I joined the Army for the free college education promised. I had to select a job to do. Unsure of my direction in life, I asked if I could fix or fly helicopters. They said no because of my eyesight (I wore glasses). However, based on my aptitude test scores, I was qualified to be in the maintenance field. I was mechanically inclined so I accepted whatever was available. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I became a Power Generation/Wheeled Vehicle Mechanic. I was off to basic training and then advanced individual training. My first duty assignment was Fort Benning, Georgia.
In the second month of being assigned to Fort Benning, I got in with the wrong kind of people. It was not long before I was persuaded into running drugs for some fellow soldiers in the company. They had a drug ring in the barracks and convinced me to be part of it. It seemed to be a lucrative business and added substantially to my meager income as a private. I cannot begin to tell you how guilt ridden and paranoid I always felt. It was at that time I felt farthest from God since I was saved as a boy. This was a dangerous business – not a danger from being killed or anything, but the danger from being caught by the military police. That is exactly what happened. To this day, I believe God had a hand in that and the circumstances surrounding what happened.
In my 4th month at Fort Benning, It was on a Monday, and I was driving from the motor pool where I worked, when I came upon a military police checkpoint. They were checking every other car with search dogs, and my car happened to be in position to be searched. Even though I was scared, I knew that, at the time, there were no drugs in the car. I kept my car clean and over the weekend, I washed and vacuumed it. I was careful when I carried drugs in from off post and I knew there was none in the car. Boy was I wrong. The procedure was to stop the car and turn off the engine. The dog was supposed to walk around the car - it only took a few second – then I would be off. Everything seemed to go in slow motion. The dog walked around from the front driver's side, around the back and when it got to my door, it just sat down. They told me to pull over into a parking lot and get out. They went through the car and found one marijuana joint and one pill. I do not know where they came from. I often wonder if God planted that Himself.
I was promptly arrested and transported to the military police station where I went through the military’s process of being booked. I guess it was 7 hours later when the company First Sergeant came to pick me up. He did not say much, but took me back to the barracks and told me to report to the Company Commander the next morning. It was late and I was tired, but I did not get much sleep that night.
The next day, I went to see the commander. I sat in his office for several hours before I finally saw him. All that time, the worst thoughts went through my mind and I thought my life was ruined. You know. I never prayed to ask God to help me in my situation. He was farthest from my mind. I just thought all was lost. My Platoon leader and Platoon Sergeant came in and the First Sergeant announced that the Commander would see us now. I was shaking like a leaf and fought hard to hold back the tears. This was the second time I ever saw the Commander face to face, the first being the day he welcomed me into the company. Everyone had very stern looks on their faces. The Commander read me my rights of Article 15 under the Uniformed Code of Military Justices, told me what I was accused of, and read the sentence if found guilty of these charges; Courts Martial, forfeiture of all pay, and 10 years confinement. After waiving my rights, I was subjected to about 20 or 30 minutes of a lecture telling me about things I have done that I was sure no one else knew about. I thought that was it, I'm done for. Then he said something that surprised me. He said that as a soldier, I was doing a good job and had potential. He said there was a new program that recently started for soldiers that needed additional discipline. The sentence I received was 90 days in the Soldier’s Rehabilitation Program, with 6 months of what amounted to be probation in which I could not receive any awards or promotions. At the end of that time, if I was found to be fit to return to duty, no further action would be taken. I was immediately escorted to my room to pack and while doing that, my Platoon Sergeant told me how lucky I was.
I spent the next 3 months living in a different (Rehab) barracks, doing physical training early each morning, standing inspection everyday after breakfast, doing post police call (picking up trash) until lunch, drill and ceremony every afternoon, and pulling guard duty half of every night, it was like basic training all over again. On Saturday, we did the same, but on Sunday, we were allowed to attend the Chapel service of our choice. After that, we were allowed one hour in the Post Exchange and then given the rest of the afternoon to wash our uniforms and prepare for the following week. Although this was the hardest thing I ever went through, it was the best thing that could ever happen to me. Throughout the rest of my military career, no one could pass an inspection as good as I could. Even better than that, the Chapel services were wonderful and I no longer felt the guilt I had before.
After I was released, I moved back into the barracks were I first lived. It was like the first time I was assigned to the unit. Everyone was welcoming me back. A few new soldiers thought I was new, but could not understand why everyone knew me. The sad part, which really in my case was a miracle on my behalf, was that 2 of the guy’s who talked me into running drugs were caught with a substantial amount of marijuana while I was going through the rehabilitation program, they were tried and sentenced to Fort Leavenworth. The person, who was my roommate as well as his new roommate, was sentenced to 15 years. They were caught with 20 ounces of marijuana in their room. I once brought a 4-pound bag into the barracks for my roommate. Some of the others involved were caught and sentenced to Fort Leavenworth. I was told that the Commander did not show any mercy for that group of soldiers.
For a while, it was hard for me to sleep. I came so close to being part of that group. I came so close to being in prison myself. If I went through that police check point a week earlier or maybe a week later. It could have been me. God had a plan for me, but it was not in the prison ministry yet.
Years later, I came to realize that anyone could make mistakes. One mistake could cause a person’s life to be completely different. I realized that I am no different from those soldiers who were sentenced to prison. The only difference was God’s grace. I did not know why he allowed me to be spared from the sentence I really deserved, but now I see that his purpose was to show me that those who are sentenced to prison and I are the same. Since we are the same, there should be no reason why I should not visit and worship with my brothers whom God allowed to be sentenced. He has a purpose for everyone and everything. When Lennie Nugent of Colonial Heights Baptist first started getting involved in the prison ministry, I could not picture myself doing that or visiting “those” people. However, my mind kept going back to that time I was in trouble and kept telling me that I was one of “those” people.
I visit the prison as often as I can. Words cannot describe the feelings I get from our worship services at the prison. Each time is a blessing and each time it is different. I have had a number of wonderful opportunities to witness the power of God working in these men. My experience is that the majority of the inmates care about each other and about people on the outside. They have gifts to offer and are looking for a way to use them, just as we are. The group of men that formed the praise team is amazing. It is powerful to hear them lead a large group of men singing "Amazing Grace" straight from their hearts. I cannot hear that hymn now without thinking of them. After having experienced all of this, it is impossible for me to demonize people in prison. Instead, I find God's grace in their lives. It has been an amazing gift to me to find grace where I feared it might not be.
I do not think God appreciated the fact that I carried drugs around for people, but I think he used the experience to give me the passion I have for the prison ministry today and when the time was right, he brought Lennie Nugent into my life.