` -- “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have met the people I have, traveled to the places I’ve been and shared all the experiences that have enriched my life.”
Navy Capt. Stephen Epperson, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Chaplain, serves U.S. service members at Al Asad, Iraq. With vivid detail, he can recount story after story from his 38 years of service.
His career began making coffee for an admiral during the Vietnam era. During 1983, he was off the coast of Lebanon for 43 straight days, including Christmas, where he baptized 22 people in the Jordan River. He traveled to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, served as the command chaplain at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and counseled Marines who returned from the battle of Fallujah. He has been there as the world has changed.
“I have every confidence in the future of our country because of the young people I see making sacrifices for freedom’s future,” said Epperson, a Pensacola, Fla., native. “Every tour in my career has been a great one. Being here, I’m surrounded with the best America has to offer.”
As the most senior chaplain at Al Asad, Epperson’s main duty is to coordinate and facilitate ministry to people of all faiths. He is here for all the U.S. service members, religious and secular. Of his many duties, one that stands out to him is spending time with and praying for wounded service members returning from combat.
“I’m constantly inspired and moved by the courage of our wounded veterans,” said Epperson. “I’m amazed by their commitment to the mission. They all want to get back to their units, no matter if they are Marines, Soldiers or Sailors.”
At Al Asad, Epperson and the chaplain corps have created an environment where Marines know they can go to the chaplains for religious services and everyday advice.
“I would not hesitate to approach Chaplain Epperson if I ever needed help or counsel. I know he would provide me with the direction and advice I would be need,” said Cpl. Thomas Burns II, 2nd MAW personnel chief and a Coventry, R. I., native. “Chaplain Epperson is very friendly, outgoing, and easily approachable. He always finds the time to greet and strike up a small conversation with anyone he comes in contact with.”
Burns said Epperson not only brings his religious values and services, he brings his friendship and also a sense of comfort for all of service members deployed here.
“By being a part of the Warrior Transition Brief, which is given to all departing personnel, I have had the opportunity throughout my deployment to work with chaplains from all units,” said Burns. “They have shown professionalism, friendship and camaraderie to all by playing an active role in this program.”
The chaplain corps conducts many programs for deployed service members, including more than 55 religious services and studies a week and a community relations project for local Iraqis.
One of the services Epperson plays an active role in is his caring to of wounded Marines who are flown into the hospital here. He said he will always remember one story which has enriched his life and faith.
“Three wounded Marines were flown to the hospital, one with burns on more than 90 percent of his body,” said Epperson. “No one expected him to live. If it just been him wounded, they might not have even called the helicopters. I immediately found out he was Catholic and called on a priest, who anointed him, and we both started praying.”
Although no one expected the Marine to live, Epperson said his job was to pray, and he prayed. Weeks later, the nurse who had been attending the wounded Marine came to a prayer service and told him the Marine was going to live.
“Chaplain Epperson and the Al Asad chaplain community are, quite literally, a godsend for the surgical company,” said Cmdr. Barbara A. Klus, the senior nurse and department head for the wards and intensive care unit for Combat Logistics Battalion 2 Surgical Company and an Arnold, Miss, native. “Their presence has a calming and peaceful effect on the patients and staff. When Chaplain Epperson, or any of the chaplains show up, there will be someone there who will focus directly on you. They listen, without judgment or distraction, to anything you need to say.”
“If you’ve ever taken care of someone with deep burns, you will never forget the smell or the sight,” Klus said.
She stressed that most people do everything they can to get away from the area.
“Chaplain Epperson and his chaplains did just the opposite,” said Kluss. “They stood patiently while we worked on the young man. They stayed out of the way and quietly prayed. When we had done everything we could physically for the young man, they asked if they could approach and gathered around his bed and prayed. Their whole focus was on this one young man who probably never even knew they were there. I firmly believe their presence and their prayers made a difference in this young man’s life.”
Klus said knowing that Chaplain Epperson and his staff are here to support them makes a word of difference. For them, the chaplain corps is a solid rock presence in a very uncertain world.
“I’ve seen the change in the young men returning from combat,” said Epperson. “They are very proud of what they have done and have no fear. The warrior spirit is in them.”
Epperson said for the U.S. service members in Iraq, he may represent their pastor back home or something spiritual. But, he hopes he and the chaplains working with him in Iraq represent the best the chaplain corps has to offer.
During Easter service last year, Epperson said they had just received incoming rounds while the Palm Sunday service was being conducted.
“As the force protection was raised, I decided to go and talk with the Marines setting up the perimeter,” said Epperson. “I approached a vehicle that had the entirety of Psalm 91 written out on it. I found the Marine responsible for the vehicle, and asked him if he wrote this on a government vehicle. I’ll never forget his answer. He told me it was his job to take care of his Marines, to provide as much protection as he can, and he needs God’s help to do that.
“Although that’s just one story of many, it’s an experience that has enriched my life and faith,” said Epperson. “People always want to know why I don’t retire. Why in earth would I retire when I’m surrounded by the best people America has to offer?”