Jeff Struecker was an elite Army soldier, once part of a two-man team that won the Best Ranger competition.
Next Wednesday, the former soldier who was involved in the Battle of Mogadishu and immortalized in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down” before serving as a chaplain for 10 years, will be among the class inducted Wednesday into the Ranger Hall of Fame at Fort Benning.
Recently Struecker, now the lead pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Columbus, sat down with Ledger-Enquirer senior reporter Chuck Williams to talk about his military career and his faith, two parts of his life that fit together like hand and glove.
“I never saw really a contradiction in being an effective warrior and a great door-kicker in the Ranger Regiment and a follower of Jesus,” Struecker said. “Still don’t. My faith gave me this sense of peace.”
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Here are excerpts of that interview, edited for length and clarity.
Q: What was your reaction when you got a call and said, “Hey, we’re putting you in the Ranger Hall of Fame.”
A: I was quite shocked that anybody wanted to nominate me, mainly because I had kind of two distinct lifetimes in the Rangers. One of them was as an enlisted guy and then the other was as a chaplain. Well, chaplains are generally not the kind of people you would assume would make it to the Hall of Fame. I was quite surprised to be nominated and felt certain that I would not get selected.
Q: Who nominated you?
A: Mark Winton, the chaplain of the Airborne Ranger Training Brigade. One of the things that I said to Mark about the nomination is, “This is a great honor just to be nominated.” I never assumed that a chaplain would be nominated. I was certain that it wouldn’t go beyond the nomination. It took the ARTB a lot of work just to put my packet together and to put my packet forward.
Q: What does it mean to you to go in?
A: Well, in order to properly answer that question, let me tell you a little bit about my love for the Ranger community. As you know, I showed up in the Army here at Fort Benning at 18. I went through basic training, AIT, went straight to the Ranger Regiment as a private. My first six months, nine months were brutal. They’re brutal for everybody in the Ranger Regiment. It was so tough that I pretty much thought, “I don’t think I’m good enough to be able to hang with these guys.”
... It was so rough those first nine months that I was fairly sure “I’m not good enough to be able to make it in this unit.” I was, like, “I’m gonna give it everything that I’ve got, every day. But, I don’t think I’m good enough to make it to this unit.”
... After about nine months or so, they started saying, “Jeff, we think you’re ready for Ranger School.” I got sent to Ranger School within my first year in the Ranger Regiment. By the time that I got finished with the Ranger School and I started to understand a few things about being a leader in the Ranger Regiment and the kind of demands that the country was gonna make of me as a Ranger leader, I fell in love with it. Literally, my first year or year and a half in the Army, I hated the Army. I hated Fort Benning. I couldn’t wait to get out. By my third or fourth year, I just wanted to spend the rest of my life doing this.
Q: What changed, Jeff, between that first year and then that third or fourth year?
A: I wish I could tell you. I can’t point to any one thing. Successfully completed Ranger School, becoming a non-commissioned officer, having some leadership opportunities — all of those things were different. But I don’t think that’s really what changed. I think I finally got a chance to see what the Rangers provide to the country. I finally understood at the broadest level who these men really are. When I started understanding the kind of people that are leaders in the Ranger Regiment, every day I got up and thought to myself, “Man, I get the privilege of working with the greatest men in the world — not just in America but some of the greatest men in the world.” There weren’t many days that I got up and went to work that I didn’t try to live up to the expectations that they would have of me.
Q: What made these people the greatest?
A: Commitment, dedication, their sense of duty. I watched the kind of sacrifice that any business in the world would give their right arm to have leaders that are that good, making those kind of sacrifices. And they were doing it for each other and they were doing it for the country.
Q: You find yourself in Mogadishu in the middle of something that went terribly wrong. You’d been in the Army how long at that point?
A: Six years, and I was a squad leader in Bravo Company, 3rd Ranger Battalion when we deployed from here to Task Force Ranger in Somalia, operation Gothic Serpent.
Before I answer any more questions about that, though, can I go back to what made this such a great honor?
Q: Please do.
A: Most days I got up and I measured myself by these guys and I realized that most of these guys are much better warriors than I am. I looked around the Army, I looked around the nation and realized these are the best leaders on the planet — and really some of the toughest, strongest, smartest people I’ve ever seen in my life. The complete package. One of the things that I think ... the bug that I got bit with is the privilege of serving with these guys that are so talented, they could run Fortune 500 companies and they know it. They’re choosing not to do that. They’re using their talents and abilities to serve the nation. I made the statement, it’s very true, “My heroes are engraved in stone around the Ranger monument. They are the Hall of Fame guys.”
I’m absolutely convinced that I don’t deserve to be selected among their midst. Those are the men that I will go to my grave thinking the world of.
Q: Did Mogadishu leave an indelible mark on you?
A: Yeah. A couple of things about Somalia: I was in the Ranger Regiment when we invaded Panama. Went down to Operation Just Cause for that. I was in the Ranger Regiment when the Rangers went to Kuwait as part of Desert Storm and I went over there with 1st Ranger Battalion with that. By the time I got to Somalia in ’93, I already had two previous combat deployments, combat tours. By the time ’93 rolled around, there wasn’t many guys left in the Ranger rRgiment that had any Just Cause experience, almost nobody that had Desert Storm experience. I felt like an old dude with a lot of experience at 24 years old in Somalia because, besides me, the other guys that had lots of combat experience had been in the Army for 20 years or so — men like Craig Nixon and a few others that had a lot of combat experience. But, just a few of us.
I felt this additional sense of responsibility of kind of explaining before we even got on the ground in Somalia: “Here’s what you can expect, never having been to combat before. Chances are, here’s what it’s gonna be like.” Somalia was very different than Desert Storm, very different than Panama in that, as you remember, Desert Storm, we had thousands — tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands — of Iraqi’s surrendering before we even got there. In Panama, the Panamanian defense forces basically crumbled around us. That’s not what happened in Somalia. First night there, I said to my men, “This is an enemy that will fight back.” We found somebody who’s willing to fight and go toe to toe with America and I hadn’t seen this in my lifetime — not since, really, since Vietnam. I was a child in Vietnam.
Q: What role, if any, did that play in your decision to move to the spiritual side and become a chaplain?
A: That, in one word, was the reason why I became a chaplain. It was the day after the big firefight. My call to ministry, for lack of a better word, is the next morning. I had a very, very strong faith in Christ before I joined the Army. ... I never saw really a contradiction in being an effective warrior and a great door-kicker in the Ranger Regiment and a follower of Jesus. Still don’t. My faith gave me this sense of peace. For most of those 18 hours, I was fairly certain that I was gonna die and everyone around me was gonna die. I watched some guys who were really struggling with the idea of eternity. They were ready to fight. They, I think, were probably prepared to pay the cost with their life. But they weren’t ready for “what happens after I die?” and literally didn’t know the answers to those questions.
So, the day after the big fight is over, a bunch of my friends came up to me and asked me questions directly about my faith. They were mostly related to eternity. “Jeff, where’s my friend, who had just got killed last night? Where is he?” “Is there really a heaven? Is there really a hell?” ...
Q: So everybody was decompressing the process?
A: Right, right. A number of them were saying, “Hey, man, you have something — I could hear in your voice over the radio — that I don’t have. I need to know where does this sense of peace come from?” In fact, the actor who played me in the movie “Black Hawk Down,” when they were training here with the Rangers before going to film the movie, Brian Van Holt said, “Jeff, everybody that I’ve talked to about you said the same thing, and I gotta know, why did everyone say, ‘When everyone else is freaking out, Struecker was totally calm”? And my answer to Brian was, “Brian, I was fairly convinced that I was gonna die. And I knew exactly where I was gonna spend eternity. I didn’t have the same kind of struggles, the same kind of fears that everybody else did.” All of that to say, a very specific answer to your question is, the next morning I never really heard God speak — and I won’t say that this was an audible voice — I just felt this overwhelming sense: “Jeff, I want you to do this. I want you to help warriors prepare themselves for eternity.”
Q: You were chaplain on 9/11?
