Scott Buhmann knew military service required sacrifice. Before coming to Wheaton as a professor in 1999, and later becoming the chair of the military science department in 2000, he had lived in 19 states and three different cities in Germany, working in a variety of positions with the Army. He and his wife had occupied 23 different houses.
Between 1999 and 2005, he led Wheaton’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC, established at Wheaton in 1952), a program that offers scholarships to students training to become commissioned officers in the United States Army. When they graduate, those officers must fulfill a minimum military service requirement, usually four years of active duty.
Buhmann remembers having conversations with students in the “Rolling Thunder” Battalion about their willingness to serve. “Do you realize the sacrifice?” he asked them. “Do you realize, if you get married, what your spouse will have to deal with? Do you realize, if you have children, what your children will have to deal with?”
And that was before the twin towers came down.
That Tuesday morning in September 2001, the ROTC faculty were cleaning up after physical training, or PT. Buhmann was in his office on the top floor of Jenks Hall, preparing for the day. Just then, one of the officers ran from the faculty lounge into Buhmann’s office and told him he had to watch what was on the television. Like much of America, they watched in disbelief as the World Trade Center burned and collapsed on live TV. Buhmann says they immediately realized the significance of their task of training military officers.
“We looked at each other and I said right then that the gravity of what we do here in this specific place is so great,” he said. “Our importance just went up tenfold.”
As the country and even some on campus entertained thoughts of revenge, Buhmann and his colleagues took on the daunting task of teaching young officers not only the skills required for what would become the longest war in American history but also how to see the humanity in everyone.
“We have a mission, we have responsibilities. But everyone involved on both sides are always people,” Buhmann said. “We just need to make sure we’re good at what we do so our soldiers come back home to mom and dad.”
Jon Adams (‘02) was a senior at Wheaton when he sat on the floor of an off-campus apartment with his wife, watching the image of the planes crashing into the twin towers, over and over, on his laptop. He knew something had changed.
That change sent him straight from Wheaton’s ROTC program into two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as an Army officer, stealing him away from his young family. At the start of his second deployment, he had a three-month-old daughter. While he was in Afghanistan, he missed his son’s entire second year of life.
“I almost felt like I never had my 20s, and I never really had much of my 30s,” Adams said, “You’re thrust immediately into grappling with some of the real hard questions in life, about evil and where is God in all of this.”
Adams said he is grateful he had his faith to ground him and remind him that even the hardest moments will be used for God’s glory. But it was hard. He talks about a friend who was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) and his other friend who was assigned to return the wedding ring to the fallen soldier’s wife. The ring was all they ever found.
“Everybody grew up way too fast. A 24-year-old shouldn’t be dealing with that kind of thing,” Adams said.
Despite the darkness, Adams recalls poignant moments where other soldiers took time to care for each other. One Christmas Eve in Baghdad, he found himself on a historic Iraqi base (which was currently being used by American forces), attending a service in a small, dusty chapel. The ceilings were short, and a dim, yellowish, generator-run light illuminated rows of folding chairs.
Adams was the only attendee that night, but the Lutheran chaplain went through the entire liturgy, including communion, just for him. “At that moment, that really struck me for the first time. This is what it means to pray when no one is watching.”
Matt Angliss (’02) was a junior in the ROTC program in 2001. He was commissioned and assigned to Europe right after graduation, deploying to Iraq in February 2004. During this first deployment, he fought in the battles for Samarra with the First Infantry Division.
As a Fire Support Officer, he was assigned to stay on the radio for the first watch of the night (“the watch cycle that you always want to do is the first or the last one, you don’t want the one that’s right in the middle of the night,” Agnliss said). By the time he went to bed, the rest of the company was on the floor and sofas of the abandoned cinder block house that they had commandeered for the night. Angliss ventured upstairs and found the master bedroom empty.
After eight months of sleeping on cots, Angliss spent his first night in a king-size bed. “It was nice. But it was weird. In the middle of a foreign country in a battle, in somebody else’s house, in somebody else’s bed. But I got a good night’s sleep out of it.” Angliss said.
Angliss’s division spent much of their time in Tikrit, near the hometown of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who had been captured by the United States military several months before they arrived. They were busy, but the work was rewarding as they helped the Iraqi government rebuild itself. He remembers helping with the 2005 election, the country’s first free election since the U.S. invasion.
He remembers the interpreters he worked closely with throughout his deployment, many of whom risked life and reputation by helping the Americans. He also remembers the children. Soldiers would often carry candy or small toys with them to give to the Iraqi children they encountered while walking the streets. Sometimes, flocks of kids would gather around the soldiers.
“The ice cream truck comes around and everybody runs to the street,” Angliss said. “It was kind of the same with us.”
Robin Fine (’04) was a psychology major at Wheaton who spent much of her time in Jenks Hall as an ROTC student and a member of the theater group Workout. She met her future husband, David, in ROTC. They started dating in January of her senior year, but the War on Terror, inaugurated immediately after 9/11, interrupted their ring-by-spring. The couple dated for three years, but between both of their deployments, they were only together in the same place for 34 days. They crossed paths briefly in Germany, Italy and Qatar.
