Although intentionally avoiding television news of the war in Iraq, Kristen Hager's heartfelt prayers were never far from the war zone. Bryan, her husband of five years, was piloting a Navy plane over treacherous ground for much of the time during a six-month deployment to Italy.

Kristen said her prayer life multiplied during Bryan's deployment. "You realize how much you don't pray before they leave, because your prayer life increases so much when they go overseas and you know they are in harm's way on a daily basis," she said. She prayed for his safety and for his wisdom in making decisions in tough situations.

She also invested in a continuous supply of greeting cards to send to him, mailing one every day. "I should have bought stock in Hallmark," she quipped. Although they talked by phone and e-mail daily, the cards provided a tangible link for the couple.

Kristen held the last card as she waited for the familiar drone of jet engines to signal Bryan's arrival back home Dec. 5 at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla. She waited with several other wives, members of the spouses' club, in a cavernous hangar. With this "tight group of ladies," Kristen studied Stormie Omartian's book, "The Power of a Praying Wife," and the Bible. They took turns offering hope and support.

"When one of them was down, we would go and take them ice cream, and sit with them and cry or laugh or bring a movie - whatever we needed to do," she said. "They are going through the same thing. They can totally understand your emotions and everything you are feeling in that situation."

Exactly when expected, Lieutenant Bryan Hager's P3 circled the airfield and delivered 11 crew members to joyous family reunions.

Bryan was the first one off the plane. Red roses in hand, the 28-year-old pilot bounded into Kristen's arms. After several minutes of hugs and kisses, he read Kristen's final card. He grinned, but declined to disclose its contents.

"It is good to be home. I'm glad we are finally back," Bryan told the Florida Baptist Witness only minutes after his homecoming. Although happy to serve his country, he said, "I'm just glad to be back with my wife."

The couple met in 1997 when both were students at Texas A&M University and attended the same church, Central Baptist Church in College Station. When they married in 1999 and graduated, Bryan took the former Kristen Dunn, who lived in the same house from birth until college, from Texas into a nomadic military lifestyle.

"I swore up and down I would never marry a military man, but God changed my heart, and I'm glad He did," Kristen said.

Bryan is one of three brothers serving in the military. The others are Marines. Garrett recently returned from Iraq while Michael, the youngest, will arrive in Iraq in February. For the first time in three years, everyone in the family will go home for Christmas to Bangs, Texas, "a little bitty farm town," as Kristen described it.

Bryan's hometown, with 1,500 residents, had three churches when he was growing up, and the churches took turns hosting the Cub Scouts. Although Bryan had been in the Church of Christ since his birth, he made a profession of faith in the Baptist church and joined there during junior high. The couple has attended Baptist churches wherever their deployments have taken them.

The couple are members of Fruit Cove Baptist Church in Jacksonville, where Bryan teaches a Sunday School class of young married couples and Kristen volunteers in the recreation ministry. During Bryan's deployment, another Navy pilot manned his teaching position. Luke Patterson served with Bryan in Pensacola, Corpus Christi and Jacksonville; he left earlier this month to serve in the same region as Bryan. Bryan returned to his class Dec. 12.

Both Bryan and Kristen are grateful for their church family. While Bryan was away, church members called Kristen to ask if they could help with yard work and sent cards of encouragement and prayers.

"They have rallied around me and were always checking on me, making sure I'm doing OK and not having a nervous breakdown or anything like that," she said. Bryan attended Calvary Baptist Church in Sigonella, Italy, while he was away, although his seven-day schedule prevented his attending regularly. "We don't have weekends, and so practically every Sunday I was flying or on the ready or had to go to work," Bryan said. "It will be nice to get back to my home church." Bryan said he missed Kristen the most when sleeping in a tent in Kandahar, Afghanistan, with 12 other servicemen as the temperature soared to 120 degrees. In addition to other responsibilities, his outfit provided reconnaissance and surveillance - direct support to Marines and others on the ground.

His faith, Bryan said, enabled him to face times when he felt endangered. "I would say the best thing about having assurance with Christ is that you don't have to worry day to day. There are guys over there .. who don't know what tomorrow holds. Whereas with me, if tomorrow ended, I'd know where I would be. That's comforting," he said.

His commanding officer, Commander Chuck Hollingsworth, was an inspiration to the junior officer, who calls Hollingsworth his mentor. "He is a solid man and totally set the example on the squadron. The squadron has become one of the premier squadrons because of his leadership. His walk is beyond reproach and he's a steady, godly man."

He also found Kristen's daily cards a comfort. After the cards started coming in mid-July, Bryan noticed that each one had a date on the bottom. Sometimes 12 cards would arrive together.

"It was like the highlight of my deployment because I always had something waiting for me when I got to the squadron. There would be a card there. Even when I was in Bahrain and Kandahar, they managed to make their way out there as well. It was like a piece of home."

The Hagers are "up for orders" soon but hope to stay in Jacksonville. However, they are content in knowing the Navy's orders do not affect God's plan.

"To me, God puts people where they work for a reason. He put me in this position so that I can affect the people I'm around. I don't believe I'm here by accident. I am where I am today because, apparently, He has other people who He wants me to share the Gospel with," Bryan said. "In effect, my work is my mission field."


Carolyn Nichols is a newswriter for the Florida Baptist Witness; Joni B. Hannigan is the paper's managing editor. Access articles online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.


© 2004 Baptist Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.