Baby Steps to Big Strides
On November 11th, our Nation recognizes all veterans who served in past wars. Sergeant Aaron Hays, of the United States Army served in the Iraq War (Operation Free Iraq). I had the pleasure and opportunity to speak with him and his wife, Vonya, about transitioning from civilian life to becoming a Soldier and "knowing about God" to establishing a relationship with Him. (Vonya's interview can be found here).
Aaron Hays and Vonya Shumate first met in junior high school. Although their accounts differ of how they reconnected later in high school, the couple will agree that they began dating at the end of their freshman year. Like most teenage couples, though, Aaron and Vonya had their ups and downs and dated on and off through their junior year. However, unlike most guys his age, Aaron was very strategic. He decided that even during the times he and Vonya were "on a break", he would continue to hang around and "court" her family. Thus, establishing his presence. So even when they weren't dating, her family had already fallen in love with him and decided that he was the man she'd eventually marry.
It was during their senior year that the couple got serious about their relationship and dated exclusively. At that point, they knew they were destined for marriage. It was only a matter of when.
On September 25, 2001, Aaron and Vonya welcomed their son, Aaron De'Angelo Von Hays.. Growing up in a rough neighborhood, known as "Murda Dubs", in Oakland, California, where a young, black male was more likely to end up in jail or murdered than to successfully raise a family of his own, Aaron knew that he needed to make some life changing decisions. And quick!
One evening while walking home from college football practice, Aaron spotted a U.S. military recruiting station. Although at the time, he didn't recognize it as a sign from God or a spiritual awakening, Aaron knew that he was fed up with Oakland and needed a change of scenery. Interested in the Air Force, he entered the recruiting station hoping to get more information. However, there was no Air Force office there. Instead, they offered a plethora of information about the Army, Navy and Marines. Ultimately, it was the Army that heavily pursued Aaron and shortly after, he decided that joining the Army would afford him and his family the perfect opportunity to get out of the 'hood.
"For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope." ~ Jeremiah 29:11 (NKJV)
Now that Aaron had a better sense of the direction his life would take, he officially proposed to Vonya and on August 3, 2002, they married in a public ceremony to be witnessed by their family and friends. The following week, on August 8th, during a private ceremony with just the two of them, they said "I do!" again in Nevada.
From Civilian to Soldier
On November 20, 2002, Aaron left his new bride and toddler in Oakland and headed to Fort Leonard Wood in St. Robert, Missouri for United States Army Basic Combat Training (BCT), also known to civilians as "boot camp." There he would also receive on the job training (Advanced Individual Training or AIT) for his career choice, Motor Transport Operator (88 Mike). In short, he would be responsible for safely transporting, loading and unloading all military personnel and equipment, on and off the battlefield. The Army describes 88 Mike as the "backbone of the Army's support and sustainment structure". So while Aaron was undergoing the extensive training necessary to transform him from a civilian to Soldier, he was also training for a critically important, potentially dangerous and high risk career, as this position was deemed "very likely to get injured or killed"!
During his AIT, the 2003 Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) began and Private Hays was constantly "reminded" of the grave risks involved with his job.
"The war had started. One day we got a chance to sit in the day room [a den area with couches and a television]. They would make us watch the news and the bottom of the news teleprompter said 'CONVOY AMBUSHED!' And us, being supply line truck drivers, had this one Drill Sergeant who would say 'You see that, Privates?! That's gonna be ya'll! You're all gonna die! You're gonna die!' I don't know what he was trying to accomplish with that, but he scared the hell out of a lot of people."
"So from there, we got to see a lot of the statistics of the 88 Mikes on the battlefield and how long you last. That is when I started seeking God more, but at baby steps."
After his AIT graduation ceremony, Private Hays was able to spend a few hours with his wife before she headed back to Oakland to prepare for their family's transition to military life.
In April 2003, Private Hays, along with Vonya and Little Aaron, relocated to Watertown, New York, some 3000 miles from Oakland. On April 28th, he reported to his duty station, Fort Drum in Jefferson, New York.
But before the family could get settled into their new life, Private Hays learned that his unit would soon be deployed. During the next two weeks, he would spend time training and preparing to depart.
