Military command chaplain embraces care for troops, love of country during career of service

“Our country is not perfect, and we all know that, but it is a country that has stood for freedom — not just within its borders, but around the world,” said Ch. Col. Greg Woodbury, who retired in July 2019 after more than 30 years as a U.S. Air Force chaplain.

“As I’ve traveled the world and seen and experienced different cultures, it has reinforced how blessed I feel to be a part of the United States, where I have the freedom to believe and to practice my faith without fear of persecution,” said Chaplain Woodbury. “Not all countries have that, but we do.”

Both South Carolina natives, he and his wife, Kathy, recently relocated to Greenwood from Miami, Fla., where he had been serving as Command Chaplain for the U.S. Southern Command since May 2016. While there, they were members of Sheridan Hills Baptist Church in Hollywood, Fla.

Woodbury, then one of 32 active duty Chaplain Colonels in the Air Force, directed the religious support for not only the Air Force, but for all of the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard personnel assigned to bases in the Southern Hemisphere.

Endorsed by the North American Mission Board as a military chaplain in 1988, the alumnus of Charleston Southern University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has served at almost every level of military chaplaincy at 13 bases, eight major commands, and two combat commands in the Middle East. Throughout his lengthy service, the calling God first laid on Woodbury’s heart has remained steadfast.

While chaplaincy ministry changes from level to level, from rank to rank, Woodbury said, “The bottom line, I think, is I love people, and I love developing relationships with people and helping them. I think that’s what the Lord has called me to do.”

Ch. Col. Greg Woodbury was dubbed a “muddy boots chaplain” because he would go the extra mile in meeting spiritual needs.

“I count it one of the greatest blessings of my life that I was able to go wherever our troops went, and to be a part of their lives, and to help them,” he added.

When he started advancing up the ranks, his role changed to one of empowering chaplaincy teams to care for the spiritual needs of troops and making sure other military chaplains had the skills and resources they needed to be effective. As a Colonel, he became responsible for more than 180 chaplaincy teams during his time as the U.S Air Force Central Command Chaplain in the Middle East.

“I had to go and make sure that they were functioning well and had what they needed, and to advocate for them,” Woodbury explained. “That was a great joy. There are so many different blessings in being a servant leader.”

Even before enrolling in seminary in the mid-1980s, Woodbury felt God leading him into the chaplaincy.

“If I went into my faith journey and gave you my testimony, it’d be pretty long, but let’s just say, when I finally understood the fullness of God’s love — or, as much as I could, the fullness of God’s love for me — He placed within me a desire to become a military chaplain,” Woodbury recalled. “I had really no experience or connection with military chaplains, but that’s what He laid on my heart.”

Woodbury had grown up attending a Presbyterian church, but as a young adult, he became a Southern Baptist and was baptized at East Cooper Baptist Church near Charleston. His wife, Kathy, whom he met as a student at Charleston Southern, grew up attending First Baptist Church of Manning.

In his appointment and afterward, God has faithfully directed their path, Woodbury said. “God opened the doors and made it all possible, and this was a confirmation that this was His calling on our lives,” he said.

To become a military chaplain, Southern Baptist chaplains are required to have served in a pastoral capacity for two years after seminary. When he graduated, Woodbury first became a chaplain in the Reserves and was pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Manning. He was called up to active duty in 1994.

During his first deployment to Kuwait, Chaplain Woodbury and Senior Airman Jason Knight, his assistant, traveled throughout the country visiting troops. (Submitted photo)

His first assignment was at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga. “That’s the closest I ever got to home,” he said. “Isle of Palms is where I was born and raised.”

His overseas deployments have been to Kuwait (twice), Qatar (twice), Iraq and the entire Middle East as the AFCENT Command Chaplain. In addition, he and his family had overseas assignments in Turkey and Guam.

He was dubbed a “muddy boots chaplain” because of his willingness to go the extra mile in meeting the spiritual needs of troops and their families wherever they might be stationed.

During his deployment to Kuwait, the troops were under the threat of going to war at any time. “It was a very intense time when I was there,” Woodbury recalled.

As an officer, he was assigned to a separate living place from enlisted troops. But he began walking around the base at night to visit with troops, just to see how they were doing. On one of his trips around the base, he discovered that many people would come into the chapel to pray at night, around 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. So he went to the base commander and requested, “Look, sir, I can’t live over here anymore in the officer’s quarters. I need to be accessible to all of the troops 24/7,” Woodbury said.

He was given permission to move his bed into his office at the chapel. “If somebody needed me, they could just knock on my door, no matter what time of day or night,” he said. “Many of them did.”

In fact, he was able to lead 35 people to Christ during his time there. “It was an incredibly dynamic time spiritually,” he recalled. “Chaplains go wherever people need us.”

In preparation for the second Gulf War, Woodbury would be put in charge of planning the deployment of 131 USAF Religious Support Teams that ministered at 16 forward bases.

Chaplain Woodbury, in uniform, and Kathy, second from right, visit a military hospital in Peru to pray with patients. (Submitted photo)

When he was later selected as a Colonel in 2015, he was assigned to Qatar for a year. But, for eight months out of the year, he traveled throughout the Middle East, since his responsibilities entailed equipping chaplains in serving all U.S. Air Force personnel in the region.

