By Jenny Neyman
Growing up between Homer and Anchor Point in the 1960s, Gene Engebretsen didn’t know much about the great wide world beyond his family’s homestead along the Anchor River. There was fishing and wildlife aplenty, and other staples of an Alaska youth, but lacking among the salmon runs and moose sightings was a larger context to help him grasp his place in his country, much less his country’s place in the world.
Serving in the U.S. Army provided that.
“Growing up here in this river bottom when I was a kid I was not really understanding America or anything bigger than the Anchor River. And then getting in the military and ending up in Germany and seeing we are part of a much bigger picture than I ever understood, and I really just fell in love with serving our nation that way,” Engebretsen said.
Maj. Engebretsen, of Soldotna, will share his story of love and service as the featured guest speaker at the 23rd annual “Happy Birthday America God and Country Rally,” held at 6 p.m. June 29 at the Soldotna Church of God.
His love wasn’t at first sight, however. At first was the shock of having his authority over his young life superseded by the draft, and the unknown of what the military would entail. He was 19 in 1972, during the Vietnam War, when he was drafted.
“When I first got drafted I was very, very disappointed. My dreams as a 19-year-old kid was I was going to be a pastor,” he said. “… But I decided I was not one in that era that was willing to run away. I said, ‘That’s my duty, and I will do my duty.’”
Engebretsen quickly discovered that he flourished in military service. He tested well, performed well, was promoted quickly and recruited to attend West Point. He declined officer training but did elect to re-enlist for another hitch, during which time he finished college, doing class work on evenings and weekends, and ended up getting commissioned as an officer after all.
What started as a life derailment turned into a 23-year career, with Engebretsen retiring as a major. He served during the Vietnam era through the Gulf War in Air Defense Artillery, being stationed in Germany with the 1st Armored Division, at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with the 101st Airborne, in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division, and at the Command and General Staff College.
In the last 10 years or so of his service, Engebretsen found himself increasingly involved in what had been his original plan for his life — pastoral work. He served with a division chaplain in Korea, as a unit chaplain at Fort Campbell, ran small groups and ministry opportunities in many of the places he was stationed, and in his last tour worked in a church as a youth pastor. He felt a strong link between his call to service in pastoral and his military work.
“My main thrust was the ability to attract people who came in behind me to a purpose for our nation,” Engebretsen said. “When you find out what you believe in, just learn how to let your passion go that way and make it work, whether you’re in the Army or in anything you do. And personal faith in God helps people to have something to aspire to. So I think that level of intensity that I grew up through in the military ranks has really helped me take that outside of the military.”
After his retirement Engebretsen was ordained as a pastor through the nondenominational Resurrection Apostolic International Network. While serving at a church in Minnesota he met his future wife, Jordana, who had started a ministry providing service and support for families and children with disabilities.
“I just was really inspired by her drive and her amazing ability to lead and be driven by caring for other people, serving other people’s needs and figuring out the best way she could do it,” Engebretsen said.
That was no small feat, since Jordana is blind and mobility impaired herself. Suddenly, finding himself in love, Engebretsen found himself in yet another entirely new world.
“I retired as a major from the Army and had never worked with disabled people and had no interest in trying to figure that world out — I just was never around it — and then I fell in love,” he said. “It changed my focus because disabilities are all around us, but are all in us. The more I work with that population I realize, many times, it’s not those who are broken in the body who are disabled, it’s those who think we’re OK who really live with disabilities, because we don’t know how to take advantage of what God gave us.”
In their work as founders and leaders of Cristo Vive International, the Engebretsens have done outreach in Mongolia, Ecuador, Kenya, Ireland, the Ukraine and in the U.S.
“Our goal is to work with churches and organizations in different countries to help them reach out to that population of people that is often neglected — people just don’t know how to reach them — and that’s our goal, to help them do that,” he said.
They and their son, Benjamin, moved to Soldotna three years ago and both work for the Kenai Peninsula School District with special needs students.
“I always wanted to come back here. My statement was the Army drafted me out of here and Alaska never drafted me back, but I was always trying to find a way to come back,” Engebretsen said.
When he was asked to speak at this year’s rally, he saw the opportunity as twofold, to both remind listeners to celebrate the many benefits of being U.S. citizens, and to respect the responsibilities that come along with that.
“It’s really a message of hope, to look at what we’ve been given, what we’ve inherited as a nation and where we can go from here,” he said. “That we are still the best country in the world, we have such an opportunity to still carve out our destiny because we still have the freedom to speak, the freedom to participate, the freedom to express our desire and our interest in our future, and we still get the freedom to elect our officials to speak for us and make choices for us. So, therefore, our future is wide open for us to channel our direction the way we want it to be.”
That realization might never had occurred to him were it not for his military service.
“In the Army I traveled the world, and it’s sad to see some of the best in some of these places are so far below our worst. The purpose of (my speech) is to celebrate the joyous things in this country,” he said. “That we really are in an awesome country, one of its kind in our world and we really ought to be proud, not only of our military and our public servants — our policemen and firefighters and those that serve their communities because of their loyalty to that community — but also just because there’s a whole world out there that does not understand what it’s like to have the freedoms and the ability that we have to grow.”
The event is free and open to the public, and will include patriotic music, prayer, an Honor Guard and recognition of all branches of the U.S. military, as well as special thanks to firefighters on the Kenai Peninsula. For more information, contact Dave Carey at 260-6413 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.