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Home

There’s no place like home

By John W. Kennedy

Only God in His sovereignty knows why some soldiers die in war and others live. But two Kansas pastors — one from an Assemblies of God church, the other a Southern Baptist — understand that God’s protection over prisoners of war is no accident; it is an answer to prayer.

Bobby Massey and Ron Pracht first met 22 years ago when both worked in youth ministry in Wichita. They quickly became good friends. Today, Massey is pastor of Valley Center Assembly of God five miles north of Wichita, and Pracht leads Olivet Baptist Church in Wichita.

Since March 23, the pastors have received hundreds of e-mails, phone calls and letters from people around the world describing their concern and offering their prayers for Army Pfc. Patrick W. Miller. Massey, 40, mentored the soldier during his high school years; Pracht, 51, led Miller to salvation in Jesus Christ during a premarital counseling session last year.

The captivity vigil
Miller had been stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas before being sent overseas with the 507th Maintenance Company last December. In Iraq, members of the unit cooked meals and fixed vehicles for soldiers in battle.

But on March 23, Iraqi troops in Nasiriyah ambushed the 507th Maintenance Company when the six-vehicle convoy took a wrong turn and strayed off course. Nine members of the unit died in a firefight; five were taken prisoner, along with two Apache helicopter pilots captured near Karbala on the same day.

After his capture, video footage on Iraqi TV showed Miller answering questions in a shaky voice, his eyes darting nervously back and forth between interrogators. Images showed that his wedding ring and other personal property had been confiscated. The same Iraqi tape contained grisly images of several dead American troops, shown widely around the Middle East by the Al-Jazeera news network.

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One of those watching in the United States was Massey, who as statistician for the local high school football team became acquainted with Miller seven years ago. Massey started befriending Valley Center students two decades ago when he began a 12-year stint as a youth pastor in town. Massey occasionally ate lunch with Miller, a special teams player, and his three close gridiron friends. Once in a while Miller visited a youth service at the church.

Massey sprang into action March 23 when he learned of Miller’s capture.

“Immediately, I understood that the war had come to our small town,” Massey told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. “We needed to do something about it.” As president of the local ministerial alliance, he organized a community prayer service for the next evening at the local United Methodist church, the largest facility in the town of 5,000.

Townsfolk sang hymns and read Scripture. Massey closed the service by having the 350 people who had gathered hold hands across the sanctuary.

“It is a defining moment for this community that a quiet unassuming man would unite us so loudly,” Massey said at the service. He assured the crowd that continued prayers would be heard by a loving and caring God. “We believe for Pat’s safe return and the day when we will celebrate his safe return together.”

Upon Miller’s capture, his wife, Jessa, and the couple’s two children — 4-year-old Tyler and 8-month-old Makenzie — moved back to the Wichita area to be closer to Jessa’s family.

Members from Olivet Baptist prepared meals as well as sent flowers and cards to Jessa. Pracht, who has known Jessa since her birth, had performed the wedding ceremony for the couple in March 2002, two days before Miller left for military training.

Miller’s good friend Tim Kern visited Jessa and the children frequently and prayed for Miller’s safe return every night. “I couldn’t be there physically with him, so I had to be there spiritually,” says Kern, 23.

Another of Miller’s high school friends organized a campaign in which residents tied yellow ribbons to trees, fences, streetlights and vehicles as a reminder to keep Miller in their thoughts. And Christians kept praying.

“When we pray, our confidence is not in the kindness and generosity of his Iraqi captors,” Pracht told his congregation. “The Holy God is our hope.”

Palm Sunday release
On Palm Sunday, U.S. Marines — acting on a tip from an Iraqi — liberated the seven American POWs from a residence just south of Tikrit, a village three hours north of Baghdad. The prisoners had been moved seven times in three weeks, blindfolded and under constant surveillance.

Miller, talking to embedded reporters aboard a transport plane the day of his April 13 release, acknowledged that he hadn’t been confident about his future.

“I thought they were going to kill me,” Miller said. “That was the first thing I asked when they captured me: ‘Are you going to kill me?’ They said no. … I still didn’t believe them.”

Recounting the rescue, Miller said, “I was sitting there. Next thing I know the Marines are kicking in the door, saying get down on the floor. They said, ‘If you’re an American, stand up.’ We stood up and they hustled us out of there.”

