Story By Connie Mcdougall
Just over 30 years ago, Gaylord "GT" Gunhus was a brand new Army chaplain. Under most circumstances he could expect to spend two years in a church learning the "people side" of his calling.
"But this was the '60s," Gunhus remembers, "and the Army was taking anybody. They sent me right from seminary to Vietnam."
Snatched from the quiet study of theology, Gunhus found the chaos of Vietnam overwhelming. "Man, I tell you," says the 1962 graduate of Seattle Pacific. "I learned from the school of hard knocks."
That, and a lifetime of experiences all over the world, taught him well. So well that in June 1999, Brigadier General Gunhus was promoted to major general and made chief of chaplains for the entire United States Army. He was nominated for the position by President Clinton and confirmed by the U.S. Congress.
Gunhus' goals have changed little from the days in Southeast Asia. "It's all about the soldier," he says. "We have to go to the hurting soldier."
Serving soldiers comes naturally to Gunhus since his own father was a career Army chaplain. "My dad went to the South Pacific during World War II, and our family stayed in Seattle where my grandparents lived," Gunhus says.
Reunited after the war, the family moved to Japan, an experience that broadened Gunhus' worldview. "I remember a houseboy next door who took me to climb mountains, and he showed me how to dig crystals out of the ground."
Gunhus finished high school in Seattle and attended a year of college in Germany. Then, he entered Seattle Pacific College. "Seattle was the one constant in my life, and I picked SPC because it was the first to accept my application," he laughs.
He has fond memories of his teachers, including Professor of Religion Donald Demaray, Professor of Biology Harold Wiebe and Professor of History Roy Swanstrom. In fact, Gunhus gives Seattle Pacific much credit for his success. "It was a significant influence on me because of the leadership skills I learned and the spiritual emphasis there," he says.
In basic training for Army chaplains, he was joined by several other Seattle Pacific alums: Harry Timm '53, Virgil Iverson '56 and Don Kochanek '58. Later, Gunhus would work with fellow grad Victor Langford '71, who now serves as his assistant chief of chaplains.
Today, Gunhus chats weekly with Timm as his friend fights cancer, and Timm is grateful for the support. "GT is a great Christian brother," he says. "He's warm, energetic and very dedicated."
Timm adds that their little group of "SPC" chaplains thought Gunhus would be top brass someday. "We kidded him about it because he was so focused," Timm says. "He's the right guy for the job because relationships are important to him."
"I hate to see death, but I think, if I'm not there, who would be? No one wants to die alone and without hope."
Which may be why Vietnam was especially horrific for Gunhus. He remembers rampant drug use, demoralized troops, and unrelenting danger. "There was no safe haven there. The enemy was all around and even in the camps we were fired upon."
Two weeks into it, Gunhus was badly shaken. "I was scared to death of dying because of my family. I knew how much they would suffer, what life would be like for them."
One night in a bunker, he made a decision. "I was listening to a tape from my family and I got to thinking, ‘Lord, I can't live this way. I'm not any good for the soldiers if I'm worried about dying all the time. So I'm going to give this all up to you. And if I die, I expect you to take care of my family.'"
His sense of dread ebbed. "I had to take care of soldiers who were facing death all the time, every day. Giving it to God became the peace I found there."
Gunhus survived Vietnam and thrived, launching a career that took him around the globe, including Korea, Germany, Italy and Greece. Many times he's held the hand of a dying soldier, what he calls a "bittersweet" experience. "I hate to see death, but I think, if I'm not there, who would be? No one wants to die alone and without hope."
Witnessing the Gunhus swearing-in ceremony at Fort Myers, Virginia, on June 18 was his former SPC roommate, Bob Screen '64, now vice chair of the Seattle Pacific Board of Trustees. "In his speech, GT gave the credit to everyone else — his parents, even a neighbor in Minnesota who watched over his family when he was in Vietnam."
Screen says this down-to-earth attitude makes Gunhus popular with everyone. "He's so real, so authentic. It's one of the qualities that's endeared him to Army brass."
And to the rank and file. Gunhus became a paratrooper to earn credibility with the average GI. "They wanted me to jump first," he recalls. "They figured if the chaplain gets through it OK, so would they."
He talks with humor about the straight and narrow life: "I give all my new chaplains my ‘SAM' speech, and that's ‘no sex, alcohol or money.'" He refers to his office building, the Pentagon, as "the puzzle palace."
As the Army's new chief of chaplains, Gunhus will influence more people than ever before, but his focus remains the same. "My whole existence is to support soldiers," he says. "I don't have any other reason for being. For me, it's the ultimate ministry."