That time a decorated Army Ranger became a world-renowned pastor
Dr. Jeff Struecker is well-known for his evangelical work as a pastor, author and speaker. But before he did all of that, he was a Ranger.
After enlisting in the United States Army while he was still in high school, he was ready to see the world and get out of small-town Iowa. “My parents divorced when I was in elementary school and I lived with my mother and we were way below the poverty line. I moved two or three times a year every time she found a better job and went to four different high schools in three states before ending back up in Iowa,” he shared. “There was no future there if you weren’t a farmer so the Army was my way out.”
He went into the service not knowing what to expect. Though his grandfather had served in World War II, he didn’t know much about the military. When he signed his enlistment paperwork, he asked for the Ranger regiment. “I was actually looking for the most challenging job in the Army,” Struecker added.
The cornerstone for everything he did was rooted deep in his Christian faith. Though neither of his parents were religious in any way, his neighbors were and shared the gospel with him one night. “I have no other language to use than to say Jesus radically changed me that night. He just reached down and found the 13-year-old kid on planet earth who is farthest from him as possible, and said, ‘I'm going to grab that kid and I'm going to turn his life around’ and that's what Jesus did,” he recalled.
As an 18-year-old private in 1987, he went straight into the 3rd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment after his training was complete.
“I was deployed all over the world and in 1989 I was sent with my regiment to the invasion of Panama. That deployment changed my life and how I viewed military families,” he shared. “I got sent back to the U.S. before everyone else and made the decision to meet with all of the wives. It had never occurred to me to think about what families were going through back home, my mind was always on killing the enemy. That night will stay with me until my dying day.”
Not long after his return, Struecker married his highschool sweetheart before deploying to Desert Storm in 1991. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d be in harm's way. His next combat tour would be in 1993 and the Battle of Mogadishu or as many know it, Black Hawk Down.
“By the time I'm in Somalia in ‘93, I'm a squad leader and had been in the army for six years and got 10 guys that I'm responsible for. It's actually after the fight is over in Somalia where I felt this very clear overwhelming sense that God wanted me to be an Army chaplain,” he explained. “I knew I’d need to go to school so on my own time and with my money, I put myself through college and then seminary.”
While Struecker was doing everything he needed to do in order to become a chaplain, he was winning awards and making a name for himself. In 1996, he won the David L. Grange Best Ranger Competition. In early 2001, he found himself assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg as a chaplain. Though he thought his time in combat was over, 9/11 would change everything.
“I deployed to Afghanistan nine times and Iraq five times over a 10-year period before retiring in 2011,” he said.
His time as a Ranger and combat experiences helped forge connections with soldiers. “I tried to be the kind of Chaplain that I would have wanted,” he added. “The time I spent in the Army and in combat deeply impacted me. There's no going back. I do think through the lens of the guy or the gal that's in uniform or that's married and part of the military family. When I prepare my sermons, when I minister, it's all viewed through that lens.”
Struecker laughing recalled his soldiers thinking he was their “lucky charm” as a chaplain. “In all of the special operations airborne units I worked with, they’d have dangerous missions and always ask me to come along. I always said yes but would have to tell them that if they were thinking they weren’t going to get in a firefight tonight or their parachute was going to open just because the chaplain was on the airplane. It doesn't work like that. I'm not a rabbit's foot,” he laughed.
After retiring as a major, he planted his roots outside of Fort Benning, Georgia – an area where he spent half his time as a soldier. His church was purposefully planted outside the base to directly impact those Army families stationed nearby. Struecker, his wife and five children remain committed to serving those who serve.
One son would go on to serve in the Ranger regiment on a combat tour through Afghanistan and another, in the Air Force.
“I remember saying to my wife that it’s one thing to put your husband on a plane in harm's way over and over, but it’s going to feel different when it’s our son. My wife just said if that’s what it takes and what our freedom requires of our family, we’ll give it. It was a powerful moment,” he shared.
In 2017, Struecker was inducted into the United States Army Ranger Hall of Fame. But when he thinks about how he wants to be remembered, it wasn’t for any awards or accomplishments.
“I want to be ‘Jeff’, the friend, the husband, the father and former Army Ranger. The titles, rank, awards, none of that matters to me. Who I am as a person and the guys and gals that I've had a chance to serve with, that's the only thing that really matters,” he shared. “I know I'm doing exactly what God created me and put me on planet earth to do. I felt it when I was a Ranger, a chaplain and now as a pastor. If I could, I would make that kind moment possible for every one of your readers because it's a beautiful place to be.”
You can learn more about this once a Ranger, retired Chaplain and now Pastor Dr. Struecker by clicking here.