By J. Hogan
About 20 years ago, I dropped my friend Robert Bradshaw off in New London, Connecticut for a class at the Navy Chaplain School prior to his commissioning as a naval officer and chaplain.
I had no idea what God had in store. He’d told Robert to go minister to the troops in Iraq when Robert – then a former Air Force enlisted man teaching high school and coaching basketball and baseball in Florida – was praying one morning.
Robert informed his wife, Cheryl, of God’s directive, resigned his jobs, and moved to San Diego to finish his last few semesters of seminary so he could apply to be a minister to the warzone troops. That’s where I met Robert, in San Diego, and that’s where our trip toward Connecticut began.
In the two years I’d known him, he’d been a blessing to me. I was grieving the death of my best friend and mentor, and Robert helped me with my own grief even as I helped a church process its own grief and struggles in the wake of the loss of our pastor.
I left Robert in New London and flew back to the coast, he finished his coursework, was commissioned, and went to Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine division, and began a career that is now legend in military circles.
Last week Teressa and I went to Robert’s military retirement ceremony at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. He was a mid-level officer – a Navy commander – but much more than that as a minister to the military.
The ceremony was odd. A mid-level naval officer retiring at a Marine base, with two flag officers – one Navy and one Marine – speaking at his retirement is probably unprecedented. Who those flag officers are, and where they arrived from, was definitely unprecedented for such an event.
The first speaker was a four-star general, the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’d had to excuse himself from a conversation with the President in the Oval Office to catch his flight south.
General Berger began by saying, “If I were not speaking at this retirement, I’d be in the bleachers. There is no way I was going to miss Robert Bradshaw’s retirement ceremony.” He proceeded to then speak so highly of Robert’s impact on the Marines, the Navy, and indeed the entire U.S. military over the past two decades, that I almost expected him to nominate and endorse Bradshaw for next year’s presidential race.
The next speaker was Rear Admiral Keith Davids, Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command. He also had arrived from D.C., where he’d also just been meeting with the President. Admiral Davids spoke even more highly of Robert… which I didn’t think was possible at that point.
Robert had, by the Admiral’s own words, only been assigned with special forces in Afghanistan for a few days in 2011 when the special forces suffered the worst loss of life in modern times. A Chinook helicopter full of elite warriors on a dead-of-night mission had been shot down by rocket propelled grenades as it approached its landing zone, and 38 souls, including 31 special forces fighters (of which 17 were from the famed Seal Team Six) were lost.
“Chaplain Bradshaw rewrote the book on how we deal with casualties then, bringing in 25 chaplains to see to every need and task, from making sure the bodies were given dignified travel, to ministering to the comrades of our fallen team members, to ministering to every one of the families impacted. Robert went to each and every funeral. He literally remapped how not only the Navy and Marines deal with tragedy, but his methods are now standard practice for all four branches of the U.S. Military.”
Admiral Davids went on to tell how Bradshaw taught each branch’s special operators how to communicate across branch differences, enabling the successful defeat of ISIS when that fight was engaged in 2017, then how he – the admiral, that is – personally interrupted Bradshaw’s orders to Savannah, Georgia by asking him to be the chaplain at the White House from 2018 - 2021.
Both General Berger and Admiral Davids also took time to speak highly of Robert’s wife, Cheryl and her influence and support, as well as their own personal friendship with the Bradshaws over the years.
I sat there, in a crowd of hundreds, next to my wife, dumbfounded. We’d both known Robert and Cheryl as goodhearted members of our church in San Diego during an emotional time where their influence, while appreciated, was likely undervalued.
Now we were sitting listening to our friends being championed by two of the most storied leaders in the modern U.S. military. I thought back to when I hugged Robert farewell all those years ago as this journey was beginning, knowing that I trusted good things would come from it. Yet, I still had vastly underestimated what God was up to when he spoke to the basketball and baseball coaching high school teacher just after the 9/11 attacks.
God had much bigger things in mind than I could imagine.
Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.