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Army Chaplain Talks About Loving The Lord, Stepping Out Of The Boat

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Col. Max Burgin holds a signed photo to him from President George H.W. Bush

Max Burgin made it clear, "The Lord's blessed me. It's all about the Lord."

The retired U.S. Army chaplain told stories for over an hour prompted by his lifelong friend, Kenneth McGinnis.

"She was a young girl, maybe six, no, even younger. She did not want to live. She and her brother had been playing with a box of wooden kitchen matches. They caught fire in her lap and she was badly burned," Col. Burgin said and gestured from his neck down into his lap. "She said, 'Chaplain, don't pray for me. Ask my parents not to pray for me.'"

Burgin shook his head. "You can't keep yourself out of the grave, but you can sure put yourself in." He said coworkers at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio could not believe the little girl had such an understanding of her condition. "She sure did understand. She said she did not want to be a monster. She died within a few days."

Brooke is a burn center which serves patients from all over the world.

"There's no question that prayer makes a difference. God makes a difference. We don't always understand it, but prayer does matter," Burgin said and told a dramatic story of a miracle healing.

"You need to understand that ministry is a matter of presence. You are there for the soldiers or in the hospital, for the patients. Our training is to never raise unreasonable expectations. Many burn victims do die. But this one young man's family begged us to pray for him, so we did. He lived."

He also prayed with burn victims facing treatment, having burned skin cut away after being soaked in water. A psychiatrist told him the prayers were having the psychological effect of breaking the pain cycle.

Burgin grew up Wesleyan on a farm near the present-day Ingles Store. Raised Wesleyan, he became Southern Baptist and was ordained in that denomination, earned his seminary degree from Wake Forest.

In January of 1966 he flew into Vietnam as a young Army captain and chaplain. One of the soldiers on the plane told him, "Just put your hand over those captain's bars and show that cross and you can get anything you want."

As encouraging as that was, he ran into a challenge.

Assigned to the 20th Engineer Battalion at Pleiku, he got a ride to Pleiku from Saigon, but learned his unit was still 20 miles away from Pleiku.

"I started thumbing and got picked up by a Lt. Colonel. He started chewing me out for thumbing. I told him it was the only way I knew to get to my unit." He heard the Lt. Colonel bark into a radio, "This crazy guy is standing on the road thumbing."

The crazy guy soon developed a reputation for getting things done.

"One of my commanding officers said no new piece of equipment could be used until it had been checked out by the chaplain. If a guy was going to run a bulldozer, I'd climb up on it with him and ask him where he was from, about his family, his background and invite him to chapel."

The strategy worked and chapel attendance grew.

"I loved it. If you're gonna serve the Lord. You have to love people. Some of them are hard to love," he added and grinned.

He learned of efforts to ruin the career of a black sergeant. He told the ranking soldier involved it was not going to happen. He went to the unit commander and lobbied for the targeted sergeant. When the soldier was spared, he feared the anger of the man he had worked against, but the culprit just laughed and said, "You went by your book and I went by mine."

Years later he saw the man he had helped. He lost a leg in Vietnam, but with his crutches under his arms, he shouted, "Chaplain Burgin!" After the joyful reunion, the man's wife told him, "My husband thought you were God."

As the two friends shared, McGinnis urged Burgin to talk about his confrontation with a general. Burgin recalled telling the general that he was too hard on his troops and never praised anyone for anything. He told Burgin he had been trained at West Point and never heard any mention of praise. The chaplain quoted Napoleon who said, "With a pocketful of medals, I can conquer Europe." Burgin urged him to be more positive and encouraging in his work. The general said he had never had anyone talk to him that way, but his behavior changed.

After that happened, other chaplains asked him to talk to their unit commanders. Burgin laughed and said that chore would be on them.

Burgin also remembered that his Southern Baptist worship services were often attended by Jews and Christians from other denominations. He said the attitude was, "I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket."

He took some heat because his services were not particularly formal.

"I'd tell a joke and nobody would laugh. Sometimes I'd look over and see if there was a coffin down front."

He once served under a general named Anderson. He learned the general and his wife had been active in chapel until just a few years before. He went to the general and said, "You're a Southern Baptist from Georgia. You know you're supposed to be in Sunday School." The general said he would be there if his wife would come. Burgin worked that angle and the deed was done.

"Sometimes the best way to get to a man is through his wife."

His courage and his risk taking all came from a desire to love people and serve the Lord. He said, "Sometimes you have to gamble. There's an old saying that if you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat."

His upbringing on a farm in Forest City, the youngest of 11 children, served his work, too.

"One of the general's wives called me and invited me to go horseback riding with a group of friends. I told her I didn't know anything about riding horses. She said I had mentioned riding the mules down to the creek so I didn't have to haul water. She said, 'We've all done that, but we try to hide it. The difference is you just own it.'"

On Valentine's Day, it's nice to note that he and his wife, Mickie, have also owned a lifetime of devotion to each other. "We both made a commitment at the beginning; and we've stuck to it. I sometimes hear people say they've been in long relationships and never had a disagreement. In order to do that, somebody in that couple has to be an absolute zero. You're going to disagree, but you stick together."

That memory led to his recalling efforts against spouse abuse among troops at various posts. "If I knew it was going on, I would go to the homes and directly confront the soldiers. It may have been illegal, but I'd tell their commanding officers to give them a direct order to never again hit their wives. At that point, they would be in a lot more legal trouble if they hit their wives again. The guys in the JAG corps said I was creating more work for them, but it worked. They didn't hit their wives again."

Burgin told a lot of stories, not all of which are found here, but McGinnis was particularly eager for him to talk about a funeral he conducted for a general named Raines, a man who had loved a clapping, black Gospel choir during some of his not-so-formal worship services. When Raines died, the black choir came and led a rousing service. A member of the chaplain corps complained about the raucous nature of the service, but several other generals requested that kind of service when they passed. In fact the chief of staff for the army had attended the funeral and let Burgin know, "I want one like that."

Burgin remained in good standing.

When he retired from the army in 1991, he spent the next 20 years serving the Lattimore Baptist Church. He said, "I loved it. I often told congregations that I stood in the pulpit because I loved the Lord. The most powerful words in the world are I love you." His eyes flashed. His grin beamed. It's hard to imagine how anyone could fake that kind of genuine joy and love.

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