Although Malinda Cox holds neither a seminary degree nor a military rank, she provides substantial ministry to soldiers and families in the U.S. Army.
Malinda is the wife of CH (CPT) Robert Cox, currently serving as PCA chaplain of the 1-506th Infantry Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Little did she know when her husband was completing his seminary degree that one day their congregation would be clad mostly in camouflage.
Before Robert entered the chaplaincy, the Coxes served in traditional church ministry in New England. Unlike her previous role as a pastor’s wife, much of Malinda’s ministry now takes place while she and Robert are separated from one another.
Although they are no longer in an active deployment cycle, Chaplain Cox is often away for weeks or even months at a time, participating in training missions. However, even when not ministering side-by-side, Robert clearly regards Malinda’s ministry as integral to his own. “It’s not something I asked her to do. It flows straight from her heart. A lot of it is just old-fashioned, being a good neighbor, keeping an eye on what’s going on in a way I can’t. It [her ministry] frees me up because I don’t have to have one foot down with the unit and one foot back at home. She knows what they’re going through because she’s going through the same thing.”
And, he adds, “She’s there alongside them with the hope of the Gospel.”
After Robert completed chaplain school, Malinda joined him for a weekend orientation program that provided basic training on the Army and how it works. At the end of that weekend, the Coxes attended a formal dinner designed to teach protocol for official Army functions.
“But there’s so much to learn,” said Malinda. “It was only tip of the iceberg.”
FOB. LES. JRTC. PCS. TDY.
In many ways, entering the chaplaincy was like doing cross-cultural ministry. For Malinda, one of the more difficult hurdles was simply learning to speak the Army’s language. But unlike those who train for international ministry, most of Malinda’s training came boots-on-the-ground during Cox’s first assignment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“I think I learned the most from talking to people and asking a lot of questions. I would go up to someone and ask them, ‘What do you do? What’s your job? What’s that patch on your uniform?’
I also learned a lot from immersing myself in activities with our unit. I went to every meeting and event I could, just so I could learn.” However, she credits her friend Emily Damboise with teaching her the most. “I saw how she handled herself when our husbands were gone. Her strength and ability to handle separation and stress with a smile on her face had a huge impact on me. Emily’s the one who taught me to love the Army.”
“She’s not going to get through this,” was Emily’s initial impression as she watched Malinda navigate Robert’s first deployment. But she encouraged Malinda, “One day at a time. You can do this.”
Emily serves as an FRG (Family Readiness Group) leader at Fort Bragg, whose mission is to communicate information to families and link them to available resources. Malinda has been intentional about supporting FRG leaders at both Fort Bragg and Fort Campbell and, by extension, reaching out to soldiers and their families.
Dubbing themselves the Ya-Yas, Emily and Malinda often teamed with other Army wives whose husbands were deployed to provide support for the families and soldiers of the rear detachment (those who remain behind during deployments). One way they did this was by seeking donations to host a Christmas party with games, craft stations, and a visit from Santa. “Even though Christmas is a joyous time, it was a sad time with our husbands gone. We decided to be there and bring cheer to others,” said Emily.
Although Malinda now resides in Kentucky, the two continue to collaborate in raising funds for the Lightning Friends and Family Memorial Organization. Malinda founded the nonprofit organization in order to build a memorial for the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, the only one without a signature monument memorializing its fallen. “It just shows how much she cares about families and soldiers,” said Emily.
Jeana Bell, an FRG leader at Fort Campbell, echoed a similar sentiment regarding Malinda’s ministry of encouragement. They first met at a gathering for noncommissioned officers’ wives, and Jeana relies on Malinda for support, guidance, and prayer.
Jeana and her husband have participated with the Coxes in a number of Strong Bonds Retreats for leaders, a chaplain-led program that teaches couples basic relationship skills, communication techniques, and conflict- and anger-management skills. “I consider her one of the mother hens. She shows me how to serve others within the FRG when I’m struggling with my own issues related to military life.”
Malinda finds significant ministry opportunities in encouraging the commander and sergeant major’s wives, something she does simply by being present. That presence became invaluable each time the battalion experienced a casualty. “It’s very hard to be the commander’s wife and look in the eye of a mother who’s lost her son.” Malinda is privileged to walk beside the leadership and pray throughout every phase of the memorial service.
“It’s down and dirty and in people’s lives,” she admits, “and it’s painful and exhausting. Our ministry is at the ground level, where the rubber meets the road.
“When Gold Star families (families of fallen soldiers) come, I’m able to pray for and with them, hold their hands, and listen to their story. I have the opportunity to pray for the family and friends, give thanks for the soldier’s life, and pray for all of us that we could get through the day.”
“It’s down and dirty and in people’s lives,” she admits, “and it’s painful and exhausting. Our ministry is at the ground level, where the rubber meets the road. We deal with life and death, literally.” But she adds, “The hardest things are the most rewarding.”
She cites the words of Paul from 2 Corinthians: “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.’ But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves. ”Malinda acknowledges that being a chaplain family can be lonely, living far from family and serving in a chapel made up of a transient body of people from all different backgrounds. However, “I also wish I could communicate the absolute joy that we have found in doing this challenging work. There is nothing like seeing the look on a young soldier’s face when he realizes you care. Or hearing the gratefulness in the shaky voice of a mom who has just lost her son in the war. Or reaching out to the wife who has never felt loved by the church.”
“Our story is not so much about me, or even Robert, but about the soldiers and their families and God’s outpouring of grace in their lives and ours.”