A soldier's long journey ends in a calling to the ministry

CONYERS — Caught up during the heady days of late '60s as the Vietnam War raged and anti-war sentiments spread across the country, Bud Onstad began his journey of service as a U.S. Army Ranger that eventually led to him become a Lutheran priest.

Onstad graduated from the University of Montana in 1971 where he served in the R.O.T.C. program.

"I knew I'd be sent to 'Nam," he said. "So I volunteered for Airborne Rangers to learn as much as possible."

Onstad was sent to Fort Benning for advanced training, then sent not to the jungle and rice paddies, but to the sandy beaches of Hawaii with the 25th Infantry Division, a newly formed unit with many officers unavailable due to service in Vietnam. As a tenderfoot, Lt. Onstad filled slots for a major, then of a captain and eventually in his own role as a second lieutenant for the division.

"In those higher slots I had to attend meetings with the big brass," Onstad said. "But I was too dumb to know that I was dumb."

Later, sent to Montana as a captain, Onstad said he considered leaving the Army.

"We trained for nuclear and biological warfare against the Soviets, but I kept thinking, ‘Why would sane people do this to each other?' My men and I didn't want to be there nor did the guys on the other side."

After confiding with his pastor, Onstad decided to resign his commission to become a Lutheran minister. But Uncle Sam beat Onstad to the punch — he received orders for Korea.

After taking an advanced course in race relations and spending quality time with his wife, Amy, already a Lutheran pastor, Onstad traveled halfway around the world to the Demilitarized Zone at Panmunjom at the boarder of North and South Korea.

"They were like children," Onstad said. "We put a small desk flag on our side of the table. The next day the North Koreans placed a bigger flag on their side of the table, until we both had large flags at both ends of the room. We'd build a new pagoda; they'd build a bigger pagoda." Shaking his head, Onstad added, "If a kid behaved like that we'd send him to his room, but these were governments that human beings fought and died for."

Onstad resigned his commission after Korea to attend seminary and was ordained as a Lutheran minister. His first church was in Columbia, S.C.

"Our church's World War II veterans kept telling me to re-up so I could get my retirement," He said. "I talked the situation over with Amy and, well, I told the Army I'd re-up as a chaplain if they'd send me to the east coast, but no further west than the Mississippi River."

The Army agreed. Onstad rejoined and was sent to Fort Ord, Calif. "That's the Army for you," he said.

Onstad didn't stay long at Fort Ord. Operation Just Cause was pouring soldiers into Panama to oust dictator Manuel Noriega from power. Onstad was en route to his first war as a chaplain.

"We landed in a hot LZ and came under immediate fire, both enemy and friendly. The soldiers were so green they didn't dig foxholes, so I found an indentation in the earth and hunkered down for the night," he said. "Good thing. Late that night a mistaken identity caused American forces to cut loose on each other at opposite ends of a runway. Luckily, they were bad shots and nobody got hurt."

As chaplain, Onstad conducted Protestant services, but for Catholic soldiers Onstad recruited a Panamanian priest for assistance on Christmas Eve. Onstad said when the priest arrived with his acolytes, he greeted them in full combat gear and face paint because "we were expecting to get hit. I warned the priest of the situation and suggested that he leave, which he did, fairly quickly."

Surviving Operation Just Cause, Onstad's next port-of-call was Germany. Within a short time, Iraq invaded Kuwait and Operation Desert Shield was gearing up to kick-start Desert Storm. In the initial mechanized mad dash toward Baghdad, Onstad and his chaplain assistants' Humvee sank axle-deep in soft sand. "There I was, a sitting duck, watching the war race right by me."

An Army truck eventually pulled Onstad from his predicament.

"We listened to the action on a military channel and I was astounded by the professionalism of our tank commanders and valiant crews."

Onstad watched as artillery and multiple rocket launchers loosened their deadly salvos on Iraqi positions. "It was awesome," he said. "But I felt a little sorry for the guys on the receiving end, but happy I wasn't there."

One morning before the victory Onstad witnessed a beautiful blue sky evolve into a thick black choking cloud. Saddam Hussein had ordered the Kuwait oil fields to be set ablaze.

"It looked like the end of the world. We had to stay in tents to avoid oil droplets dripping from the sky."

But Onstad didn't like tents. He found a few 2x4s, appropriated nails and a hammer; then constructed three crosses. "We used them for the Passion, and had Good Friday services with the oil wells burning in the background."

Before retiring as a lieutenant colonel, Onstad attended a ceremony at Fort Jackson, S.C., to dedicate Watters Hall, named after Chaplain Major Charlie Watters, a Catholic priest who won the Medal of Honor for his bravery during a horrific battle at Dak To, Vietnam. He saved many lives that day, but lost his own. On the day of the dedication, a sergeant major approached Onstad and asked for permission to visit with the Watters family, if they were in attendance.

Onstad told him, "They're here, but what's the purpose of your visit?" The sergeant major replied, "I was in that battle at Dak To. I'd been hit and my face was covered in blood, I couldn't see. I was wandering the battlefield calling for my mother, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Chaplain Watters, and he carried me to safety." Onstad gave the sergeant major the permission he needed — indeed, had earned.

Pastor Onstad and Amy are now both retired and live in Rockdale County. Asked, "Do you prefer to be called chaplain or pastor?" Onstad replied, "I'm retired now. Call me Bud."