Carroll shares his walk in faith: Wrens pastor, former Army and hospital chaplain, retires after 60 years of active service
Wednesday, July 5, 2017 - 3:30pm
Some people discover their faith late in life, near the end of their journey. Others reach out after a stumble or fall, and find it there, a firm handle to help them get back up. Emmitt “Tip” Carroll’s walk with God began the day he was born.
“People say that, but it’s a fact,” Carroll said. “When I was born in rural Kentucky in the early ‘30s, actually in a church parsonage, I was a blue baby and there was no doctor or mid-wife present. The doctor came in the next day and said to mama, ‘That son of a gun is still alive.’ He’s been with me from day one. There’s no denying it.”
Carroll’s walk has led down many a winding path, to meetings with renowned civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Korea and later Vietnam where he jumped out of airplanes and performed services for enlisted men under mortar fire, to hospitals where he delivered babies and eventually into classrooms in Jefferson County.
After 60 years of active service preaching, Carroll, who will be 83 this summer, retired this past Christmas from the pulpit, and while it may have slowed its pace from a brisk jog to a leisurely stroll, his walk in faith continues.
Sitting in his Russell Street living room surrounded by modest mementoes of a life well-lived, Carroll tells the stories behind the mile markers: a clay oil lamp from Jerusalem, a tiger’s eye ring made by a man who helped protect the Dead Sea Scrolls, his own field communion kit he used to serve fellow soldiers fighting on foreign soil.
While he talks, Carroll’s hand wanders down to a cast iron cross hanging from a chain on his belt.
“I’ve had this since I was 15, that’s 67 years,” he said, running his grooved and lined fingers over the dark metal. The cross is formed from three large nails that have been bent and wrapped with wire. “The only time I didn’t wear it was when I was in uniform and even then I had it in my pocket.”
He collected the nails himself while helping a fellow church member in Little Rock, Ky., remodel an old log church at Cane Ridge.
“Those nails are original from that church that was built about 300 years ago, in the late 1700s,” Carroll said. “Incidentally, Cane Ridge is one of the places where the Christian Church Disciples was founded.”
It’s the denomination that would later ordain him.
While he originally thought he would be a doctor, something inside whispered of a fork in the path, a future he could not forsee. For two years he took pre-med classes, but as the Korean War began, he enlisted before those whispers could lead away from the classroom where he could be drafted.
His father was a minister in Montgomery, Ala., at the time and on weekends Carroll would take the bus down to visit.
“That’s where I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Page for the first time,” he said. “I got to know them pretty well. I was up at Dexter Avenue for several things that went on then. One of my prize possessions I had for years was a ticket complements of the Montgomery police for operating an illegal bus line. That was when the boycott was going on. I got the ticket, did a U turn and picked up some more people.”
It was during these weekend commutes that he gave his seat to a girl on a bus who eventually introduced him to Kathy, the woman who would become his wife.
They had dated just a few times before he was temporarily assigned to Fort Slocum, N.Y.
“The Lord still had His hand on me because not only was the Army information school there, but so was the Army’s chaplain school,” Carroll said. “So every day I saw those chaplains there too. After a couple of weeks I told the Lord, ‘Ok, you’ve got me.’”
Carroll’s father had served as a chaplain in World War II in the Pacific theater, had signed a waiver to serve because he was older than the Army preferred. His stories of a higher service in the armed services had made an impression on his son.
“I called Kathy on the phone and asked her if she could be married to a preacher and she said, well, she reckoned she could,” he said.
They were married that July 23 after having known each other only a few months.
“I totally advise anybody not to do what we did,” he said. “But we were together 56 and a half years when she died.”
Carroll was 22 when he was ordained, catching the tail end of the Korean War.
The role of a chaplain in active duty during a military campaign involves both ministry and counseling.
“I was trying to get the guys to really not be afraid, to acclimate as well as possible,” Carroll said. “Every day, as I went out into the field, I would pause a moment and say, ‘OK Lord, let’s go.’
“When I say that, it may sound like a simple phrase, ‘OK, Lord, let’s go,’ but I still do that to this day because I’m not going to step out the door without the Lord with me. And that is what I try to tell people. He’s here. Just let yourself open and He’ll be with you.”
Both in Korea and later, after beginning his family, he served as a paratrooping chaplain during the Vietnam War, ministering to the fighting men, praying with them, providing what he could, even when it was a funeral.
“I was there with them and knew what they were going through, what they were struggling with,” Carroll said.
He was the 30th US Army chaplain deployed to Vietnam, he said. When he left there were 300.
“That amounted to the buildup between 30,000 and 300,000 troops,” he said. “I went to jump school so I wouldn’t have any restrictions on my assignments. I laughingly said I did it so I could sing ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ with more enthusiasm.”
He covered units all over the third and fourth corps, including a ranger unit that was conducting a Vietnamese jump school. If they had a jump scheduled on the days he dropped by, then he would go with them.
“I wasn’t assigned to an aviation unit but had enough hours to earn two air medals,” Carroll said.
His services there were in high demand. He might be in Cam Ranh on the coast in the morning and up on the Cambodian border the same night. Through it all, he always felt the Lord was with him.
