Higher call to duty

Lawrence County native finds ‘rewarding’ work as Army chaplain in Iraq

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The Rev. Daniel Sparks recently returned from Iraq where he served as a chaplain. The pace was hectic, he said. Sparks said the danger became real to him quickly. But confirmation that God had put him there for a reason came as he stood with buddies of a dead soldier, trying to give comfort.

Hitting the dirt of Baghdad after hearing the whiz of an incoming rocket, the Rev. Daniel Sparks might have wondered why in the world he was in Iraq — had there been time to think, that is.

An explosion shattered a 6-foot concrete fence pillar and sent gravel flying. Shrapnel wounded a soldier in his arm, Sparks said.

If things had been different, Sparks might have been in his native Alabama, serving as rector of a church. Or he might have been delving into politics, putting his university degree to use.

Instead, he was serving as an Army chaplain — his “calling,” he said.

That day, the wounded man was an assistant to a brigade chaplain. They were on their way to chapel for a memorial ceremony for a soldier, Sparks said.

“That was definitely too close for comfort,” he said of the rocket attack.

Just back after a 15-month stint in the war zone, Sparks said, seven men from his 500-member unit were killed. One was killed as he went to recover bodies from a Blackhawk helicopter crash in January 2007, Sparks said.

Another soldier committed suicide while on a visit home, he said. Sparks said he knew them all.

“Every one of the soldiers killed, I had had one-on-one conversations with before their death,” he said.

The deaths take an immense toll on the soldiers in the unit, the chaplain said. Giving pastoral care to the living is an important part of what he does — along with memorializing the dead, he said.

Sparks said he also has aided the wounded. He said he held the hand of a soldier as doctors removed shrapnel that had injured the soldier’s back and lung.

Politician or preacher?

Sparks, 32, is the youngest of six children of Gordon and Dale Sparks, and graduated from East Lawrence High School. He studied American history and politics at The University of Alabama, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1999.

During 1996 and 2000, he helped in Alan Keyes’ presidential campaign. He considered a career of politics and even pondered a run for the Alabama Legislature, he said.

But a feeling since age 12 that God was calling him into ministry never ceased, he said. Reared in a Pentecostal church, he preached his first sermon at age 17.

During his senior year at Alabama he started exploring the military chaplaincy as “kind of a wild thought,” he said. He learned he would need seminary training.

During college he attended First Assembly of God church in Tuscaloosa, and that led him to begin seminary at the Assembly of God school in Springfield, Mo. But his passions of politics and ministry left him feeling in conflict, he said.

He returned to Alabama, started Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham and realized he felt more at home in liturgical, sacramental churches, he said. He was ordained a priest in the United Episcopal Church of North America in 2003.

“I was looking for ties to the ancient, historical church,” Sparks said.

Doubts, decisions

The transition to Beeson was difficult academically and financially, he said, and he worked at an accounting office at the time. He also served churches in Leeds and Luverne, helped start a church in Bessemer and worked in campus ministry at Alabama. That time was a “struggling period,” he said. Still, through his doubts and uncertainty, he said he felt compelled to finish seminary.

Finally, only two courses remained. He passed a Hebrew I course but did not feel ready for the second class. He completed a refresher course in June 2005, took a “painful” Hebrew II class in the fall and graduated in December.

Sparks had already begun Army’s chaplain candidate school, going through summer training at Fort Jackson, Columbia, S.C. He completed practicums at three bases, finishing in March 2006 at Fort Rucker near Dothan. The Army assigned him to the 3rd squadron of the 61st Calvary Regiment, which is part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

The unit was stationed in Fort Carson, Colo., and deployment was expected, Sparks said. They left for Iraq in October 2006, thinking they would have a 12-month tour, he said.

The unit usually did reconnaissance, Sparks said. But they ended up doing patrols to show a presence and to investigate incidents, he said. They helped train Iraqi police and the national police.

The first few months, until more troops arrived, the unit’s forward operation base was frequently under fire, the chaplain said. In December 2006, they endured mortar or rocket fire 30 of 31 days, Sparks said.

Sparks said the danger became real to him quickly. But confirmation that God had put him there for a reason came as he stood with buddies of a dead soldier, trying to give comfort.

Busy ministry

The pace was hectic, he said. Sparks tried hard to keep up with the soldiers’ lives, such as what they were doing each day, whose wife was talking about divorce and whose child was sick. He hung out with the soldiers in their barracks, in the chow hall and at the motor pool. Like them, he heard on TV about deployments being stretched from 12 to 15 months.

Few soldiers were able to go to chapel services because of their work, but Sparks said he took chapel to them. At Easter, he led a service at an Iraqi police station; all 15 soldiers assigned there attended, he said.

He baptized two men who requested it and recommended others to a Catholic chaplain after they requested confirmation.

The chaplain said he most enjoyed going with soldiers for guard tower duty at night at a station.

“It’s meaningful for them that someone would go with them to do the dreaded shift at 2 a.m.,” he said.

Such moments reminded him how different his work is from church ministry, he said. A pastor does not usually get to follow parishioners to their jobs or toss candy to them as they pull out in humvees, Sparks said.

“It’s a very unique parish,” he said.

Ministry past, future

The work is also different from some ministry Sparks did previously. According to one of his Web sites, Sparks volunteered as a chaplain for Ten Commandments rallies and for a vigil for Terri Schiavo, a comatose woman who died after her husband won a court battle to have her feeding tube removed.

At www.armychaplaincy.com, Sparks addresses topics like how to become a chaplain and religious liberty in the military.

He wrote and is publishing a devotional book for soldiers, “He Shall Direct Thy Paths.”

Sparks’ endorsing minister, the Rev. George McClellan of Huntsville, said he is pleased with Sparks’ work and proud to have recommended him. McClellan said when he visited the Department of Defense recently because of his chaplaincy role in his denomination, a personnel officer knew Sparks by name.

He said the department evidently thinks highly of Sparks because it quickly commissioned him a captain.

Heading Sunday back to Fort Carson where the unit is now stationed, Sparks said he hopes that chaplaincy will be his career.

“It is fulfilling, satisfying and rewarding,” he said.

Sparks said it is likely he will have another tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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