Pracht announced the release that joyous Palm Sunday morning from the pulpit. “For the good news about Patrick … let there be great rejoicing,” Pracht told Olivet Baptist members.

The first service had started at Valley Center Assembly before the news became official. “Seven POWs have been rescued, but it is not yet confirmed if Pat is one of them,” Massey announced. The congregation celebrated, but waited in anticipation for further news. Halfway through Massey’s sermon, Kern and another of Miller’s friends, Nathan Requa, burst into the sanctuary.

“It’s him!” Requa shouted.

“Our people just began to celebrate and clap,” Massey recalls. “They were just so excited and relieved.”

After medical treatment and an intelligence debriefing in Germany, the seven freed POWs landed at Fort Bliss, Texas, on April 19, the evening before Easter. As the plane taxied along the tarmac, Miller poked his head through a hatch on the top, holding an American flag and waving to a cheering crowd of 1,500 colleagues, friends and family members.

On April 26, Miller received a hero’s welcome in the Sunflower State. During a halftime ceremony at the Kansas State University annual football spring scrimmage, Miller thanked “everybody for all the support they have given me” and urged the more than 12,000 spectators not to forget the troops still in Iraq plus “those who died for what we have.”

“This is why we live in the greatest country in the world,” Miller said in his first public appearance in Kansas since arriving home. On April 29, Miller told Kansas legislators he appreciated the prayers said for him during his captivity.

On May 4, the Millers sat in the front row at the Olivet Baptist Church morning worship service in Wichita. In a sermon overflowing with thankfulness, Pracht repeatedly reminded Miller and the congregation of God’s hand in his release.

“We realize it was only by God’s providence that Pat was protected because nine of his fellow soldiers were killed in that fight,” Pracht told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. “We can’t figure it out from a human standpoint, but we are grateful that God protected our friend Pat.”

Hometown rally surprise
On May 10, Massey, with input from the trio of Miller’s football buddies, Kern, Requa and Rusty Callahan, coordinated a public parade and homecoming rally for Miller as a way to bring closure to the emotional outpouring the community had experienced. “It was important to pray and to thank God that He had answered our prayers,” Massey says.

Massey opened the rally with a reminder: “When we last prayed together I said we would look forward to the day we would celebrate Pat Miller’s return,” Massey said. “I welcome you to that day.”

Kern, Requa and Callahan presented a plaque to Miller thanking the private for his sacrificial service. “Everybody has a hero,” Kern says. “My hero is somebody I get to talk to all the time.”

Although Miller protested vociferously, Massey — with encouragement from the crowd of 2,000 people — convinced the returned POW to join his three high school buddies on stage for a rendition of country music star Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue.” Miller had repeatedly sung the patriotic tune, subtitled “The Angry American,” to his Iraqi captors.

Massey halted the tune in the first line, saying, “I think it would be better if we got someone who knows how to sing it.”

Miller watched incredulously as Keith emerged from the crowd and strode up to the platform to sing the popular song. The crowd roared whenever Keith stepped back and let Miller sing a few lines in the song. Miller blinked back tears.

Massey and a handful of others had kept Keith’s appearance a surprise. Keith drove three hours from his Oklahoma City-area home for the event. Afterward, Keith presented Miller with the red, white and blue guitar he had played.

At the celebration, Miller again asked the crowd to remember the troops still in Iraq.

“We still have people fighting; people are still going over there,” he said. “Some will come home, some might not come home. We don’t know yet. So please keep them in your thoughts.”

Later in May, the crowd at the Country Music Awards in Las Vegas cheered Miller and two other POWs invited on stage. Keith won entertainer of the year at the show.

Faith for the future
The Millers returned to Fort Bliss on May 19 after a 30-day convalescence leave.
Yet the ordeal has had a lasting influence in bolstering the faith of many in his hometown, including two of Miller’s best friends. Kern and his mother began coming to Valley Center Assembly of God services during Miller’s captivity. Requa, along with his parents and sister, also has started to attend regularly. Kern credits Massey’s confidence and optimism with helping him cope during the crisis.

“When your prayers are answered in a big miracle way like that it really helped me become more of a believer that Someone is listening,” Kern says.

Pracht believes the POW’s release will continue to have an impact wherever Miller goes.

“I told Pat that God protected him for a reason,” Pracht says. “God has a plan for Pat’s life and He wants to use Pat to tell others about how good He is.”


John W. Kennedy is news editor for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

E-mail your comments to pe@ag.org.

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