PITTSFIELD — A familiar face has returned to the pulpit and pews of First Congregational Church after being absent for several years in the Maine Army National Guard, and he has brought with him a new mission: to support the military and their families.
Reverend Andy Gibson grew up in New York and moved to Bangor decades ago for a seminary. He had always admired the military but thought his window to this world had closed. But while he was in seminary, he was looking for a part-time job, and his wife encouraged him to enlist. He therefore enlisted in 1987 as an enlisted member and in 1989 became an officer, then full chaplain in 1992.
He first came to First Congregational Church on a temporary basis. A seminary friend was pastoring the church and asked Gibson to fill in for the summer. At the time, he was considering becoming active in the National Guard, but Gibson and his wife enjoyed the town and the church so much that they decided to stay.
While based in Maine, Gibson was responsible for a wide range of duties. He performed weddings for soldiers – getting special permission from the Maine secretary of state so people could get married outside of their hometown. At one point, Gibson said he performed 10 weddings in 24 hours.
But his job as a military chaplain also meant helping notify families of a death. He would accompany the officer responsible for notifying a member’s family, offering support to the family and the officer if needed.
“Although you hate the reasons why you have to do this, all the chaplains I have worked with who have had to do this, even though it is sad and painful, at no time do you feel as useful as this, Gibson said, “At no time do you feel more like a chaplain than when you’re giving that one-on-one care to someone (on what is) probably the worst day of their life.”
While still part-time with the National Guard, Gibson was deployed for several months to Bosnia in 1997. He was part of stabilization efforts in Eastern Europe after the Bosnian War. Gibson was the base camp chaplain for approximately 1,200 people stationed there.
Gibson remembers sleeping in the base camp chapel at night to meet soldiers who had come for support in the night.
“We had most of our business after midnight because that’s when the soldier would call home and talk to his spouse who had just come home from work or whatever,” Gibson said. “And so we were getting knocks on the door at three in the morning, four in the morning about something bad that had happened at home.”
He returned to Maine after his deployment, but as time passed and the military began sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a need for a full-time chaplain. So in 2003, Gibson left First Congregational Church and began working full-time with the National Guard.
He traveled through the members of the State Visiting Service. Each unit had a part-time chaplain, but if anything happened during the week, Gibson was the first to respond. He was responsible for a range of other duties, such as recruiting chaplains, reaching out to the families of deployed soldiers and offering them resources.
Gibson was deployed again in 2006, this time to Afghanistan. Unlike his time in Bosnia, while in Afghanistan, Gibson traveled to many parts of the country. At this time, Gibson was a supervising chaplain and worked to coordinate other chaplains and assistant chaplains.
There was active fighting at this time in the country, and Gibson saw several firefights and the deaths of several soldiers. At one point, there was a rocket attack that killed a first sergeant in a unit Gibson worked with, and he performed CPR on him, a death that was hard on the rest of the unit. Less than a week later, a soldier in that unit committed suicide, and Gibson had to wait with the body for several hours until a team of investigators arrived.
Despite these episodes, Gibson said he was grateful for the friendships he made there. “It’s just a great group of people and the highlight is just being there with them,” he said.
He retired from the National Guard last year and held various jobs before realizing he wanted to be a pastor again, with a new angle on supporting military families.
Gibson recalled listening to a Christmas Eve service as a pastor discussed the difficulty service members and veterans have in coming back to God when they witnessed traumatic scenes of war. It was a small group listening, only 10 people, but Gibson realized that four of them were veterans and they were all there with people who cared and supported them. It was then that the idea of a new mission for Gibson was born.
“And so I said, ‘Why don’t we add a ministry to currently serving veterans and their families, and at least through our Christian message, let’s see if we can help them reconnect with their God, or maybe connect with their God for the first time,” Gibson said.
Many Americans can only turn to military personnel on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, when veterans really need year-round support, Gibson said. The First Congregational Church therefore seeks to provide this extended support for families going through the unique experiences that come with enlisting someone in the military.
“We’d like to create a place where they can feel comfortable, where they won’t be told they’re going to hell for being in the war, where they’ll feel honored for what they’ve done. , and how they did it,” Gibson said. “And when we come to these questions, ‘Why would God let that happen?’ They can do it in a different frame of reference.
The local American Legion post is now holding meetings at the church and Gibson is hoping someone from the US Department of Veterans Affairs will drop in regularly, but plans are still evolving.
“We want to be here, we want to provide it,” Gibson said. “It’s one of those if you build it, hopefully they come.”
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