“I was one of the few protestants in Vietnam who would do Catholic last rights,” he said. “People ask me how I could do that and I ask them how I could deny anyone their relationship with the Lord.
“That’s the biggest problem we have. Too often we get hung up on add-ons instead of essentials. The one thing required is the relationship with Christ, God’s son, as their Lord and savior. All the other stuff is what we add on to it and that’s what messes us up.”
He remembers one particular jump north of Seoul.
“We had Vietnamese pilots on the choppers and, well, they made a mistake,” Carroll said. “I was usually the first one out and the jump sergeant would be the last one out on the stick. This time the jump light came on at the end of the drop zone instead of the beginning and we had people spread all over. Only two of us made it to the jump area. Eventually we got everybody together and made it back to the compound. As we walked in we got a call on the radio that the bridge we had just crossed not five minutes before had been demolished by the Vietcong.”
Other times they were not as lucky.
On Palm Sunday in 1966 he held a morning service at Tan Son Nhut air base. By that afternoon a load of new soldiers had come in that they were not expecting.
“Once we got them all settled, some came up to me and asked if we could have a communion service,” Carroll said. “I had my field kit with me and we were having a communion service there in the open.”
That’s when the explosions began. Sirens, earth-bound thunder, flying dirt, smoke, screams.
“It was a mortar attack and they knew just what they were doing,” Carroll said. “Our radar went down and the air field was hit hard.”
The next day, with his hand bandaged, he held a memorial service for the 12 men who were killed during that Palm Sunday bombing.
In 1969, with his wife and four boys at home, he was sent back to Korea.
While there he was in a reinforced brigade up on the demilitarized zone that was supposed to have five chaplains, but just had him.
“I had five services every Sunday and several Koreans attended the services, some because they were Christian and others to practice their English,” he said.
It was during one of these services that a woman came to him and told him about her sister’s daughter who had been abandoned by her family.
“We don’t understand those things here, but over there a woman had no status,” Carroll said. “Her father didn’t want her and her mother was disgraced. The cousin was trying to raise her the best she could, but then had also taken over care of her grandparents.
“Angie was so weak from malnutrition that she couldn’t hold her head up, but she wrinkled her nose at me and that was the ball game right there.”
Kathy, his wife, had been legally adopted in the early 1940s when it was much more uncommon.
“I called Kathy and she told me to go for it,” Carroll said.
He went into Seoul where an adoption agency told him how much it would cost and all the criteria that had to be met. Carroll was scheduled to go home in just a matter of months and there were so many requirements like proof of abandonment, an extensive physical, a home study and a great deal of paperwork that had to be completed.
It turned out that a fraternity brother of Carroll’s had recently been named international adoption specialist for the state of Kentucky the same month Carroll shipped out for Korea. His friend, recognizing the name, made sure no part of the process was delayed and when he flew home, he brought the newest member of his family along.
“God had His hand in it,” Carroll said. “It’s just impossible to say otherwise. And now there are three generations of adoptions in our family.”
When he returned from Korea, he supplied Presbyterian and Associated Reformed churches until his superiors noticed in his records that he had previously had two years of pre-medicine experience. The next year he was sent for training to Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn as a hospital chaplain.
“Being a hospital chaplain in the military is not like being a chaplain in a regular hospital,” he explained. “There, you’re considered medical staff too. I’ve started CPR many times and served in other capacities. One time, in this one hospital, they had five girls come in and go into labor at the same time and they only had two other people on staff that night. One of the doctors turned to me and said, ‘Chaplain, that’s one’s yours.”
That night he delivered his first baby.
He was later stationed as a hospital chaplain first in Fort Knox, Ky. then in Germany.
Once he came off active duty, Carroll said he was a trouble shooter for the church. He served in Winder, Ga., then in Pennsylvania, then was over in Alabama where he started a boys and girls club in Gadston. Then he served churches in Oklahoma for a while before he and Cathy and their family came back to Winder because Cathy had a teaching position open there.
“I’ve always preferred working at smaller churches,” he said. “That’s always been my thing. I ended up teaching as well so I could work with small churches.”
Teaching jobs in Jefferson County brought his family here 27 years ago and since then he has served churches across the area.
He taught special education in Wrens for years and served on the citizens review panel in Jefferson County for about four years and in Richmond County for 16 years. He served as a Wrens city councilman for three years.
For the last six years he has been the pastor at Central Christian Church in Augusta.
He decided to retire from active service in December after falling while visiting patients at an Augusta hospital.
“Physically, there are parts of it I just can’t do anymore,” he said.
Carroll is quick to point out that it is the active ministry he is retiring from. He expects he still has plenty of preaching left to do.
“My faith has become so much more solid because I have seen where the only explanation is the Lord’s presence,” he said. “It’s easy to read a book and say this is what it is supposed to be, but when you just automatically see Him and how things work out, that’s different. Luck doesn’t explain it. Only the Lord’s presence can.”
Carroll is proud of the path he has walked, and while he loves to talk about all the places it has taken him, his many surprising stops along the way, he knows that his final destination, regardless of the route left ahead of him, has never been in question.