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Auburn pastor to begin 6-month deployment to Middle East

Donny Crandell takes extended leave from congregation to help troops
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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In his youth, Donny Crandell couldn’t fathom joining the military because he feared the possibility of deployment. Today that possibility is becoming his reality. The senior pastor at Parkside Nazarene Church in North Auburn will leave today on his six-month deployment to Kyrgyzstan, where he will serve as a chaplain at an air transit base in Manas, about 1,000 miles from Afghanistan and more than six times that far from his congregation. “When I was a kid, I was very afraid of going into the military because I didn’t want to get deployed, but as I’ve grown older the opposite of that has come true,” said Crandell, a captain in the Air Force. “Now, it’s like I want to go into the military so I can go to the frontlines and make a difference.” While this will be his first overseas deployment, for the past four years he has been chaplain at the 144th Fighter Wing, California Air National Guard in Fresno, for one weekend every month. As chaplain, he will provide counsel to troops, hold chapel service and do visitations – all things he’s done at the Fresno base but he knows he’s in for a “shock” on multiple levels. Subzero temperatures are just one of the aspects he’ll have to adjust to, he said. “It’s a climate shock, a culture shock and it will be somewhat of a ministry shock just to do something of this nature,” Crandell said. “People will be tired and fatigued from being gone from home so long, and I’ll need to encourage the troops to persevere.” Some of them will be 18 years old, fresh from boot camp and suffer from the fear and anxiety that comes with being deployed for the first time, he said. Crandell let go of his personal fears. He hopes to cross into Afghanistan and actually had been scheduled to ride to Bagram before his orders changed, he said. The Bagram Air Base has been a past target of afghan insurgents, including an attack on Sept. 11 this year that killed three afghan intelligence employees and wounded NATO personnel amid the destruction of a NATO helicopter, according to a report from the Associated Press. He admits there would be safety concerns if he travels into Afghanistan, where Operation Enduring Freedom continues. “There’s one statement that’s like a bumper sticker, and it kind of rules my life: ‘All gave some, but some gave all,’” Crandell said. “If I happen to be one of those who gave all? Yeah, I’m OK with that.” Bittersweet sendoff Parkside Nazarene Church is having a sending-off service for Crandell at 9 a.m. today, and, aside from prayers for him, the pledge of allegiance and national anthem will be performed. Barbara Schwab of Colfax has been attending the Parkside church for a year and Crandell’s deployment especially hits home with her because her son is in the Army. “I think there’s going to be lots of joy and lots of expressions of appreciation for Donny,” Schwab said. “It’s very bittersweet. We’re so proud of him, but it’s hard to let him go, and he’s lined up great staff to stand in the gap while he’s gone, but it’s going to be hard because we all really love him.” Little more than a year ago, Schwab’s son returned from a yearlong deployment in Iraq. Sgt. Timothy Schwab, 23, is currently stationed in Hawaii and is coming home for a month in November, she said. In the middle of his tour, he came home on leave and loud noises from construction and jets flying overhead caused him tension, reminding him of the rockets that hit his base in Iraq – even though it was not on the frontlines of war, she said. Knowing how difficult it was for her son to find a good chaplain, those who Crandell will serve are “really blessed,” Schwab said. “It’s hard work to be a pastor and shepherd a bunch of stinky sheep, it really is, and also to do the chaplaincy,” she said. “When he tells the stories about what he’s done, it just melts my mother’s heart.” About 1,200 military members and about as many nationals will be at the Kyrgyzstan base, and Crandell will be the only protestant chaplain, he said, while there will also be ones representing different religions. Encouraging perseverance Chaplains are on the front lines for suicide prevention in the military, which has become an especially heightened issue, Crandell said. Marriage counseling will be another one of his important roles, he said. Crandell teaches a suicide prevention and resiliency class at the Fresno base, and he said he has already been called on during several situations of potential suicide. “(When) I’m able to encourage them to keep living and help them find reasons for living is probably the most rewarding thing,” he said. “And then being able to encourage the troops to persevere.” He said he hasn’t worked with any wounded troops – something he could likely do on his deployment – but he’s seen his fair share of pain. Part of the chaplain’s role is to notify family within four hours of receiving confirmation of a soldier’s death. The most difficult experience of his chaplaincy came on Christmas day, when he had to deliver one such message to a San Jose family. “We went to the house and while they were having Christmas festivities and Christmas presents around the trees and little kids running around the house, we had to knock on the door and break the news. It was to the mother,” he said. “The wife was not there.” Crandell is a man of “tremendous compassion,” and he’s going to need every ounce of it along with his pastoral skills on his deployment, said Lt. Col. Wes Clare, wing chaplain for the 144th Fighter Wing and Crandell’s supervisor. “When you have a warrior who is wounded in the battlefield, when he’s in the theatre hospital, it’s the chaplain who will see him, who will pray with him, who will listen when they need someone to talk to,” Clare said. “When someone writes a ‘Dear John letter’ who is just going to give up on life because he thinks no one cares for him, it is the chaplain who will chase him down and spend time with him. “If you have a warrior whose best friend just got killed or seriously wounded in the battlefield and the image has haunted him, and he’s afraid of getting post traumatic stress disorder, he can go to the chaplain and get the wounds of his heart and battlefield off his chest.” Working his magic Crandell began preparing both himself and his church for his deployment six months ago, he said. He joined a local fitness boot camp that meets three days a week and has been cycling and playing softball to stay in shape. Along with an officer’s training classes and a basic chaplain course, he had to pass a physical test that required him to do 40 pushups in a minute, 45 sit-ups in a minute, and run 1 1/2 miles in less than 14 minutes. As for Parkside Nazarene Church, Crandell spent months of preparing lesson plans, programs, ministries and bringing in an interim pastor. And he wanted to get the church refinanced, help its softball team win its Auburn Recreation District league and win his division at the Toastmasters. Missions accomplished. “Every goal that I had hoped for has been accomplished,” Crandell said. “So I can leave this Sunday feeling good about everything.” On Friday, he was brushing up on some tricks he has up his sleeve to keep the mood light overseas. Crandell is a professional magician and put on a magic show at Romero Elementary School in Santa Nella. “One of my little tools I use is magic tricks to keep people laughing,” he said. “It’s my little trick of the trade to lighten the mood, get guys’ minds off of what we’re doing from time to time.” While he’s working his magic in Kyrgyzstan, Barbara Schwab and others from his congregation will be praying for him back in Auburn. “The stinky sheep will be OK,” she said. Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews