Four Lessons I Learned From the Army, Outdoors, and My Faith. Pt.1

Recently a friend asked me, “What did you learn from your time in the Army and the outdoors and how does it apply to your Christian life?”  So, after thinking about it, I have come up with four lessons.

Mentoring/Discipleship/Shared Life

I celebrated my 18th birthday at the US Army Rotary Wing Aviation Course and my 20th birthday after returning from Viet Nam with over 1,000 hours of combat flying. I served as an Army helicopter pilot in the 101st Airborne. Our company call sign was Ghost Riders. I was/am Ghost Rider 54. Our company was a highly decorated unit. We flew in I Corps, which was in the mountains along the Demilitarized Zone and Laos. During its time in Viet Nam the company earned two Presidential Unit Citations (for Ripcord and Lam Son 719). At last year’s reunion in D.C. a Pentagon representative said there were only 14 given during the war. Off hand, I can think of four or five men who earned or were recommended for Silver Stars. Most of the pilots earned Distinguished Flying Crosses. The  unit flew in support of troops at Hamburger Hill, the A Shau Valley, Ripcord, and Lam Son 719. All of the major combat events in I Corps during the units time in country.  Through all of these actions we had a low casualty rate. This was not by accident. Helicopter pilots arrived in Viet Nam with about 200 hours. We could fly the aircraft but we were a long way from being real pilots.  The first 350-500 hours of flying in-country were spent as a Peter Pilot. Sitting in the right seat we had to learn the skills to hover with one skid on a ridge line while heavily loaded troops would climb on or off the aircraft. We were expected to hover down 150 feet into jungle landing zones with just a few feet clearance on each side. The pilot would focus on the trees a few feet from the rotor blades while moving the tailboom a foot or two left or right depending on the directions of the crewchief and doorgunner.  We were expected to be able to operate in the mountains with maximum loads under all sorts of conditions. All of this was to be done while taking enemy fire.  An aircraft commander could drop through an opening in the clouds and know where he was by looking at a river valley or hillside.  That did not happen by accident. Aircraft commanders were expected to pass on all of their skills and knowledge to the new guys. Some pilots never made AC because of lack of skills or mental toughness. We all knew that one day we would go home and we would turn our aircraft and crew over to one of the new guys. I wanted my crewchief and gunner to come home safe. That meant I needed to make sure my replacement was well trained. We understood the difference between a guy with wings and a real combat pilot required mentoring. Pilots would enter the company and spend months flying with the experienced AC’s. When the old guys DEROSed (went home) the new “old guys” would pass on the unit traditions, knowledge, and skills to the new “new guys”.  I knew the names of the aircraft commanders who had taught my aircraft commanders. It was an unbroken chain of mentoring. It was more than a transference of information. Ghost Riders believed in a shared live. We did everything together. That is why we are still a part of each others’ lives forty plus years later.

I also learned the importance of this when I was commercial fishing in SE Alaska. I was a good sport fisherman, but then I began long-lining for halibut and trolling for salmon. I had an Oregon dory with a small cabin and I would go out for three to five days at a time. I was OK, but knew I did not know all I needed. One of the top handtrollers in Southeast Alaska was a guy named Mick. I don’t know why Mick took pity on me. I think it was because I was a hard worker. I was usually right in front or behind him pulling out of the anchorage each morning and was one of the last boats to come in to anchor at night. I usually put in 20 hour days. One night Mick invited me over to his boat to mug up. (You grab your coffee, or hot chocolate, mug and sit around the galley stove.) From that night on, I would anchor up, clean my gear, and then sit with Mick as he taught me to rig gear, how to fish, when to fish, everything I needed to know as a fisherman. This was unusual because commercial fishermen are secretive. Mentoring was not a commonly used word at that time, but that was what Mick did.