“We literally had a high-five in Kuwait when I was going out [on deployment] and he was coming in,” Fine said, laughing. They were granted a couple of days together on base, and then they parted ways again. “Talk about long-distance, right?”
In 2005, they got legally married so that they could try to get assigned to the same place. When they finally got married about a year later, in Bethel Presbyterian church near Wheaton, they had two weeks together before David flew back to Iraq.
Fine didn’t see her husband until ten months after the wedding, and it was another two years until they could live together. Even after a legal marriage and a ceremony, their relationship was long-distance for five years.
Fine spent her first deployment in Iraq and later served in Afghanistan. Since women weren’t allowed to serve as combat arms, she asked herself, “What was the coolest thing a girl could do?” She decided to become a Medevac (medical evacuation) pilot, flying a helicopter to rescue injured soldiers and civilians from the battlefield and delivering them to the nearest medical center.
In Afghanistan, during her one year of service, her company rescued around 4,500 Americans and Afghans. Being so close to death and suffering, with so many lives at stake and so many things that could go wrong, Fine says she relied on God—and the prayers of many—to do her work.
“It wasn’t just too hard for me, it was too hard for anybody. It’s really by God’s grace that we did any good,” Fine said.
One particularly difficult rescue stands out in her mind. One week in Afghanistan, her team evacuated 24 casualties out of the Arghandab river valley in the southwest region. They got a call about a young lieutenant who had lost three limbs in an explosion. Chances were he wasn’t going to survive. Fine remembers flying faster than was comfortable and hastily landing the helicopter and rushing him to the nearest medical center, all the time wondering if she had done the right thing.
Nearly five years later, Fine received a message from another officer in her unit, telling her the lieutenant they had rescued was alive and attending graduate school as a triple amputee.
Peter Cairns (’04) was a sophomore when he watched the second tower fall from the Political Science department in the Memorial Student Center (MSC), a building built in honor of a Wheaton alum who fought in World War 2. In the months and years that followed, he watched as some of his fellow ROTC students left the program, and other students joined, both groups realizing that the country was going to war and that ROTC was much more than just a way to pay for college.
As Cairns launched into active duty in Afghanistan, he felt sure God was calling him to help protect the country. He was equally sure that God would protect him and the platoon he was leading.
Every morning during his first deployment in Afghanistan, Cairns would gather his men at eight o’clock next to their trucks, whether they were leaving the base for a mission or training that day. On a whim one morning, he decided to give the men the morning off.
At 7:52 that very morning, a rocket landed next to the vehicle that Cairns usually sat in, which was parked about two hundred meters from where they slept. Had they been gathered there, all of them would have been killed or maimed. As it happened, the blast merely sent some sleeping men tumbling out of their cots.
“I’ve never so directly felt the hand of God’s protection in a moment like that,” Cairns said. He keeps a piece of shrapnel from the rocket in his office to this day, along with a plaque that says “God’s Providence.”
Protection from rocket attacks wasn’t the only way Cairns saw God at work during his time on active duty. He describes one dusty, hot morning on a remote operating base in eastern Afghanistan. The soldiers built a rough baptistry with a metal tub lined in plastic. As others stood around in uniform, the chaplain prayed over and baptized some of the soldiers.
“I thought that was powerful at the time. And still do,” Cairns said.
Jason Farmer (’01) graduated four months before 9/11. It was peacetime, and active duty assignments were uncommon for newly commissioned officers coming out of the ROTC program. He was assigned to work at Wheaton as a recruiter. Then Al-Qaeda struck and everything changed.
The War on Terror determined the first decade of Farmer’s career, sending him to Iraq as an Infantry platoon leader and later to Afghanistan with Special Forces, as a Green Beret. Wheaton is one of few Christian colleges that hosts an ROTC program on campus, and Farmer is grateful for a program that taught him to treat the military as a mission field.
During his first deployment, Farmer and his platoon were thrown into the trenches. It was only about six months after the US invasion of Iraq, and they drove into Iraq from Kuwait in doorless jeeps. They didn’t know that the dusty roads were laced with IEDs and bombs. As the world exploded around them, Farmer relied on the power of prayer.
Every morning, he told his men that he would be praying for their platoon before they ventured outside the gate for whatever their mission might be. Within a week, every single man, Christian or not, would show up and pray.
In the 600-person battalion, his platoon was the only one that survived 14 months without casualties. Even when a roadside bomb went off and blew through the back of one of their pick-up trucks, the soldier who had been sitting in the open rear of the vehicle survived without a scratch. When they held his uniform up to the light afterward, it was speckled with holes, but somehow all the shrapnel had missed him. Farmer said this man later became a Christian, realizing that God was the only one who could have saved him.
“It was a privilege to be there with men dealing with life and death questions, certainly defending the nation, but at the same time dealing with their own mortality and coming to Christ,” Farmer said.
Since then, Farmer and his colleagues from Wheaton have been processing the violence they saw, the missions they fought in, and the hard questions they were forced to ask. Like many in the military, they carry physical and emotional scars, and some have struggled with PTSD.
“God is sovereign and sufficient and will somehow bring healing and restoration,” Farmer said. “We’ve certainly found that over the last twenty years, God has been good.”
Wheaton College, IL