By Paul Tennant
---- — Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series of stories to be published over the summer about ordinary people who are making a difference in their communities.
NORTH ANDOVER — When Kenneth Lawson graduated from Greater Lawrence Technical School in 1979, he never dreamed that three decades later, he would be serving as a colonel in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.
Neither did he imagine that he would be called on to calm down a domestic dispute at Fort Devens in which one of the antagonists was threatening people – including Lawson – with a gun.
Lawson, the son of Roger Sr. and Carol Lawson of North Andover, was the guest speaker at North Andover’s Memorial Day observances last month.
Lawson has been deployed to Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. So far, he has not served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but he was assigned to the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, where he ministered to and counseled wounded soldiers and Marines who were airlifted from those countries.
His work includes trauma ministry as well as pre-deployment and reunion counseling for troops and their families. Many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have committed suicide. Lawson said he and other chaplains minister to soldiers who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder by counseling them in small and large groups.
Chaplains and other counselors also work with troops on a one-to-one basis if that is needed, he said.
“I am thrilled to serve soldiers,” Lawson said. “I’m honored. It’s a privilege.”
Lawson’s GI benefits allowed him to attend Salem State College, now Salem State University.
“It was at Salem State that I sensed a call to go into ministry,” he explained. While he embraced the call from the Lord, he did not feel a similar enthusiasm for serving in the military, he said.
“Never again,” he said, after being discharged from the Army in 1985. He even tossed his uniform into the trash, he said.
Things changed, however. After earning his degree at Cincinnati Bible Seminary in 1989, “I found myself raising my right hand,” he recalled. This time, he was joining the Army as a chaplain.
Like all chaplains, he was now a commissioned officer.
“I had a call from God to make a difference,” he explained.
During his years in the Chaplain Corps, Lawson has served on active duty and as a reservist. He was ordained through the Fellowship Bible Church, which used to be on Route 114 in North Andover but has since moved to larger quarters in Methuen.
He helped to found the nondenominational Bible Chapel of the North Shore. When the United States and its NATO allies sent troops to Bosnia and Kosovo to stop the “ethnic cleansing” – “a polite term for genocide,” Lawson noted – the military requested chaplains.
Lawson signed up for a three-year tour – and then came Sept. 11, 2001.
“My world changed,” he said, and he’s been serving as an Army chaplain ever since.
When the earthquake struck Haiti, Lawson was serving in Puerto Rico.
“I was the closest chaplain to Haiti,” he said, and he was the first military chaplain sent there. His mission in Haiti included “teaching, preaching, counseling and distributing personal hygiene items,” he said. At times, one person would translate his remarks from English into French, then another interpreter would express the message in Haitian Creole.
“That was interesting,” he said.
Lawson is now serving at Fort Hunter Liggett in central California. This is a training base where “they blow up things,” he noted. Because the base is in the desert, there are no complains from neighbors, he said.
Lawson and his family have moved 14 times in 28 years.
“I couldn’t do what I do without a supportive wife and children,” he said. He and his wife, Vera Jesser Lawson, also from North Andover, have four children: Andrew, 23; Arthur, 22; Mark, 17; and Margaret, 16.
Monday’s Memorial Day exercises at Ridgewood Cemetery were dedicated to Cpl. Sean Gallagher, a North Andover man who was among the 220 Marines killed in Beirut when a suicide bomber blew up their barracks. Lawson said he and Gallagher were friends – and competitors. They both played in the Youth Hockey League.
If any of children were to join the military, Lawson said, “I would want someone like Cpl. Sean Gallagher to train them.”