On May 13, 2003, his unit was deployed to Camp Spearhead at Kuwait's Shuaiba Port for active duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Sergeant Hays described his first deployment as a 'big deal'. He had never been outside the Continental U.S., was new to the military and he had never been in a war. Being in Kuwait was like nothing he had experienced previously. He'd spend a year there.
"For man, it's either war or jail when you start seeking God. I started to rely on Him more, rather than people or my own thoughts or my own knowledge. Out there, it's just you and the good Lord."
Seven months after returning from his first deployment, his unit was deployed again. This time they would spend a year at Ayn al-Asad, the second largest US military airbase in western Iraq during Operation Iraq Freedom.
While stationed in Iraq, Specialist Hays' relationship with Christ grew stronger. It was during this second deployment that God made it more clear to Specialist Hays that he was on the right path. People were drawn to him. Often times, his Platoon Sergeant would call on him to pray over the convoys. It was him who they called upon as a stand-in Chaplain, so to speak.
"Sometimes people wanted me to pray, rather than the Chaplain. From the First Sergeant to the lowest E1, for some reason people came to me and talked to me. My Platoon Sergeant would say 'We don't have a Chaplain for the unit? That's ok. We have our own. Hays, you're the Platoon Chaplain!' Literally, every time we went on convoys, they would ask me to pray. The unit knew and saw that I was a believer, and they started seeking me out more, asking questions and seeking their own paths [to Christ]. Also at the same time, my platoon was the only platoon [of three] in our unit that had zero KIA's [killed in actions or fatalities]. Every other platoon had one casualty. My platoon was the only one that none."
"No weapon formed against you shall prosper, And every tongue which rises against you in judgment You shall condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, And their righteousness is from Me,” Says the Lord. ~Isaiah 54:17
No longer was Sergeant Hays taking baby steps in following Christ, he was now taking big strides.
"Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute In the sight of God and man. Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight." ~ Proverbs 3:3-7 (NKJV)
As one can imagine, being on the battlefield meant that resources were limited. The only physical "tool" a Believer could carry was a Bible. This meant that Sergeant Hays' unit would need to come up with innovative ways to bring the physical church to life. For example, there was no baptismal pool. Instead they used large shipping crates lined with thick plastic, filled with water, and ordained ministers or chaplains would then baptize people.
Life After Deployment
Once home from Iraq, Sergeant Hays and his family returned to the Bay Area and he was now on the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) list. The IRR list contained trained individuals who previously served in active military duty, but had not fulfilled their Mandatory Service Obligation (MSO). With eight years on his MSO, at any given time, if he was not in a unit, the Army could call him back for deployment.
In 2006, there was a shortage of 88 Mikes and the likeliness of Sergeant Hays being called back was 100 percent. Rather than wait for that to happen, he reached out to his father who connected him with an Army recruiter at Treasure Island. Sergeant Hays thought he wanted to work in radio or television. He asked the recruiter to find jobs that suited his desire. The recruiter found a job at Camp Beale in Southern California, but continued to check the listings for other suitable jobs. He called Sergeant Hays and told him about another job he found: "56 Mike" (Chaplain Assistant).
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD." ~ Isaiah 55:8 (NIV)
"I had in mind that I would work in television or radio...When he [the recruiter] told me about Chaplain Assistant, I laughed. He didn't know why I was laughing...But I knew...I knew that was where God wanted me to go. I knew that was the path that God wanted me on... It was pretty cool."
Today, Sergeant Hays, his wife Vonya and their two children, Aaron, 16, and Grace, 9, live in Northern California.
His Advice to Those Wanting to Join the Military
"I would tell them to seek God first. Do your research on the branch and the job. Know what you are getting into. You have to be diligent."
Throughout this WHOAment, I used Sergeant Hays' titles to represent his rank during those specific times throughout his Army career. As you can see, the hand of God has been on his life and favor has followed him from the first moment he entered the military recruiting station, even though he was unaware. When he stopped relying on himself and looked to Christ, his faith became stronger.
To Sergeant Aaron Hays and all military service men and women, thank you for serving!
To see the full interview with the Hays', click here.