It is good to remember those who served God and Country. Today I am thinking of a great Christian minister, missionary, Navy Chaplain, and Endorser for Presbyterian and Reformed Chaplains in America’s Armed Forces.
Chaplain William Leonard (1917–2015) was my first PCA Chaplain Endorser. He was, of course, so much more than the leader of the “Joint Commission” for our Presbyterian and Reformed Chaplains and the Christian communities we represented. Bill exemplified the very man that St. Paul called Pastor Timothy (and all Christian shepherds) to be: “But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5 New King James Version).
Cut me, and I would have bled deep water Navy blue. I was the orphaned son of a Commander in WWII. My father went to sea in 1923 at age fifteen. He was commissioned as an officer in the US Coast Guard at New London, Connecticut, in 1942. I grew up staring at my father’s photograph from the New London Maritime Officer’s School. I knew that I would be in the Navy one day. Indeed, the Navy gave me my first post-secondary education in Monterey, CA. Following an intense year of linguistics and cryptology studies, I enjoyed secret service as an Albanian linguist and analyst. After I left the Navy, I became a Dow Chemical manager and was later transferred to Kansas City. So, having been out of the Navy for a few years, completing my undergraduate education, and serving as a manager for a Fortune 50 chemical company, God called this filthy sinner saved by grace to preach the glorious Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I completed my PCA internship before seminary, began preaching as a licensed pastor throughout the Midwest while under the care of presbytery. I was then blessed to be called by Dr. D. James Kennedy to serve as his intern. We packed it up and moved from Kansas to Ft. Lauderdale. I matriculated at the new seminary founded by Dr. Kennedy. The burden to preach and share the Gospel was like a hot coal burning in the gut of my soul. However, I had another obligation. I told Dr. Kennedy about it. My esteemed mentor urged me to “call Bill Leonard.” My conviction was a subtext in the vocation story of my life. I wanted to reach eighteen-year-old confused young men in uniform and share Biblical truth with officers whose souls were breaking under the pressure of unimaginable stress and responsibilities. In other words, I was compelled by the duty of grace and gratitude to reach “my father” and “myself.” This is almost word-for-word how I described my sense of calling to Chaplain Leonard. He listened. He understood my desire. So, he wanted me in the Navy Chaplain Corps. He also urged me to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. “Mike,” he counseled, “I want you in the Navy Chaplaincy, but God might want you elsewhere.” Those would prove to be prescient words indeed. I count those days of counsel with Chaplain Leonard as fundamental in all of my ministry.
Even putting in the government paperwork—not precisely what we think of as “the Lord’s work,”—our great Bill Leonard was a seasoned Christian shepherd pointing me to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and reminding me that the Kingdom of God is more significant than any one of us. Our vision is not a Biblical vision unless it is surrendered to God‘s mission in the world. I should have figured “Aslan was on the move” when Dr. Kennedy wanted to know about my conversation with Chaplain Leonard. Of all that I conveyed about our discussion, Dr. Kennedy focused on Bill Leonard’s caution. He repeated the warning with an unequivocal lesson: “Bill is right. You must learn that you are not your own. You are a bondservant to Christ Jesus.”
Chaplain Leonard worked behind the scenes to get my packet to the Navy. He kept me apprised of the process. He would call me at the church or home (no iPhones then, of course) to pray with me. Back then, the Navy Chaplain Corps was working within a system that used “baby baptizers” as a variable (viz., “liturgical” groups of which we were a part). There was just no room for me in the sea services. Well, along comes a recruiter—some Captain, then Major, named Doug Lee! Chaplain Lee challenged me, “Why not put in a ‘green packet?’” After inquiring about the nature of a “green packet” (by “green packet” the sharp young Army recruiter-theologian-Chaplain who was destined to have a flag announce his presence, informed me that he meant “an application packet for the Army”—I was a little slow!) I responded, “Chaplain Lee, I am the son of a WWII maritime officer. I was taking ship tours when I was five years old! I have no idea what the ‘green thing’ is all about!” Doug responded, “Well, see what the Lord will do.” I called Chaplain Leonard. “Mike, see what the Lord does with it. I will keep working on the Navy.” I asked Dr. Kennedy about it. “Well, Michael, see what the Lord does with that.” After some thought and prayer, I had an excellent idea: “Well, Mike,” I said, as if for the first time, “put in the ‘green packet’ and see what the Lord will do!”
