Chaplain Justin Roberts
No Greater Love is the first theatrical documentary filmed on location by an active duty military officer. Chaplain Justin Roberts, who produced the film, served in the 101st Airborne in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan – one of the most embedded strongholds of the Taliban.
Chaplain Roberts is known by many for his humility and courage as a veteran who served over his battalion consisting of more than eight hundred men. He is a man of action. He didn’t lay back and wait behind the wire, but instead stood on the frontlines next to his men armed only with a camera and the Bible. He believes that the sacrifices of his men define our nation above anything else and as such he has teamed up with veteran organizations and churches nationwide to open doors for others to understand what these warriors have faced with the hope to help them overcome and heal from combat trauma. Roberts shared with Risen that the purpose of his award-winning film is to be a campaign for fundraising to equip, inspire and empower communities to reach out and help veterans nationwide.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: How did your personal story motivate you to become a chaplain?
Justin Roberts: My father was a drug dealer and a violent man, but before he left town he went to a church and had them give me a Bible. I’m guessing he felt it would be a way for good things to be imparted into my life in his absence. When I was thirteen, my father attempted suicide which left him with permanent brain damage. After that, I felt that suicide was the best option for myself as well. The only thing that was holding me back was that Bible he had gotten me. I felt that I had to at least crack it open and give it a shot. If it didn’t have any answers then I would just end it [life]. On the very first page a woman had written out the path to the “Roman Roads”. She wrote out the verses and page numbers for me to go to and showed me Christ’s purpose in my life and His relationship to me as a Father. On the last page, she wrote out how to accept Christ in my heart, where He has been ever since. I knew I wanted to go into ministry since that point, but I also knew that I wanted to serve my country. It eventually dawned on me that I could do both as a chaplain. Little did I know that as a chaplain I would wind up serving in one of the most suicidal battalions in the Army.
RM: In being responsible for a battalion of over eight hundred men, how were you effectively able to support, guide and essentially lay down your life to support so many people at once?
JR: I think it’s important to note that I was a part of a team. Everyone thinks that the chaplain is the minister in a battalion, but in truth there are a lot of brothers and sisters of the faith in every unit. And, they are being used by God just as much as any chaplain. And, people from all different kinds of beliefs come together in the unit to provide care. I know we as Christians at times would like to believe that we hold the monopoly on love and care, but we don’t. I learned more from a foul-mouthed First Sergeant in how to be a chaplain than I ever did from any minister. The reason was that his actions were more caring, courageous, and truly selfless than I had ever witnessed from any pastor I had met. In this way, he understood the heart of the gospel better than most. He would die for you. His men knew that. I knew that. I could write a book about all the actions he took that proved that to us, but behind every action was a single focus to care for his unit. To me, that was at the heart of what a chaplain should be, so I tried to emulate that. In choosing who we help first we try to triage emergencies when they happen, but battles don’t play out in a clean-cut way. If you are across a valley from someone who has just been hit, sometimes there is no way to get to them.
RM: You produced a documentary named, No Greater Love. In the film, one of the platoon leaders said how important it was for the chaplain to be there amidst the battle. How did you try to achieve this goal?
JR: Four soldiers took their lives before we deployed and we also suffered suicide attempts or gestures on a weekly basis the year leading up to our deployment. It was critical to connect with my soldiers and provide pastoral care, no matter where they were. There is a verse in John 10:11-14 that says, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me.” My goal was to be the best shepherd I could be. But, I don’t really think of my soldiers as sheep, they are more like lions. So, I wanted to be the best shepherd of lions that I could be.
RM: What was your inspiration for developing No Greater Love and what is the purpose it holds?
JR: No Greater Love is about the soldiers I served with, my friends, and what they stood for. My hope is that by telling their story, the rest of the country could see who these people are that represent them on the front lines and support them as they come home.
RM: You began the documentary with bringing members of your battalion and their families back together sharing a sermon. What was the core message you wanted to convey through your sermon?
JR: I wanted to share with them what they had taught me. I’ve heard thousands of sermons and been a part of countless Bible studies, but in truth, the infantrymen I served with understood sacrifice in a way that I had not heard or witnessed in all my years in ministry. That humbled me. The sermon wasn’t to share with them something new, but to explain to them how truly incredible their sacrifice was and how much I appreciated it.
RM: While in Afghanistan you captured moments on film that would change your life. How did understanding the stories behind these moments impact you?
JR: After the war I understood love in a deeper way. I witnessed acts of courage and learned that behind every single one of them was true selflessness. This is what Jesus was talking about in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Before, I only understood these words in theory, but in the battles I witnessed this verse in flesh and blood.
RM: What were the events that led to the prayer on the battlefield with Mike Low’s son, Tim?
JR: I received word that a female suicide bomber struck one of our platoons a few miles from our base in Afghanistan. Two soldiers were killed and several were wounded. I drove out and prayed for the fallen and the wounded, one of whom was Specialist Tim Low. Tim’s father, Mike, received word of this prayer. Mike served in Vietnam, is the father of two wounded veterans, and founder of a homeless ministry called Bessie’s House in Kansas City, MO. He decided to reach out on Facebook and sent me a message, which began our friendship. After I the completed the documentary, I reached out to Mike to figure out how we could use the film to help veterans come home and heal from the wounds of war. This campaign [No Greater Love] was founded by two different generations of war with the hope to help the nation heal.
RM: How do you plan to use this as a tool to help veterans who have suffered from the ramifications that war brings?
JR: The film is a glimpse into war and the lives of those who serve on our behalf. My hope is that when people see the film, they understand a little bit more about those who serve and more importantly, why they serve. At the end of the film we are setting up a way for the audiences to connect and donate or volunteer to support their local veteran organizations and ministries.
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