Jesus’ ministry was one of mentoring. The Bible calls this discipleship. Everyday Peter, James, John, and the others watched Jesus minister and teach. They asked him questions. They watched him serve people. So many of the passages in the Gospels could be described as  serendipitous. A great example was when Jesus was walking through the wheat field on a Sabbath (Matthew 12). He “harvested” and milled the wheat causing the Pharisees to accuse Jesus and the disciples of breaking the Sabbath. Jesus then taught about the purpose of the Sabbath. When you share life, the teacher does not present a canned lesson, he answers the student’s questions as they arise from day to day life.  After Jesus ascended into heaven his enemies commented that it was clear His disciples were just like Jesus. I have been blessed over the years since Viet Nam to be discipled/mentored by older Christians. I learned about being a father, husband, and man through them. In turn I like to think my three sons are better Christian men, husbands and fathers because of their time with me.

I have long said after Viet Nam I knew more about how to be a “real helicopter pilot” than living the Christian life. On one hand I was mentored; on the other I was not. In truth, both settings are war zones. Survival and victory depend on each generation passing on the knowledge and skills to the next.


Spring and preparing for the harvest.

I love this time of year. This past winter has been cool and wet enough that it was hard to get enthused about riding my bike enough to stay in shape. Winter is a time of tarped boats and occasional rides. When I lived in Alaska it was a time to ski and ice climb. This part of North Carolina is too cold for summer sports and too warm for winter sports. So, winter is a time to rest a bit and recharge. Then comes spring. When I commercial fished in Alaska spring was filled with cleaning and rigging the boat, checking and tying new gear, and counting down the days until the king salmon showed up in numbers. Spring was a time of anticipation, and preparation.

We need times of refreshing. Ecclesiastes 3 declares there is a season for everything. There are times for sabbaticals, but a never ending sabbatical is called laziness. I have found it hard to shift from resting  to activity. After sitting in neutral it is just hard for me to shift back into high gear. You may have the same problem. If so, then perhaps, the following motivational tools I use could benefit you.

Set a goal with a “price”. During the winter I ride a couple of times a week if the weather is good. It is hard to shift into a daily ride mode,  which I desperately need to shed my winter weight gain. In January I register (and pay) to participate in a major ride. Usually I ride a century (100 miles in one day) at the end of April. This year I am riding a 75 mile ride from Emerald Isle to Harker’s Island and back. These rides are fun, but require preparation. I know it will be agony to ride the mileage if I have not prepared, and I won’t back out because I paid to enter. I have a ten week training program which adds mileage each week. At the end of February my lazy side does not want to go for a ride, but I know the “price” of not going. I have a goal with a timeline that will not change. On May 5 I will either enjoy a great ride with a friend, or I will suffer for five hours, or forfeit the fee.

Find a partner. Last spring my middle son committed to riding a century with me the end of April. He was living in Macon so we could not train together, but we would often compare training rides using a smartphone app. This year a former colleague, John, approached me about “Ride the Bank.” John and I were professors together a few years ago. At that time neither of us rode. Since then John began doing triathlons and I started riding centuries. John wanted to try his hand at longer rides (he is used to 18-20 milers), and had heard I was riding. So John and I meet two or three times a week to train together. We have busy schedules so we can’t ride everyday at the same time. We are riding on our own, but the common training sessions help us stay accountable. For a couple of old guys we are doing pretty good.

Related to both of the above is the motivation of making it public. Before my first long ride I made sure my family knew, so I could not back out. (It was nice to hear the grand-kids express their pride when I completed it.) Recently, I used this tool in my small group. For several years I have done little scripture memorization work. In the past I memorized Colossians and Titus, but then stopped. I took a sabbatical from memorizing new material. It was comfortable just repeating those books on a regular basis. Some days I would not quote any scriptures. Last month, two of our small group members talked about the book of James. Their comments were not about memorization, just about how James blessed them. I was convicted that I could have memorized the book if I had not taken a “sabbatical” from memorization. Actually, sabbatical is just a term to make me feel better. I had become lazy in regards to committing God’s word to memory. I was satisfied with maintaining the status quo. That night I made a public commitment to memorize James. Now, I am making a commitment to  not stop with James. The days I start to skip my memory work I think of my small group members and my commitment to them.

I enjoy cycling. There is a sense of accomplishment when I finish a hard ride. I started riding as a means of exercising. I cannot stand working out in a gym or running. Riding a bike is like being a kid again. I determined that I want to be active when I am in my eighties. I also realized for that to happen, I could not wait until I am eighty to begin exercising. I am investing now for a goal years away. In the same fashion, I want to be a godly man who knows God’s word. I have always admired those elderly saints that exude God’s love and have His word hidden in their hearts. That will not take place unless I prepare now.

