the audience were asked to stand to receive a gift, which was a white handkerchief with the engrained message, "You are not forgotten."

“We ask you just to keep it with you, you don't have to use it … but [please know] that ACM appreciates you, as does the country. Thank you for your service.”