Beginning in early childhood, Jarrod Johnson had a desire to join the Marines.
In early adolescence he sensed a calling to ministry.
As an adult, Johnson has fulfilled both passions, with an unexpected turn or two in the road along the way.
Last month, Johnson became an ordained Assemblies of God Navy chaplain — a decade after training snipers as a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant.
Johnson’s ministry plans derailed in his early teenage years around the time his parents divorced. The family breakdown intensified a rebellious period as he grew up in the small central Iowa town of Roland.
Right after high school, Johnson enlisted in the Marine infantry.
During his four-year hitch, Johnson served in South Korea, Okinawa and ultimately Hawaii. He trained in jungles and at sea.
Marine officials who reviewed his early instruction records selected Johnson for the sniper platoon. Johnson consented, and endured five months of rigorous mental and physical training at three different sniper schools. By age 19, Johnson had become one in an elite crowd of professional marksmen.
Certainly Johnson isn’t the Hollywood caricature of a sniper: a cold-blooded killer without moral boundaries. He’s friendly, smiling, personable and talkative.
Still, snipers are a special breed. They must be highly disciplined and responsible, ready for any real-life crisis situation.
“I didn’t struggle with the thought of taking out a target,” Johnson says. “But I wasn’t in combat situations, so I never was faced with looking through a scope and squeezing the trigger to kill a person.”
By the end of his third year of duty, Johnson says he felt the tug of the Lord drawing him back to the faith of his childhood. Every Sunday morning at Ames (Iowa) First Assembly of God, Johnson’s mother, Jan, and several ladies in her Sunday School class fervently prayed the young man would stop running from God. Johnson’s father, Ron, offered similar petitions during the years of his son’s Marine duties.
One Sunday, Johnson wandered into Kailua (Hawaii) Assembly of God. There, he says, Pastor Jerald Ogg and the church family began offering support and compassion, while demonstrating the value of relationships in a church body. In January 1998, as he began his final year in the Marines, Johnson rededicated his life to God as he began to serve as a sniper instructor at Kaneohe Marine Corps Base.
Simultaneously, he grew closer to the Lord and sought God’s greater plan for his life. He says God gave him new desires — for a wife and family.
Two months after Johnson started attending Kailua AG, Synthia Smalley committed her life to Jesus at the church. Synthia’s parents had divorced when she was 11, and she became heavily involved in the Mormon church in Roy, Utah, where her remarried father — an Air Force retiree — lived. Synthia’s involvement with Mormonism declined as a teenager, and she entered the military at 18. She transferred to Kaneohe as a Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class after being stationed in Florida and Illinois.
Jarrod and Synthia became friends while attending a church-sponsored home Bible study. The couple wed in January 1999, a month after Jarrod finished his tour of duty and four months before Synthia concluded her six-year stretch.
As thoughts of ministry repeatedly surfaced, Jarrod enrolled at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo. But he didn’t think about becoming a chaplain until his final semester at the school.
“I thought chaplains just sat behind desks on bases and conducted ceremonies, but over time I realized the enormous opportunities for ministry,” Johnson says. “Unlike a pastor, a chaplain has access to the workspaces and everyday lives of people. They don’t have to come to me.”
Johnson, 32, says God confirmed and strengthened the chaplaincy calling during his education at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield. After graduating from AGTS last month, Johnson initially will be stationed at Naval Base San Diego.
Scott McChrystal, military endorser for the Assemblies of God, says Johnson’s prior experience in the Marines puts him in a unique position to form relationships with military personnel on their own turf.
“He understands military culture and has an intense desire to take the gospel message to men, women and families who comprise the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard,” McChrystal says.
Johnson says he knows firsthand there can be a disconnect between enlisted personnel and officers, especially a chaplain. “But because I have served before, I can relate better to the things they’re going through,” Johnson says.
While there are only about 15 snipers for every 1,000 Marines, chaplains are even more rare. When Johnson is deployed — as he soon expects to be — he may be the only chaplain on the ship.
“I know from my own experience they won’t seek out a chaplain they don’t know or ever see,” Johnson says. “But God allows chaplains to have a season or just an instance to interact with and intervene in the lives of others. These can be transformational times.”
Although Synthia has relinquished her military career, she is looking forward to ministering to young wives going through difficulties adjusting to their husbands’ deployment or other family stress issues. Because Synthia has lived the military life, she says it won’t be a culture shock when Jarrod is deployed. For now, her calling is family. She homeschools the couple’s three children: Rachel, 8; Emily, 6; and Nathanael, 3.
“Being a mom is where my desire is now,” Synthia says. “I still get to enjoy the military vicariously through my husband, without being on active duty.”
Johnson says he misses the camaraderie of his Marine days and he stays in touch with several of his fellow snipers who have moved up in the ranks. But Johnson says he is sure he is on the right assignment. He cites Proverbs 19:21 as a key verse for directing his life: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (NIV).
“I’m thankful God is the One who opens and closes doors,” Johnson says. “God has lined up the desires of my heart.”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).