Lying face down in jet fuel and pinned under part of an aircraft engine, U.S. Army Chaplain Jeff L. Jay didn’t expect to live.
The airfield runway near Mosul, Iraq, had been under construction in late 2004. On Dec. 29, a C-130 cargo plane carrying Jay and other military personnel prepared to land. At 2:30 a.m., the plane crashed into a hole 74 feet wide, 87 feet long, and 3½ feet deep. The front landing gear broke off. The bottom 3½ feet of the plane peeled off.
“Everybody on the cargo deck was scattered all over the runway,” Jay recalls. “Every one of the passengers was injured.”
No passenger died. But with extensive injuries, including a severely fractured skull, Jay’s chance of survival looked bleak.
Almost 15 years later, Jay is pastor of Lighthouse Community Assembly of God in Minatare and chaplain at Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, both in Nebraska. The husband and father of five is an endorsed AG U.S. Missions hospital chaplain.
At 52, he recalls his ministry’s flight plan. Born in Scottsbluff, Jay joined the Army in 1984. Although he’d grown up in a Christian home, he became an alcoholic. But in 1989, he had an encounter with God that turned his life around. The following year he married his wife, Lisa.
Jay graduated from the AG’s Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, North Dakota, in 1993. While he served as interim pastor at First Assembly of God in Scottsbluff in 1997, Lisa had a vision from the Lord showing Jeff in a military chaplain’s uniform.
When Lisa announced plans to enter the military, Jeff went with her to a recruiter. The recruiter asked if Jay knew about army chaplains.
“When he said chaplain, the spirit jumped in me,” Jay says. But he didn’t realize he’d need to go to seminary.
Even though Jeff questioned his educational capabilities, he, Lisa, and their three young daughters — Kourtney, Brittney, and Heather — moved to Springfield, Missouri. He graduated from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in 2000.
“The Lord absolutely grew me during those years,” Jay remembers. “He really prepared me to do military ministry.”
Jay served as an active duty chaplain for 16 years, twice seeing combat in Iraq. The plane wreck occurred only 1½ months after his first deployment to Mosul. Jay, asleep at the time, has no memory of the crash.
One of the engines blew up on impact, with parts of it landing on Jay, smashing half his skull, rupturing his eardrums, and breaking his jaw. He also had five broken ribs, internal injuries, and a damaged spine. The past six years of his memory had been wiped out.
When Lisa first saw him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., she didn’t recognize him.
After convalescent leave for 90 days in Colorado Springs, Jay returned to Walter Reed for every kind of therapy imaginable.
“What they didn’t know was that the Lord had done something miraculous,” he says.
He passed tests with flying colors, and three months later received a clean bill of health. However, due to the head trauma, Jays says he couldn’t experience emotions for the next seven years.
“I didn’t have fear,” he says. “I didn’t experience hunger and, other than yawning, I didn’t know when I was tired,” Jay says. “So some things weren’t working correctly.”
Then came another deployment to Iraq, this time in an infantry battalion during 15 months of the U.S. military surge in 2006-07.
“It was very brutal, bloody, terrible fighting,” Jay says. “I lost 15 of my guys.”
Back in the U.S., he performed a memorial service for the family of a soldier who’d attended weekly church services in Iraq. The soldier’s mom said the young man wanted to become a chaplain, just like Jay.
This time, Jay’s emotions revived.
“It absolutely crushed me,” he says. “It just broke my heart and I wept with her and embraced her.”
Jay received a promotion and became an airborne trooper. And even after the head injury, he made 16 jumps.
In 2010, he earned a second master’s degree from Duke University Divinity School. He became a certified martial arts instructor. His last job before leaving the military was as deputy command chaplain for the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
He then worked at a youth detention facility, but Jay says that provoked post-traumatic stress disorder he didn’t realize he had. He learned about an opening at the Minatare church, where he had worked as youth pastor in the early 1990s. Jay and his family moved to Minatare in February 2018. Jeff and Lisa’s children are Kourtney, now 28; Brittney, 26; Heather “Kaya,” 23; son Jesse, 10; and daughter Promise, 9.
As a hospital chaplain, Jay helps people through trauma and grief. Treatment for his PTSD experience allows him to relate, although only recently he came to realize the toll it had taken.
“I’ve been very driven since the plane crash to succeed, without awareness that it’s been to the detriment of my family,” Jay says. “I just didn’t see some things.”
His says he is grateful for his family’s support — as well as the Lord’s — despite his mental inconsistencies throughout the years.
“This has been a long journey, but it’s one I could never have been on without Christ,” Jay says. “Jesus and my wife have been indispensable.”
Scott McChrystal, the recently retired AG Chaplaincy Ministries military endorser, recalls the terrible wreck Jay experienced. McChrystal helped Jay work through his injuries.
“Jeff Jay is a powerful warrior for God,” McChrystal said. “I have personally never seen anyone battle harder to recover and win. Throughout my long association with Jeff, he has consistently faced every challenge and trusted the Lord to be victorious.”
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