FORT RILEY — Only 24 active-duty soldiers can say they served in the Vietnam War, and Fort Riley Garrison Chaplain Col. Edwin Ahl is one of them.
After serving in three wars — Vietnam, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom — and about 40 years of military experience, Ahl left active-duty service for retirement on Thursday.
“Serving God and country is a blessing. I watched John F. Kennedy and his inauguration speech with that famous line, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ and I took that to heart,” Ahl said. “What can I do to help my country and make it better? And God called me to be a chaplain, and I got the best of both worlds - serving God and country has been a blessing in my life and my Family, too.”
Ahl began his military career in April 1969, when he joined the U.S. Navy as an electronic warfare specialist during the Vietnam War. He served a year in Vietnam, just 20 miles off the coast of Haiphong Harbor.
“My experience in Vietnam was scary. We were 20 miles off the coast of Haiphong Harbor, and we knew if we ever got sunk, we would have to swim to North Vietnam or to China. It was a lose-lose situation,” Ahl said. “We would get shot at from the shore daily, and the North Vietnamese sent out boats to try and sink us. I was in Vietnam for one year, praise God.”
Ahl left the military in 1972. He decided to go to college, and he received his bachelor’s degree in geography from Humboldt State University. Ahl said he realized he missed the military, however, and decided to join the National Guard. It was during his time in the National Guard, he said, when he believed God called him to become a chaplain.
“I was in annual training at the National Guard down in Fort Smith, Ark., and I remember praying the night before we left asking God to show me what He wanted me to do, and God said, ‘I want you to be an Army chaplain.’ I wasn’t too sure about that and asked Him to prove it to me, and He did by the people around me,” Ahl said.
Ahl received his master’s of divinity degree in theology from Oral Roberts University during his time in the National Guard. A few years later, in January 1988, Ahl returned to active duty as a chaplain for the U.S. Army. He also went on to receive his doctorate in theology from Andersonville Theological Seminary.
A chaplain is not just about being a preacher, teacher or a mentor, Ahl said, but being a man or woman of God, who is willing to get out there and do what the Soldiers are doing.
During Operation Desert Storm, Ahl served with the 87th Maintenance Battalion from December 1991 to May 1992.
“I got the call to go to Desert Storm suddenly over the Thanksgiving holiday. Fortunately, I had two weeks in Germany with my unit to get to know everybody before we went to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I put 5,000 miles on my humvee over there because I had companies all spread out and had to make sure everybody was taken care of.”
One of his responsibilities as a chaplain was to earn the trust of his Soldiers in order to minister to them, and that meant being out there with them on a daily basis, Ahl said.
“When I was in Iraq, I’d get out of my office and go for a walk every day, and I’d just walk by a Soldier and say, ‘Hey, God bless you. What’s going on?’” he said. “And the Soldier would share what’s going on in his life, and we’d end up talking for an hour right there on the bench.”
Being in the military is truly a calling, Ahl said, and he advises Soldiers to remember God has a special place in His heart for those in uniform, especially when times get tough.
“There is pain and suffering, but there is also a joy in knowing that we are special to Him,” he said. “Rejoice in that and do your best even when times get hard. Do what’s best for your fellow soldiers. I’ve tried to live by the words, ‘mission first, men always,’ as I’ve cared for and worked with and served those Soldiers around me.”
If a soldier is suffering, Ahl said receiving help is not a shame or a disgrace, especially when returning home from war.
“I have post traumatic stress (disorder). I’ve had it since Vietnam, and I deal with it by talking to someone, whether it’s my wife or counselor,” he said. “When I came back from each war, I was talking to someone and got help. I still do, and I probably always will.”
According to Ahl, his wife has been a tremendous support for him.
“My wife, Jane, is a Proverbs 31 wife. She is a jewel taken off my crown in heaven and sent to earth to take care of me,” Ahl said. “She’s been my right hand, my best friend, and she keeps me straight. I couldn’t have done it without her, and that’s the truth.”
Ahl and his Family are planning on retiring in Fayetteville, N.C. He also said he is looking at teaching in the local area.
“I would like to teach theology, church history or New and Old Testament survey at a Bible college,” he said. “If I teach at a high school level though, I might teach advanced European history or advanced American history.”
The ideal life, however, would be to teach three days a week, play golf three days a week and then go to church on Sunday, Ahl said.
“I will definitely miss the military. I guess that’s why I’m going to settle down next to an Army post, because I love the Soldiers. They’re a whole lot younger than 25 years ago or maybe I’m just getting older,” Ahl said.
As a final farewell to Fort Riley, Ahl said he wishes nothing but the best for the Soldiers and Families who serve here.
“Fort Riley has been a blessing because of the people we’ve met and been able to serve,” he said. “We will carry those memories with us into retirement, and we will always pray for Fort Riley and ask God to bless your pea-pickin’ hearts.”