A: Yes, the chaplain in the 82nd Airborne Division when the aircraft attacked on 9/11. I went with the 82nd to Afghanistan in 2003 and then as soon as that deployment was over with, I was selected and assigned as 2nd Ranger Battalion’s chaplain.
I did three years there. Then the Army sent me here, to Ranger School. God knows I needed it because it was a brutal three years going to Iraq and Afghanistan basically non-stop for three years. After a year at Ranger School here, which was supposed to be a two- or three-year job, the Ranger Regiment stood up a Special Troops Battalion and the Ranger regimental commander, who I had known for many, many years, called me and said, “Would you consider coming to be the Special Troops Battalion Chaplain?” I agreed. The Ranger regiment and the Ranger training brigade worked a deal where they would do a one-for-one swap and I would go become the new Chaplain at the Ranger Regimental Special Troops Battalion.
Q: I want to ask you probably a stupid question, and I’m curious how you’re going to respond. With those two world views — warrior and chaplain — what do you know about the soldier that other people don’t?
A: That’s a pretty profound question, to be honest with you, man. It’s not a stupid question at all. It’s a great question.
I like to call this the soul of a warrior. I don’t use the terminology lightly but, given what’s happened over the last generation or two in America, you have a military that almost exclusively comes from a military family. You had about 11.5 percent of all Americans serving in World War II. You had about 4.5 percent of all Americans serving in Vietnam. By the time you get to the Global War on Terrorism, .45 percent — less than one half of one percent of Americans — serve in the military at all, not to mention in combat.
You have a warrior class of Americans — this is the term that I like to use for them. The warrior class of America has been shouldering the burden of national security for the longest declared war in America’s history by a long shot.
As you know, no one’s asked for help. No one’s had to draft anybody. No one’s forced somebody to serve in the warrior class of Americans. Says something about the men and women that are currently serving. Then the question you asked — what about those guys? — that’s really unique. The truth is, there’s something that beats deep inside their chest — a man or a woman in the military now that I’m afraid most Americans don’t even know exists.
It is this willingness to give whatever it costs to preserve our way of life. ... The soul of a warrior is they’re willing to give more than anyone else for our nation’s freedom. And they’re willing to give it gladly, willingly, not out of compulsion. But God forbid that America ever raises a generation that’s not willing to give it because that will be the last generation of Americans.
Q: Do you think we have an advantage here in this community because of the warrior class of America that lives and works out of Columbus and Fort Benning?
A: Yes. One of the reasons why Columbus is, in my opinion, one of the greatest if not the greatest city in America is because of the warrior class of Americans. It rubs off on you. You don’t have to serve in the military. If you’re around these folks long enough, you’ll start to have an appreciation for them. Eventually, a little bit of your heart will start to beat like their heart beats. They’re in your neighborhood. They go to school with your children. They play Little League ball with your kids. Pretty soon what compels them starts to compel you. There’s some pretty epic military communities in America: Killeen, Texas and Fayetteville, N.C., and Clarksville, Tenn.
There’s something unique about Columbus because of the type of warriors that make their way through here, because of Ranger School and because of Airborne training and because of the Marine training that’s happening on Fort Benning now, because of the armor and the infantry school. Take the military and then you take those that are willing to give the greatest and to serve the most, and they all go through Fort Benning.
Job: Lead pastor, Cavalry Baptist Church in Columbus.
Hometown: Fort Dodge, Iowa
U.S. Army career: Enlisted in 1987; graduated from Ranger School in December 1988. Deployed in combat to Panama, Kuwait and Somalia, and had numerous tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Awarded the Bronze Star Medal with “V” for Valor. As a member of the Ranger Regiment, fought in the Battle of Mogadishu, immortalized in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” In 1996, along with Spc. Isaac Gmazel of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Struecker won the Best Ranger competition. Briefly left the Army and rejoined in 2001 as a chaplain. Retired in 2011.
Education: While in the Army, earned his undergraduate degree from Troy University, 1998; also holds a Master’s of Divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (2000); and a Ph.D in Philosophy from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (2015).
Family: Married to his high school sweetheart, Dawn. They have five children: Aaron, Jacob (and wife, Haley), Joseph, Abigail and Lydia; and one granddaughter.