Army chaplain Gordon Furbay says many people in Iraq and Afghanistan are thankful that the U.S. military became involved in their countries.
"There are many, many people in those countries grateful for the sacrifices we have made on their behalf," said Furbay, 59, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq in 2005-2006 and Afghanistan in 2012.
Every evening while he was stationed in Mosul, Iraq, Furbay had dinner with an Iraqi doctor, an immunologist. "We never finished dinner without him thanking us for what we did for his people," he said.
The Gnadenhutten native will be the keynote speaker at today's Veterans Day program at the Tuscarawas County Courthouse in New Philadelphia. The program begins at 11 a.m.
Despite the violence and destruction that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the quality of life of ordinary Iraqis has "grown exponentially."
"Because of what the U.S. military was able to do in Iraq, villages across the country have gotten water, gotten power, were given the opportunity to have education and were provided with medical support and access to medicine denied them forever by their government," Furbay said.
The country's infrastructure continues to be restored and rebuilt, he added. "In years to come, it'll be a good place to live, I think," he said.
The U.S. impact on Afghanistan also has been positive, but different than Iraq.
The Afghan people now have better access to medicine and education, but it has been more difficult to improve the infrastructure in the remote, mountainous country, he said.
Furbay met a retired colonel in the Afghan air force while he was stationed at the NATO air base in Kandahar. "He was just grateful for our presence," he said.
Furbay graduated from Indian Valley South High in 1973, Muskingum College in New Concord in 1977 and the Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pa., in 1980.
In 1985, he was serving as pastor of a Moravian church in Easton, Pa., when a parishioner asked if he would be interested in becoming a chaplain in the New Jersey National Guard. Furbay agreed, completing five weeks of chaplain basic training and a three months' correspondence course. In 1986, he was commissioned a first lieutenant.
In 1989, he left parish ministry. "I felt called to go on active duty as a chaplain," Furbay said.
His first post was Fort Sill, Okla., where he was chaplain for the 5th Battalion, 18th Field Artillery. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, his unit served in Saudi Arabia and helped liberate Kuwait from the Iraqis.
During the war, he was part of a night convoy move.
"It was pitch dark," Furbay recalled. "All of a sudden on our right flank, the desert just lit up. We realized we were on a ridge looking down into a valley. We watched an Iraqi tank battalion engage a U.S. tank battalion. We saw a tank battle unfold live. The Fourth of July will never be the same after seeing something like that."
Page 2 of 3 - After the war ended, Furbay was released from the service, and he became a Moravian minister in Nazareth, Pa. In 2002, he left parish ministry again. He served as a chaplain in Germany and worked at a cabinet shop in Nazareth.
He returned to the military in 2003 and was called to serve in Iraq in 2005. He and an assistant were assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Mosul and were later transferred to Baghdad. He spent a year in Iraq.
While in the country, he often had to travel in ground convoys or by Blackhawk helicopter to remote outposts. "They were unable to get to the chaplain, so the chaplain got to them," he said.
After coming back to the United States, Furbay was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Drum, N.Y.
In November 2011, he and his wife, Dot, were at Disney World in Florida, where Furbay was scheduled to officiate at the wedding of his eldest son, Chris. There, he got a text telling him that chaplains were needed in Afghanistan.
He asked Dot for permission to go, and she gave her approval.
In early 2012, he went to Fort Hood to prepare for his assignment in Afghanistan. He arrived at Kandahar Airfield in March, where he served as installation chaplain. The base was home to 29,000 personnel from various NATO countries. He was there for nine months and never left the airfield.
"I was responsible to ensure that anyone who wished to worship in basically whatever faith group they chose to be a part of could worship," Furbay said. He worked with Christians, Muslims and Jews.
His duties were to provide counseling to service members and civilians supporting the military, who brought to him a wide variety of personal issues, including financial difficulties at home, infidelity of a spouse, death of a parent or sickness of a child or spouse.
The tension was constant for service members serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Army would say you have to keep your head on a 360-degree swivel," he said. "For many soldiers, there was a constant flow of adrenaline that makes it hard for them when they come home. It's that adrenaline rush you learn to live with that makes the transition back to civilian life so challenging."
The threats he faced in Iraq and Afghanistan were different. In Iraq, it was mortar fire and small arms fire, he said. In Afghanistan, it was rocket attacks, which could occur any time, day or night. "You never knew when they would happen," Furbay said.
While awaiting reassignment in the Individual Ready Reserve, Furbay and his wife are serving as caretakers of Camp Zimmerman, a church camp near Gnadenhutten.
As someone who has experienced war firsthand, Veterans Day has a special meaning to Furbay.
Page 3 of 3 - "It means to me that I live in a country that recognizes the fact — by having a special day — that throughout our history men and women of all ages and races have made the ultimate sacrifice for something bigger than themselves," he said.
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