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J. Shane Mercer, Published January 03 2009

Military ministry: Perham pastor devoted to Iraq chaplain duties

They say big boys don’t cry. But Lt. Cmdr. Paul Anderson, a Marine and runner of five marathons, knows better.

“Yeah, I’ve had some tearful nights,” he said in an interview from Ramadi, Iraq.

Anderson, who is a pastor at New Creation Lutheran Church in Perham, Minn., has been serving as a chaplain for RCT-1 (Regimental Combat Team – First Marines) in Iraq since early October.

That means he’s missed spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, not to mention that Anderson, who celebrated his 44th birthday in Iraq, also missed the birthdays of three of his five children. He’ll also miss another daughter’s birthday and the 21st anniversary of his marriage to wife Kimberly.

“That’s one of the tough things ... that I’ve dealt with,” says the 1987 Concordia grad.

Even so, he values the experiences he’s having working with the soldiers and the relationships he’s developing.

“There’s a bonding together as a group, and they become, essentially, my Marine family,” he says.

And, in terms of relationships back home, he believes the “gains that will come will be incredible.”

Of course, the situation isn’t just difficult for Anderson.

“It’s definitely hard to be the mother and father to our kids,” says Kimberly Anderson.

And Clayton Anderson, Paul Anderson’s father, says Paul and Kim’s 4-year-old daughter, Kjirsten, knows that they took her dad to the airport in Fargo and wants to go back there to pick him up.

Anderson is three months into a roughly 14-month stint. He’ll be back home around Feb. 1 for 15 days. He’ll then head to Iraq again; this time to Al Asad, an air base near Baghdad, where he’ll be assigned to the 1st Radio Battalion and Intelligence.

As chaplain he provides pastoral care and counseling to troops. He keeps tabs on morale, leads services, helps organize events, conducts Bible studies and walks miles to visit with troops.

The Andersons recently got past one of the big hurdles for military families: spending Christmas apart. With Paul gone, Kimberly says “There was a big piece of the pie missing for us.”

There was a lot missing for him, as well. He says the holiday hit home for him at a Christmas Eve service in Baharia, a military camp near Fallujah.

“And it was sort of bittersweet,” he says. “I mean, it was nice, I really felt like I was having Christmas, but then you recalled singing those songs with your family and being with your church back home … and so I had a few tears there as well. It was wonderful, yet it was difficult.”

Despite the struggles, when you talk to Paul and Kimberly Anderson, the melancholy is mixed with gratitude, perspective and a helping of good-old Midwestern/military stick-to-itiveness.

In Kimberly Anderson’s words, “it’s not cancer; it’s not death.” She knows there are people who have it worse.

And the immersing work he does helps keep Paul’s mind off of things back home.

“Not that I forget, because I think about (my family) everyday, several times a day, but ministering to the troops, they’re also away from their families, and being here with them during that time is special, too,” Anderson says.

They’re also grateful for all their snow-shoveling, meal-cooking and baby-sitting friends and family who are helping out.

“Paul is not in the military for the rank and the

paycheck,” Kimberly Anderson says. “He’s really in it for the ministry.”

“Well, you’ve got to know Paul,” says Clayton Anderson when asked why his son does the work he does. “If someone is hurting, Paul is hurting. … If someone needs help, he’s there to help them if he can.”

“He’s cut out for it,” says Clayton Anderson, a retired optometrist and, not so incidentally, a former Marine. Paul Anderson says that among the bedtime songs his dad used to sing to him was the “Marine Corps Hymn.”

Even though he’s missing some memory-making back home, he’ll return with a brain full of reminiscences of his own like the dust storms that block out the sun and the shepherds he’s watched as they walk along with “20 to 30, maybe 40 … big, wooly sheep.” But some memories are of a more substantial lot.

“Being here has availed the opportunity to minister to some of these guys who some of them do not have a relationship with the Lord,” he says. “And I have been able to facilitate that, and that’s been a very moving thing for me and a very memorable thing for me to bring somebody to a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

In the end, Anderson’s absence will be a good thing all around, he believes.

“This has been a life-enriching experience for me, and I believe that myself, my family and … my church will come through this even stronger in our faith and in our relationships with each other,” he says. “I know that it has caused me to have a deeper relationship with my wife and with my children even in this short time, I guess in the scheme of things, that I’ve been away.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734