When I moved to LaGrange, Georgia, from Tennessee as a fifteen-year-old, my first Georgia beau was Dan Larry Payne. I possess an old photo showing Dan, sporting a profoundly serious expression, standing beside me. I was wearing a wrist corsage, a pretty yellow dance dress, and a smile across my face.
Our teen romance lasted about two weeks, which was typical for that age, but we remained loyal friends. He married one of my dearest pals, Jo, soon after high school, with the rest of our classmates questioning, “Wonder how long that will last?”
Mr. and Mrs. Payne were members of our wedding party a bit later. And while their marriage still is intact, mine ended years ago. So, our question is answered, “It lasted forever.”
Dan’s rich heritage included generations of Paynes serving America during the Revolutionary War to the one that was currently raging in Viet Nam. Dan kept the family history alive by joining the Army Infantry in 1969 after graduating from college. He attended Officers Candidate School, completed his military obligation, and returned home to work in the private sector. Of course, he thought his service was concluded; however, God intervened and whispered, “No, Dan, it is not.”
When Dan accepted the Lord into his life, I doubt he had any idea where that new friendship would lead him. I have learned that whatever God tells you to do, you might as well just go with the flow because there is a purpose for the direction you are to follow.
“Jo, I am being called to preach!” His wife, being the sweet, Christian person she is, responded, “Ok, if that is what the Lord is saying, then I am with you.”
After Dan earned a Master of Divinity degree in Baptist Seminary, the ordained young minister with a growing family was spiritually motivated again. “Jo, I would like to rejoin the Army!” This time, neither Jo nor Dan realized his service was only beginning.
Just before he reached the age that would not permit him to reenlist, he worked his way back into the military and to active duty. The former OCS Tactical Officer was now a Chaplain in the United States Army, where he remained in service to our nation for 26 years.
By the time 2005 rolled around, Chaplain Dan Payne’s country had placed him from Ft. Fort Benning, Georgia, into nine more military bases across our land. He crossed oceans to help his fellow comrades in various Korean assignments, then to Kuwait as the Command Chaplain for Camp Doha. For his faithful service in aiding so many during Desert Storm/Shield, he was presented the Bronze Star personally by Major General Barry McCaffrey.
Once his military career ended, he had accumulated more medals than I can list in this story, including the Legion of Merit. However, it was not the shiny awards that told of his bravery; it was his courage to follow the path God laid before him, no matter what.
When he was nominated and accepted into the US Army Officers Candidate School Hall of Fame, the accolades read, in part, “a fabulous listener, a gifted speaker, a compassionate soul, admired, loved, dedicated, blessed with God-given talent, plus, ready and willing to serve others.”
After retiring from military duty, he worked with the US National Park Service, where he served to maintain and protect our parks’ beauty from Alaska to Georgia. Jo and Dan continue volunteering to aid veterans, youth, and those needing any assistance throughout America.
Chaplain Dan Larry Payne, the boy with the serious face, grew to be an exemplary leader among men and a humble missionary for God. Perhaps, greatness is found in the one who most unselfishly serves. He is the epitome of the American soldier and citizen.
Dan’s patriotism cannot be told by mere words but by those soldiers who share their stories of this unsung American hero. His words, devotion, and love for Jo and fellow men from all walks of life are reminders of what a lifetime of honor is. It is not in the fuss we make or the screams we shout, but instead in the quiet listening of God’s direction and the joy one finds in following it.
Our nation is a bit topsy-turvy today. However, like Chaplain Dan, our American narrative lies in those who serve both God and country with integrity, selflessness, and heart.
The Chaplain is battling cancer, and his future is uncertain. Rest assured, however, his earthly glory is no match for what awaits him when he meets his Commander in heaven.
I salute you, my friend; you bless our country with your dedication and wear the armor of God valiantly.