In the middle of emailing, the power failed leaving me in near darkness. Power failures were frequent in the makeshift base in the Arabian Desert. In my frustration, I slammed my backpack on the table and assembled my things together so I could head back to the Tent City of Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I was angry because every day at this time I would email back and forth to the United States with my friends. And, right in the middle of conversations I was suddenly set back to pre-historic Internet days.
As I trudged the half mile back to my tent, an SUV pulled up and the voice said, “Would you like a ride?” Little did I know I was about to begin a long term friendship with a man that I have grown to admire. I jumped into the vehicle and glanced over to see who the driver might be. On his hat was a star, the base commander, BGen Bentley Rayburn, had just offered me a ride back to Tent City. I sat up a little straighter and following military protocol introduced myself to him as TSgt Barnes.
He asked me what base I had deployed from. I responded that I was from Columbus Air Force Base (CAFB), Mississippi. BGen Rayburn said, “Oh, so you know my friend Jack Catton.” Sensing an evolving chance to witness about Jesus Christ to my base commander, I responded, “Yes sir, and I have a lot of respect for him.” He asked me why and I told him I admired Jack Catton for his outspoken faith and I ended by remarking that not a lot of senior Christian officers are bold in their faith.
As an aside, when Colonel Jack Catton had his change of command ceremony upon his arrival at CAFB, he had made it very clear of the foundation of his character. After giving the obligatory ‘glad to be here’ comments, he had said, “I guess you have a couple of questions for the new guy. Number one is probably how much longer we will be out here. (It was a very hot day with several hundred Airmen in formation and hundreds more standing by). And, number two is ‘Who is Jack Catton?’. The answer to the first is about 5 more minutes. The answer to the second is that Jack Catton is an old fashioned American who believes that Jesus Christ came to this earth 2,000 years ago and died for you and me.” The man standing next to me knew of my commitment to Christ and joked, “Well, I guess he just moved up on your list.” I pantomimed having a list and erasing some names and adding the colonels. Additionally, the colonel would bring up biblical references of leadership in his weekly staff meetings.
Back in the SUV, BGen Rayburn had gotten quiet after I sang the praises of Colonel Catton. I wondered if I had offended him. I had no regrets because it is not often that you get a chance as an enlisted man to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a general officer. Suddenly, the base radio crackled and a voice came on to brief the general on the power failure status. The next thing I knew, Rayburn had pulled up near my tent. I thanked him and got out of the vehicle.
That night I fretted over whether I had offended the base commander. For career progression in the Air Force, you typically don’t want to offend the most powerful man on base. I talked with my supervisor and he allayed my concerns after chuckling for a few seconds. He told me that BGen Rayburn is active in attending chapel worship and actually hosted a Promisekeepers group in his tent on Tuesday nights. Over the course of the next weeks, I began to routinely see BGen Rayburn at chapel services and the Tuesday night men’s group.
I later learned that the ties between Bentley Rayburn and Jack Catton went back over two decades to when they were Air Force Academy cadets in the 1970s. Bentley Rayburn had been raised in a strong Christian background. His father had started a seminary and his uncle was the founder of the Young Life organization (www.younglife.org). Catton was the son of retired four star General “Blackjack Catton”. As I recall, he did not come from a strong Christian background. When they were at the AF Academy, Bentley Rayburn had been the cadet wing commander which is the highest position within the student body’s command structure. Catton was one of his group commanders and they had established a personal friendship. Consequently, Bentley Rayburn’s active faith had a direct influence on Jack Catton coming to faith in Christ.
They are both retired now. Bentley Rayburn had an unsuccessful run for Congress after he retired from the Air Force. He is active in the community and active in helping wounded soldiers through his role of CEO at The Homefront Cares (www.thehomefrontcares.org). Catton is a vice president in a leading defense industry company and retired as a Major General as did Rayburn. Looking back, I never would have guessed that I would deploy from the base of a colonel who had been led to Christ by the commander of the base I was deploying to in the middle of the Arabian Desert.
In just the short 12 years since that deployment, political correctness has unfortunately made it hard for Christians to express their faith in military settings. It can still be done, but it has certainly become more difficult. Today, I doubt a Jack Catton would be so bold to make such a pronouncement of faith in a speech to the entire base. That saddens me and it is unfortunate indeed.