If you have been following my blog for any length of time then you know I write about people who have impacted my life and recently died. Don Crowley (1932-2015) is one of these individuals.
I met Don, a retired Army chaplain (who achieved the rank of colonel with the Army and brigadier general with the California National Guard), when he came to our Baptist church as a guest speaker a number of years ago (probably 2009). His sermon had such an impact on our small congregation that we invited him to become our interim preacher during our search for a permanent pastor, which lasted about a year.
Don’s style was that of a storyteller, and he had great stories to tell. Sometimes he would reminisce about growing up during the 1930s-1940s on the family farm outside of Yale, Oklahoma, and the trouble he got into as a youngster…times that he looked back on in later years as a parallel of God’s love for His wayward children.
But more often Don spoke about his chaplaincy in the Army, particularly his time with the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry regiment (the Manchus) in Vietnam during 1967-1968. My understanding of chaplains during wartime (from my father who served in Korea) is that they might fly briefly onto the battlefield to tend to the wounded and dying, but more often stayed with the troops behind enemy lines. Not Don. While with the Manchus, Don participated in over 200 combat sweeps—crawling, hunkering and advancing shoulder-to-shoulder with his men.
Without a weapon. Don’s only defense during these battles was prayer, and many a man has testified during reunions and in memorial since his passing about how they felt God’s presence as long as Don was in their midst. Not to say the men in his company didn’t die…many did. There were heavy casualties. But whether someone died in hospital or during battle, Don felt that each soldier deserved to have his hand held, last words heard, and prayers said on his behalf. For the living, he always had a word that imparted solace and courage to carry on.
When his men were crawling through uncharted tunnels looking for the enemy, Don was with them. When his men were wounded in battle, Don was there to pull them aside and minister to them, or remove them from the line of fire to safety. If they needed to relieve their minds, Don heard their confessions, knowing that we all do well to confess our sins to one another and impart/receive assurance of God’s grace and mercy. During Sundays and holidays, regardless of the difficulty, Don performed church services for anyone interested, and most were. One Christmas, being in very close quarters, there was very little space to hold services, so the men came in small groups to hear Don’s message. From dawn till dusk, his voice raspy from hours of speaking, Don told the men of the Savior who came to Earth in the form of a tiny baby, and then later died for the sins of the human race.
During his tours in Vietnam, Don came face to face with death twice yet God deemed that it was not his time. He received many awards (three bronze stars, three purple hearts), including the Silver Star for his actions on March 2, 1968, when his unit came under intense enemy fire. Refusing to stay on the back lines, Don carried ponchos and canteens of water to the troops and insisted on staying on the battlefield to search out the wounded and dying.
Don was not only concerned with his fellow Americans; while in country he also mourned the plight of the Vietnamese families bereft of their fathers and mothers, sons and daughters…particularly children orphaned from the war. As often as he could, he recruited battalion members to help build orphanages.
The one characteristic I came to cherish about Don – that I know was the impetus behind everything he said and did – was that he cared deeply for people’s souls. This took on a very personal note one day when I told him about my father, who was about Don’s age and was a professed atheist all of his life. Without hesitation, Don volunteered to travel with me to Southern California to share with my father about Christ. I thought long and hard about this but eventually declined his offer, as by that time Dad was suffering severe Alzheimer’s and I felt would not be able to grasp Don’s message. Did I make a mistake? I will never know. But Don’s willingness to do this stuck with me and helped me to understand how very important a person’s soul is to God…and should be to me as well.
Don was thoughtless of self, compassionate, and brave beyond compare. I gleaned from his stories (and stories told about him) a powerful sense of the value of human life, and the dignity God gives to all of us and asks us to impart to our friends and enemies alike, in the name of Christ. I also learned to never, ever give up, because in the heat of battle, in the midst of difficulties, God is always with us.