His job with the Southern Command, however, was different from any of his previous assignments. There, he was not only responsible for equipping and training of chapel teams and taking care of the spiritual needs of all U.S. military branches serving in the region, but he also was a point man for building and developing chaplaincy programs in more than 30 partner nations across South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

In Trinidad, for example, there wasn’t a formal chaplaincy program, so he helped to establish a ministry there. In Jamaica, through partnering and interacting with military leadership, the number of chaplains in its defense force quadrupled.

Each year, Woodbury’s command office would partner with a country to bring chaplains from all over the Southern Hemisphere together for a conference, where they attended sessions on relevant subjects such as counseling, death and dying, preaching, sharing one’s faith, and other skills chaplains need. Dondi Costin, now president at Charleston Southern University, was among those invited to speak at one of the continent-wide conferences that was held in Guatemala while Costin was on active duty in the Air Force.

“In Latin America and the Caribbean, they are very family-oriented, faith-oriented, and so we would approach the importance of faith to these leaders, and the difference that it would make in the lives of their military or defense forces personnel,” Woodbury said. “In fact, the conference that we would co-host every year was titled ‘Faith Matters.’

“We modeled for them how the United States configures its chaplaincies, and the impact that they have had on the lives of military troops and their families, just to draw the big picture of the importance of faith in one’s life,” he continued. “That was one of the keys to what we did.”

His work with the Southern Command, though, differed vastly in another way from his earlier experiences as an Air Force chaplain.

“Not getting shot at or having bombs go off was a big difference,” he said. “In the Middle East, when we would travel to places, we knew that there was always the risk of someone trying to take you out . … That’s where I think faith really came into play.

“It gave us the peace of mind, knowing that regardless of what happened to us, we didn’t have to be afraid,” he said. “As the Scripture says, ‘Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.’ That was kind of a verse to cling to,” he added.

As a Southern Command officer, he went from wearing battle armor everywhere he went to an environment where people openly professed their faith in Jesus Christ. “We were greeted not with suspicion,” he said. “We were greeted by Catholic archbishops and evangelicals, and they wanted to share with us what they were doing and what they wanted to learn. It was pretty exciting.”

In Suriname, Chaplain Woodbury greets defense force troops after a worship service. (Submitted photo)

The overarching spiritual needs of U.S. military personnel everywhere, however, are similar basically, he has discovered, and Southern Baptist churches can assist chaplains in meeting those needs.

“First of all, everybody needs Jesus,” Woodbury said, “and we are the ones who are called to be, as the Air Force slogan states, ‘visible reminders of the Holy,’ and, in my case, visible reminder of Jesus, as we go and interact with people.

“Our troops, when they go through extended periods of separation, they see friends and people in battle killed in action, and there is a high rate of divorce. All of these take a toll on people,” he continued. “We need to be as prepared as we can to help our people overcome the spiritual and emotional challenges they face.”

As a chaplain’s spouse, Kathy, who has a Master of Social Work degree from Southern Seminary, often looked for ways to partner in ministry with Chaplain Woodbury. “Every time we moved, which was every two to three years, we got to do something different,” she said. “I would just go to a base and figure out what God had for me at that time, whether it was participating on a praise team, creating a coffee shop for airmen, or leading a women’s ministry. For example, if Greg was deployed, he would do Bible studies with the fighter pilots, and I would do the same study with their wives.”

She recently published a book, “How Did They Get Taller Than Me?” In it, she shares how parents can intentionally direct their children toward Jesus. “The book has personal stories from our military life that illustrate how we raised our children in this environment,” Kathy said.

Military people grow accustomed to making friends quickly, they both agreed. “If you see a military family come into your church, go to them. Invite them over for dinner or for a cookout, or just to introduce yourself,” Woodbury urged.

At a conference for military chaplains from Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Panama that year, a group representing 80 chaplains from 19 countries gathers around Greg and Kathy Woodbury to pray for them as he enters retirement. (Submitted photo)

“You’ll discover that most military families are going to be very open to that, and very appreciative of your willingness to embrace them,” he said. “They need that, so there’s no reason to hold back. Just jump in and embrace them.”

Church members can sometimes become “surrogate” parents and grandparents to military children, they both observed from their own experience. They have two sons: Ben, who now serves as a captain in the Army’s military police, and Matt, who wants to coach baseball after college.

“When I was deployed, one of the hardest things for me, as a father, was to leave my family,” Woodbury recalled. “But knowing that our church was going to take care of my family, and that people were going to love them while I wasn’t there, brought me a great deal of comfort.”

Woodbury said he feels blessed to have been a part of chaplaincy ministry to the military, and he believes Kathy would agree. “We have just so loved it,” he said.

“As I look back over my career, I’m proud to have been a member of the United States military, and to encourage people in their faith journey, and to lead people to Christ,” Woodbury said. “Our country is — for all of the differences we may have — a wonderful place where people have freedom.

“I don’t think the average person who doesn’t travel outside of the United States understands the blessings of the freedom that we have,” he said. “If they did, they’d probably love our country more.”

Now that he has retired to Greenwood, the Woodburys are looking forward to discovering new ministry opportunities. “Our hearts are wide open to whatever God wants us to do,” Woodbury said. “We’re searching right now and praying. We know that God is preparing us for whatever that next ministry is, and when He knows the time is right, we’re going to just jump in like we have everything else in our life, in our ministry.”