God rested on the seventh day to demonstrate our need for rest. God did not create everything in one day, though He could have, and then take six days of rest. We will have times that we need to take a break, but then we need to return to work. Jesus looked upon the multitude and encouraged his disciples to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send forth laborers into the harvest. (Matt 9:37-38)  Winter is over. Spring is here. Summer is coming, and then the harvest. Will we be ready? Set the goal. Pay a price. Make it public. Find that yoke fellow who will challenge you and hold you accountable. Everything we invest now will come back as a blessing when we stand before the Lord of the Harvest. The fields are white unto harvest.

Simple Discipleship: A Resource for the Church

For over a decade I have been teaching evangelism and church planting courses, and for the last eighteen months a discipleship class for Liberty Seminary.  There are numerous discipleship materials available, but few walk a pastor through the implementation of a comprehensive strategy. Another major deficiency common in the genre is the lack of assessment strategies. We want to make disciples, but never have a means to evaluate if we are truly accomplishing the task. As a result, little changes. Tom Cocklereece’s Simple Discipleship satisfies these concerns. The following will give you an overview of the text.  This would be a great addition to your ministry library.   Remember, the Great Commission is all about making disciples, which encompasses evangelism, missions, and results in church planting.  -Bill

Simple Discipleship: A Comprehensive Disciple-Making Plan

Many people think that Simple Discipleship (SD) is merely a collection of Bible studies designed to enhance the spiritual growth of individuals, but that does not describe SD. Simple Discipleship grew out of my reading of Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger in which they challenged pastors to become designers of disciple-making ministries. Happily, many pastors have accepted the challenge, but organizational development is not a strong point for many church leaders. I was immediately attracted to the challenge. I observed that while Simple Church listed four characteristics of disciple-making churches (clarity, measurement, alignment, focus), the authors did not provide sufficient detail as to how church leaders might develop a ministry that was in fact a simple church. In short, to develop and write Simple Discipleship I took their work to a new level. Perhaps a look at disciple-making methods would be useful, as there are six disciple-making methods used in varying degrees by church leaders:

  1. Platform Discipleship- Virtually all churches use platform discipleship as the pastors preach and teach during the worship and Bible study time each week using sermons, sermon series, testimonies, drama, and other worship arts. In Simple Discipleship it applies to the Worship dimension in which people Connect with Jesus Christ.
  2. Program Discipleship- Many churches employ programs that use curricula that is developed by their denomination or other organization outside the immediate church. Think of programs as already prepared spiritual meals for various aged groups and provided to help people spiritually grow. Many churches administer all of their primary ministries using a program approach. Large churches use this method as it is an easy delivery system for large groups of people. However, the effectiveness is difficult to measure and the programs can become self perpetuating silo-style ministries that may or may not be effective.
  3. Peer-group Discipleship- When people join a small group Bible study, they become part of a partnership with everyone in the cluster. We might call this koinonia or fellowship disciple-making. The strength of this method is that it provides collaboration and cooperation in an accountability format that is caring for all involved.
  4. Personal Discipleship- One-on-one discipleship may be the least used by churches even though Jesus Christ used it with great effectiveness. It requires commitment and the development of discipleship coaches and leaders who are proficient in developing other people as they grow spiritually.
  5. Proficiency Discipleship- One may think of the three years the apostles spent with Jesus as he helped guide them to become the leaders of the church after his ascension. It may include aspects of each of the other methods listed above.
  6. Process Discipleship- This is the preferred method, as it not only incorporates all of the other five methods, but it also does so with an intentional desire to move people from where they are presently to the next level of spiritual growth. Additionally, process discipleship recognizes the need for spiritual balance as growing disciples must be actively involved in worship, Bible study, ministry in the church, and sharing Christ outside the church.

In short, Simple Discipleship is a ubiquitous disciple-making strategy using platform, program, peer-group, personal, and proficiency discipleship delivered in a process manner. Use of the material presented in the book Simple Discipleship will provide church leaders with a new comprehensive disciple-making plan that will grow people and grow their churches.

Find out more and order the book from

Dr. Tom Cocklereece