Photo: Corey Bjertness
Command Sgt. Maj. Tom Behrends recalls his National Guard base in Iraq as an unexpected oasis in the desert.
It was a way station for other battalions on the move that would stop in for a night’s rest or to refuel.
Because the area was a hotbed of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the base was also a refuge for units who needed to regroup after being hit.
Corey Bjertness, an ELCA chaplain, and his assistant would be among the first to receive the soldiers.
“It didn’t matter to the chaplain who these people were. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine. Christian, Muslim, atheist. These were soldiers in need, and the chaplain cared for them,” recalls Tom, a Presbyterian. The ELCA and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are full communion partners.
After attending to the dead and wounded, counseling the survivors was Corey and Tom’s primary task, along with other special services.
“The uniforms of these soldiers would be blood-soaked from caring for their buddies,” Tom recalls. “The chaplain had volunteers working around the clock at the washing machines, so these soldiers didn’t have to wash the blood out themselves.”
A ‘citizen solider’
Corey was deployed to Iraq in the fall of 2007. He was an ELCA chaplain in the Minnesota National Guard and full-time pastor at Peace Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in New London, Minn.
He had left behind his wife, four children and his call at a congregation in the midst of a multimillion-dollar construction project.
He was grateful to his family and congregation for their “massive support” in recognizing and honoring his military ministry to soldiers of all faiths and those with no faith at all.
And the soldiers were also thankful to Corey.
Corey brought a sense of sanctuary in a place of chaos, according to Sgt. Sadie Brehmer. While she did not attend church in civilian life, in Iraq she found a “safe zone” in Sunday services.
“He was there for all of us,” says Sadie. “He would drop anything for anybody.”
It’s that kind of testimony that gave Corey both the challenge and privilege of serving as a “citizen solder.”
Bringing God to soldiers
Today, Corey is chaplain for the North Dakota National Guard and is senior pastor of First Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Fargo.
Working with soldiers who are now undertaking their second or third tour overseas, Corey’s military ministry has taken on a new focus — maintaining the “spiritual fitness and resiliency” for soldiers and their families.
But ultimately, Corey says, it’s about living out the chaplain’s motto, “Bringing God to soldiers and soldiers to God.”