CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.
On a Sunday afternoon, the high-pitched chatter of boys and girls playing fills the home of Marine Staff Sgt. Ahmal Coles and his wife, Whitney.
In the living room, the children’s parents and other grownups share Christian fellowship and sing hymns such as “Worthy is the Lamb” and “I Will Call Upon the Lord.”
This weekly small-group meeting brings together military families from the Roosevelt Drive Church of Christ, a 200-member congregation in nearby Jacksonville, N.C., just outside the main gates of this massive Marine Corps base.
The casual gathering — with homemade cookies and iced tea — takes a serious turn when the time comes for prayer requests.
“I would say I’m probably wound up a little tight right now,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Tim Harrison, a Roosevelt Drive member since 2008. “I’ve got a lot of stress because I’m about to leave.”
In about a month, the baby-faced Harrison will kiss the pretty young woman in the breezy red dress — his wife, Lindsay — goodbye and fly off to war.
The 26-year-old father of two already has served two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. He missed the birth of his son, Declan, now 6 years old. He wasn’t home to celebrate his daughter Elleanna’s first three birthdays — and he’ll be away again when she turns 4.
An explosive ordinance disposal technician — a duty as dangerous as it sounds — he’ll begin another seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in October.
Two colleagues with the same task died in recent weeks. Two others lost legs.
“Really, for our EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) community, it’s been a devastatingly hard month,” said Lindsay Harrison, Tim’s high school sweetheart from their days with the MacArthur Park Church of Christ in San Antonio.
“And then on top of that,” she added, “there’s the stress in knowing that Tim’s going right where these people are being killed up in northern Afghanistan.”
It’s an assignment that Tim — a high school sophomore when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks propelled the nation into war 10 years ago — chose.
“I was very upset about what happened,” he said. “I wanted to go do something.”
‘MY DADDY IS AWAY’
All around the room, the Christians gathered at the Coles’ home can identify with the Harrisons’ mix of duty and dread.
Seated on the couch, there’s Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Goolsby, 25, who grew up in the Eastman Church of Christ in Georgia.
Just a few months ago, Goolsby and another Roosevelt Drive member helped establish a congregation at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan.
In the desert, the worship is the same, Goolsby said. Except for dust blowing in your face as you praise God.
“All Marines can vouch that, starting from boot camp, you need that spiritual assistance to keep your mind sane,” he said. “And a lot of guys like us, who grew up in the church, that’s where we seek to go decompress with our brothers and sisters.”
By the front door is 2nd Lt. Jordan Reid, who is single and training for his first deployment to Afghanistan.
His motorcycle helmet on the floor, the Texas A&M University graduate leads singing, choosing some of the same songs he enjoyed as a counselor at Camp Deer Run in Texas.
In the kitchen, there’s Whitney Coles, 24, who’s hosting the small-group meeting.
Her husband, 28, is a maintenance supply chief who served a previous tour in Iraq. He’s scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in September — his first combat assignment since the birth of the couple’s 16-month-old son, Gideon.
As his mother talks, the toddler thumbs through a picture book titled “Over There.”
“My daddy is away,” says a page with a drawing of a girl swinging. “And I miss him.”
When terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed into the World Trade Center, Whitney Coles was a high school freshman.
“I never thought that I would be married to a Marine who would be getting ready to go to his second tour, to his second country, because of the effects of 9/11,” she said. “I never thought that I would be sitting here, helping him get all his stuff together for deployment — all of his uniforms, his gear — and even getting ready to send him care packages.”
She’d prefer her husband stay home where he’s safe.
But she knows that’s not possible.
“I know that, yeah, there’s a possibility that anybody that deploys may not come home,” she said. “I don’t want to have to deal with that. But I have a faith, and I have a (church) family, that can help keep me secure and keep me positive.”
While anxious about her husband leaving, Coles expects to draw strength from other wives in the church.
“They’ve been there, and they can help me through it,” she said.
‘DEPLOY, DEPLOY, DEPLOY’
A decade of war has taken its toll.
More than 6,100 U.S. military members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fight against terror has touched the Roosevelt Drive church in ways large and small.
“I’ve seen a huge, huge change from the way the military was prior to 9/11,” said Navy Cmdr. Allan Ross, an audiologist and Roosevelt Drive member who recently left for a new assignment in Italy.
“The norm now is just deploy, deploy, deploy, deploy, deploy,” said Ross, an Abilene Christian University graduate who met his wife, Maki, while stationed in Japan. “Prior to 9/11, guys were fighting to deploy because they hardly ever got to go.”
The Roosevelt Drive church, started in 1952 by Marines and sailors, is split about 50-50 between the military and civilians.
“We currently have 20 Marines and sailors serving in Afghanistan,” said involvement minister Jim Bender, a former Marine helicopter pilot who gained combat experience in the Gulf War. “Their families are heroes, too, while their husbands/fathers serve in Afghanistan.”
Ron Edwards, the preacher since 1985, served in the Air Force before attending Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas.
The church sees itself as a “training congregation” that — like the military — helps equip young men and women for service all over the world, Edwards said.
Members support 10 missionaries, and the church encourages retired military personnel to train for full-time ministry through Sunset.
Dozens of former members serve as ministers, elders and deacons.
“We used to kind of joke about it — they’d come in, and we’d work with them, and in about three years, they would have developed their giving, they would have developed their potluck skills, and they would have developed as teachers,” Edwards said. “And then they’d leave us.”
Since Sept. 11, frequent deployments have made that spiritual training more difficult.
“They’re just not here to help us, and they’re not here to grow,” the minister said. “The men are deployed. The women are still here with the children, and that puts added stressors on them. But I think we’re beginning to notice that you don’t have the longtime association with them where you help them make greater progress.”
WAR AND INNER PEACE
For the families faced with repeated deployments, the stress can have a cumulative effect, said church elder Matt Ingram, a retired Marine sergeant major.
Take the Harrisons, for example.
“If you’re in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s dangerous no matter where you are,” Ingram said. “But with Tim, take it to the 10th power danger because he’s not only going out — what we call ‘outside the wire’ — all the time, but he’s going to known explosive areas.
“So he goes, and they’re on pins and needles. … And then there’s the huge relief when he comes home, and he reintegrates with the children and with Lindsay.”
But in just a few months, the friction starts again because it’s time to prepare for another deployment.
That’s where a strong Christian faith — and a supportive church family — comes in, the Harrisons said.
If she needs help mowing or fixing her car transmission, Lindsay knows she can call church members.
If she needs a break, she trusts fellow Christians to watch her children.
“It’s really everything that gets you through,” she said of her faith. “This church is our family here. It’s what keeps you going and keeps you grounded and keeps you realizing that even the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad.”
As Tim returns to the war zone, Lindsay said she’ll do her best to live “a normal, everyday life.”
“I feel like, with children at home, you can’t pause their life until Dad gets home,” she said. “So, we go to school, and we do soccer and ballet and just everything else.”
For Tim, knowing that fellow Christians care for his family while he’s deployed provides a huge measure of inner peace, he said.
“Also, I know that people are praying for me while I’m over there. And that’s a big help and a big comfort,” he said. “There’s been quite a few times where, if they wouldn’t have been praying for me, then I wouldn’t be here right now.”