Saying goodbye to Chaplain (LTC) David L. Spears
by Kerry Steedley
At the Jonesboro Cemetery in Sanford, North Carolina, about 3:30 in the afternoon on December 29, 2011, family, friends, and fellow soldiers of CH (LTC) David Spears gathered at his grave to present full military honors and render a final salute to this soldier of Christ and his country. My wife Brenda and I were blessed to attend the funeral of this faithful Free Will Baptist Army chaplain.
David was born in Vicenza, Italy, November 24, 1960. He was born again in 1978, at age 18, at Kendale Acres Free Will Baptist Church in Sanford, North Carolina. He died at home early on Christmas morning 2011, after a year-long courageous battle with brain cancer. His funeral was conducted at his home church with Richard Barnes, the pastor who led him to Christ, officiating.
Barnes was personable and powerful in reflecting on David’s life and service. He spoke comfort and encouragement to David’s wife Wanda; his children Michael, Rachel, and Amanda; his mother Ruth; and his sister Ruth Ann. He presented a clear Christian witness and extended a persuasive invitation for everyone present to trust in the same Christ who saved David and called him to be a chaplain.
Photo: The memorial display for the late Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David L. Spears rests before the start of a ceremony in Spears’ honor at the front of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Chapel at Fort Bragg, N.C., Jan. 12, 2012. Spears passed away Christmas Day, 2011 and a memorial was held in his honor by the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), the unit to which he ministered seven years of his near 20-year career. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Enoch Fleites)
David celebrated his 51st birthday and was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in November before he died in December. I view this as his final promotion on earth before his real Commander-in-Chief, the Lord Jesus Christ, gave him his finest promotion to Heaven.
The church was packed to overflowing with folks sitting in the choir loft. Two generals from Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army Chief of
Chaplains from Washington, DC, and many other officers and enlisted soldiers attended the funeral to honor their chaplain.
One of the most moving moments in the service came when Specialist Patrick Patterson, chaplain assistant, delivered the special music while struggling to control his emotions and his love for his chaplain.
CH (LTC) Keith Croom, senior army chaplain at Arlington National Cemetery, presided at the graveside service and spoke of his long friendship with David. He described him as a man of conviction, a straight-shooter committed to his values, and a man who loved Jesus. Just before the American flag covering David’s coffin was folded, before the volleys were fired, and before the bugler played “Taps,” Chaplain Croom remarked that David served for years to honor the flag, and David would now be honored by the flag. He said, “I believe my good friend and fellow soldier fought stubbornly in his battle with the enemy death until early Christmas morning so he could say happy birthday to Jesus in person.”
I am convinced this soldier and warrior received a welcome home from the One who called him to be a soldier, perhaps with these words: “Mission accomplished and the battle is over. Your last deployment is done. Welcome home. Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
My first meeting with David was in the early 1980s at Free Will Baptist Bible College where David was a ministerial student. I came to know and appreciate him as a hardworking, honorable, and “hooah” chaplain. In Army lingo, hooah means hardcore, hard charging, enthusiastic, sharp in appearance, fit, competent, and motivated. He was a soldier’s chaplain, a special soldier who loved serving with and ministering to soldiers. He spent most of his career in Airborne and Special Operations units, where the pace is fast, and the demands mentally and physically challenging.
Terry Austin recalls that David broke his foot in several places on a parachute jump with the 82nd Airborne Division, but was soon jumping again. He pursued the military chaplaincy for several years before being commissioned. He was still working on doctoral studies, even though that meant being pushed in a wheelchair on the campus of Liberty University just weeks before he died.
David volunteered for the hard duty of combat multiple times in Iraq and Afghanistan and also served in Panama and Africa.
David and his wife Wanda were able to attend the Wednesday night service at the 2011 Free Will Baptist National Convention. He stood tall, straight, and handsome in combat camouflage at the Home Missions booth, despite his illness. He was smiling and positive in articulating his passion for his calling to be a Christian chaplain. Soon after he learned that he had terminal brain cancer, he told his friend of over 30 years and fellow FWB Chaplain, Terry Austin, “I know Jesus; I really do.” To paraphrase, I think David was telling others not to worry. All was well with his soul.
When the morning roll call was sounded in David’s unit at Fort Bragg after the Christmas leave, David was not present for duty. But when the roll is called up yonder, David will stand at attention in formation and when his name is called, answer, “Present for duty, sir!”
Soldiers often repeat a particular phrase to fellow soldiers when moving out on a new mission or concluding departure or farewell ceremonies. It is my final salute to my brother in Christ and my brother chaplain. “I’ll see you on the high ground (Heaven), Chaplain Spears.”
*Note: I am grateful to David Crowe and CH (COL) Terry Austin for their assistance in preparing this tribute.
About the Writer: Kerry Steedley served 34 years in the military, 28 of them as a FWB Army chaplain. He has served as a hospital chaplain in Mobile, AL, since retiring from active duty in the Army.
From David Crowe on behalf of the Home Missions Department
The National Home Missions Department serves as the endorsing agency for Free Will Baptist military chaplains for all branches of service. What an honor it is to be associated with these ministers in uniform. I truly feel privileged to be part of the Home Missions Department, which connects me to our home missionaries, pastors, and chaplains. I had the privilege of attending Chaplain Spear’s funeral and was joined by Retired Army Chaplain Kerry Steedley and his wife Brenda. They had driven from Mobile, Alabama, to attend.
I experienced several emotions at the funeral. I felt patriotic. I still love this great country that David Spears and all of our chaplains love and serve. I felt proud. I was proud to have known Chaplain David Spears and his dear wife Wanda. I was proud of his life, his example, his faithfulness, and his service. As I looked at all the stripes, stars, and bars on the many military men and women in attendance to honor this great saint and soldier, I also felt peace.
I had peace in knowing there are still many men and women who love this country and what it stands for, and are willing to lay their lives on the line every day. I felt passion. I was challenged by David’s life and service, to also finish well the task God has given me to do. Finally, I felt purpose. As I flew back to Nashville that evening, I understood, as much as at any time in my life, that whether God is using us as civilians or soldiers, we all have one purpose.
Chaplain (LTC) David Spears understood that purpose well—to win men, women, boys, and girls to Jesus Christ. May I serve as well.
David Crowe, director of development, Free Will Baptist Home Missions.