The Chaplain (Major) Charles J. Watters Family Life Center is a far cry from the front lines of the Ukrainian battlefield. However, this is where several members of the Ukrainian volunteer chaplain corps found themselves during a visit to Fort Bragg, Friday.
A group of 10 chaplains visited North Carolina and South Carolina last week to learn more about the structure of the Army’s chaplain program. The group was part of the International Chaplains Camp, and their visit was sponsored by the Central Church of God in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For one chaplain, the journey to God required a few pit stops. In 1983, Valeri Trufanov was a USSR helicopter pilot patrolling the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His teams were tasked with shooting at groups of enemy motorcycles in the area.
Officers collected “trophies” from the dead men, and Trufanov said one small book spoke to him.
“It was in the Russian language,” he said through an interpreter. “It was printed in 1896 and it said ‘New Testament of the Lord Jesus Christ.’”
The Soviet officer had taken the book from a Pakistani officer, and Trufanov kept the book. He wanted to give it to his mother back in the USSR, but bringing Christian material into the country was illegal at that time.
To complete his mission, Trufanov transported the book into the country in a casket with a dead Soldier. He said he realized the true importance of the book a few years later when he returned home for a visit.
“God called me,” he said. “I quit the Army and became a Christian.”
Trufanov said that in his revelation, God told him the Pakistani man he killed was praying for him right before he died.
Now, Trufanov and his counterparts volunteer as chaplains for the Ukrainian army. The chaplains or their churches must fund their ministries because they are not yet an official part of the Ukrainian military.
“They’re just driving to the battle with bibles and oranges,” said Maj. Ronald D. Boyd, chaplain and pastoral counsel assigned to the Chaplain (Major) Charles J. Watters Family Life Center.
Boyd has worked with the group for two years, ever since he visited Kiev to discuss a chaplain’s training manual he wrote.
Part of the chaplains’ visit included learning more about how to officially incorporate as a government entity. A Ukrainian congressional aide traveled with the group and was tasked with putting together draft legislation so the government can officially sponsor a chaplain corps.
The Ukrainians traveled to chaplaincy schools in Fort Jackson, South Carolina to gain insight on establishing an official corps.
“They were very interested in the period of 1776 when the chaplains began to form in our country because they feel that’s where they are,” said Boyd. “They also went to the chaplaincy museum and that was their primary focus of interest — how we were able to come together.”
During their visit, the chaplains also traveled to the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and talked to chaplains who minister to displaced civilians; Lowe’s Motor Speedway and spoke with NASCAR chaplains; and went deep sea fishing off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The chaplains said the most meaningful part of their journey was being at the center of where the U.S. Army prepares its chaplains.
“Our main goal is to see that experience that the U.S. chaplains have and then implement it in Ukraine,” they said. “We are honored that the chaplains of the U.S. Army are so open to us and it is very valuable to us.”
The chaplain program in Ukraine has grown “leaps and bounds” since it began, according to Boyd. He said that in the beginning, the chaplains had basic questions about things like conducting memorial services.
“Now, they are asking more strategic, developmental questions as far as governmental organization,” he said. “That’s a tremendous leap, from tactical level to strategic level in two years.”
The Ukrainians said they also appreciated the openness and humility of the U.S. chaplains in answering their many questions. Boyd reciprocated the sentiment.
“We are gaining some of their passion just by hanging out with them,” he said. “They are cool dudes — rugged, professional clergymen. How can you not love that?”