Well, I completed and forwarded the Army Chaplain Corps packet. In a week or so, I learned that the “Green Team” picked me up! I have to admit: I was euphoric. I called Chaplain Leonard, and he had already heard the news. He was so encouraging. However, our dear Chaplain Leonard continued to work the USN angle. “You can always transfer.” CH (MAJ) Doug Lee swore me in at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church as Dr. D. James Kennedy conducted an exceptional chapel service and preached a sermon on God and Country. Later that day, Chaplain Leonard called me to congratulate me. He reminded me again that he could get me transferred to the Navy. He literally wouldn’t give up the ship! Two weeks after now-CH (BG) Doug Lee swore me in as an Army officer, the US Navy called me: “Courtesy of Chaplain Leonard, we want to offer you a slot in the Navy Chaplain Corps!” I informed them that the Army had already booked travel for my Chaplain Basic Course at Fort Monmouth, NJ. Talk about providence!
I share that story because Chaplain William Leonard was uncommonly attentive in doing his all to get me in “his Navy.” Behind that determined spirit was a man who served God and—it became apparent to me very early on—served Chaplains. He taught me that leadership is essentially serving. I believe in doing so; the Reverend Bill Leonard was merely modeling the Redeemer.
I retired from that “green team” in 2018. The event was forty-two years, seven months, and twenty-seven days after I raised my right hand and swore, “that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The Lord did guide me to His place for me. I was able to exercise the work of an evangelist, preacher, educator. I concluded my service back in intelligence as Command Chaplain of Military Intelligence Readiness Command (MIRC), the USAR equivalent of United States Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM). I cannot imagine a more fruitful or rewarding career. Thank You, Lord. And thank You for Bill.
At my retirement, the Benediction was said by a Navy Chaplain (one of my D.Min. students from my seminary teaching). I think Bill Leonard had to have the last word! It was the perfect providential bookend: Navy-Army-Navy. I could not help but remember the wisdom, kindness, and fatherly guidance of one of the USN’s finest: our beloved Bill Leonard.
So, like so many others, I am in Chaplain Bill Leonard’s debt. For all the behind-the-scenes work he did? For all the hits he undoubtedly took to allow us to exercise our ministries unencumbered by the inevitable higher-authority opponents of Gospel ministry? Absolutely. But more. I—we—have a debt of gratitude for the inestimable presence of an authentic spiritual giant in our time (with Mrs. Leonard and their family). How can one measure the value of serving under a true father in faith (a “father” in a loving relationship, not the authoritarianism denounced by Christ)? Bill Leonard invested his considerable gifts and influence in preacher-boys who were burdened by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ to needy souls in America’s Armed Forces. Each of us praises God for that opportunity. I have met a few pastors who admitted in tears that they might make another choice if they could go back. I have never met a military or naval Chaplain who regretted yielding to the call to serve the Armed Forces. There is no question about it: such a scenario is just so because we had Bill Leonard (and the incredible men of God who followed him: Dave, Doug, Jim, and their remarkable teams). Other Chaplains who enthusiastically give thanks to the Lord for the life and ministry of the Reverend William Leonard include the Reverend Drs. RJ Gore, Peter Sniffin, James Carter. There are so many others. One would be remiss without mentioning his son, Steve Leonard, a stalwart in the service of God and Country, and a tremendous Army Chaplain (Colonel) Ret.l
How is it put in Revelation 14:13?
“And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them” (King James Version).Revelation 14:13
What a promise: “. . . Their works do follow them.” Never was that promise so poignantly demonstrated than in the life and ministry of the indisputable “Father of the Presbyterian and Reformed Commission on Chaplains.” There will be a multitude of souls safe in the arms of Jesus because of our Chaplain and Mrs. William Leonard. Thus, Chaplain Leonard’s faith became his biography, and his life became his legacy.
Gloria et laus tibi, Christe.
MICHAEL A. MILTON, Ph.D. Chaplain (Colonel) US Army (Ret.)
An Army chaplain (foreground) gives comfort to a wounded GI while medical corpsmen go about their business of taking care of other wounded at an aid station near Triangle Hill in Korea where these troops were hit on Oct. 19, 1952. (AP Photo/ Fred Waters)