Pastor Bobby Oliver – Iraq

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Pastor Bobby Oliver served for 15 months in Iraq as a Chaplain's Assistant. (Photo courtesy of Bobby Oliver)

By Lura Jackson

While war – by its definition – is a conflict, it can generate some conflicts on a personal level that speak to the spiritual truths of our shared human existence. As a devoutly religious man, Robert Oliver encountered multiple such conflicts in his role as a Chaplain’s Assistant serving on the modern battlefield of Iraq. 

Born in Massachusetts, Oliver grew up in Calais. He remembers experiencing dichotomous urges even in his youth, one to serve in law enforcement or the military and the other to devote himself to being a man of the faith like his father, who was a pastor. His father had also previously served in the Navy, and so Oliver kept both options open as he developed as a young man.

Oliver was in the 6th grade when the attack of 9/11 happened, and that profoundly shaped his future path. “It was pretty emotional for me,” Oliver recalls. “The thing that hit me the hardest was when the news was showing people jumping out of buildings. That was very traumatic.” He decided at that point that he would do what he could to challenge the threat when he was old enough.

At 17, Oliver signed the papers for early enlistment, with his parents’ approval. Per his recruiter’s recommendation, he entered the service as a Chaplain’s Assistant. Within a month of graduating from Calais Middle High School, he was in basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

The three months of basic training were rigorous, physically demanding, and occasionally emotionally challenging for Oliver, who had never fired a gun before or experienced the heat of Southern climates in the summer. It was also the first time he had ever been away from home on his own. “It was a good experience, but it was definitely very difficult,” Oliver recalls.

After basic training, Oliver remained in South Carolina for 9 weeks to learn the role of Chaplain’s Assistant. One of the primary functions of the role is to protect the unarmed Chaplain at all times, but as specialists of the ministry themselves, Chaplain’s Assistants are also taught to administer guidance and compassion to soldiers of all faiths. They also serve as the eyes and ears of the Chaplain among the enlisted men to identify struggling soldiers.

Soon after his training, Oliver was sent to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to prepare to deploy with a newly formed interrogation unit. The unit, comprised of interrogators and analysts, was specifically training in humane interrogation techniques to counter the difficulties experienced at Abu Ghraib prison. Oliver was told when he arrived in Texas that the unit would be deployed within a year to Camp Cropper, Baghdad. 

“Here I am 18 years old, knowing I’d be going to a warzone,” Oliver said. “I took my training more seriously at that point.” After 8 months of training, he was deployed in September of 2007, for a 15-month tour.

At Camp Cropper, Baghdad, Oliver was assigned to work with a female Chaplain, providing consolation and spiritual support to the military intelligence personnel as they conducted their interrogations. There were many challenges to the work. “I think that they did a really good job, considering that they were talking face to face with murderers and these people that had done horrible things to our troops and to their own people,” Oliver said. The experience of supporting the soldiers during their work and being in the prison itself prompted one of the key conflicts Oliver encountered.

“You have to treat a person humanely because they’re a human being, but at the same time, you know they’re manipulating you and they’re taking advantage of the situation,” Oliver said. “It’s really hard to know ‘this person just murdered somebody’ and yet we have to take care of them now that they’re here. As a Christian, I understand that, but as a soldier, it was a conflict for me.” 

A second significant conflict arose in Oliver’s capacity of bodyguard to the Chaplain, which saw him constantly holding her life in his hands. “There were quite a few times where it felt like she was in danger,” Oliver said. “When that happens, the training kicks in and you know exactly what to do… I was ready to kill. As a Christian, that was a struggle, knowing I might have to take a life. Knowing that they would kill me or the Chaplain if I didn’t act, that really became a part of how I handled things.”

Adding to Oliver’s frustrations was the perception of being a soldier trained in honor with the expectation of fighting uniformed enemy forces with a similar code of conduct, but instead being faced with honorless terrorists. “They’d kill women and use children as shields, whatever they wanted to do,” Oliver said. “One of the things I hated is that we were there to help them and their country, to rebuild their schools, to really get them on the right track with Saddam out of power, and yet these terrorists were making their country go backwards. They would threaten families. They would say ‘If you don’t go plant this IED, we’ll kill your son or your wife.’ These were threats from cowards that weren’t willing to do something themselves, but that would manipulate others to do it for them.”

As someone who has studied multiple religions, including Islam, Oliver recognizes that the faith-based elements of the conflict are fueled in part by differing interpretations of religious texts. “A lot of [Muslims] follow the more peaceful side, but a lot of them believe that killing in the name of Allah is more acceptable and more worthy of blessings. They’re not all bad people, it’s all according to what their interpretation is of the Quran.”

Despite his inclusive perception, Oliver continues to struggle whenever he is around Middle Easterners as a result of his training and experiences in Iraq. “I know, as a Christian, to treat them with love, but at the same time due to my experiences as a soldier I just don’t feel comfortable around them. Everytime I see them, I have to watch and make sure they’re not a terrorist. That’s a struggle for me, because I like to look at people and see the best in them. I hate that I struggle with that.”

After returning from Iraq, it was at least a few months before Oliver felt comfortable without his rifle and body armor when he arose in the morning due to how important they had become to him while in service. Gradually, he adapted to life as a civilian, largely thanks to his deepening relationship with his wife, Sherri. “She’s been a great help to me, helping me through a lot of these struggles and being a support for me as a veteran,” Oliver said. For the three years he was enlisted in the National Guard following his term in Iraq, Sherri helped him “wear the right hats at the right time.”

Another key support for Oliver was Father David Sivret, who serves as State Chaplain for the VFW. Oliver served as his Chaplain Assistant in the guard. “He understood what I was going through when I returned, and he was there any time I needed to talk. He still is today, because he has a heart for veterans,” Oliver said, adding that he regards Sivret as a personal hero.

 

In January of 2014, having completed a B.S. in Religion from Liberty University, Oliver assumed the role of serving as pastor of Baring Baptist Church. “Whatever I learned in the Army, and the experiences afterwards, it helped me to be a good pastor and a good family man,” Oliver said. “My experiences made me who I am today.”