Former Navy chaplain to SEALs now serves as associational church and pastoral care director

1 264

GAINESVILLE–Traveling throughout the nation and world as a military chaplain, Robert Bradshaw’s experiences could fill the pages of a book. He ministered to Navy SEALs during deployments, including the 2011 shootdown of a helicopter in Afghanistan that killed 30 service members whom he considered to be friends, and he served in the White House Military Office during the tumultuous period surrounding the 2020 U.S. election and COVID pandemic.

Today, Bradshaw is bringing years of ministry and military experience to his new role as church and pastoral care director for North Central Florida Baptist Association in Gainesville. In addition to ministering to more than 40 pastors in the association, Bradshaw is hoping to help churches establish ministries to the area’s first responders.

“We are working to build bridges to care for pastors and to mobilize the local church to care for first responders. This takes some time because you must build relationships, get to know one another, and establish trust,” Bradshaw said.

Currently, Bradshaw is working with area pastors to establish weekly huddles in different parts of the county, where he and pastors can get to know one another, understand each other and share resources.

Bradshaw and his wife Cheryl at the White House for the White House Military Officer Christmas Party.

As for ministering to first responders, Bradshaw said that national and state training is available to help local pastors with this type of ministry. For a local church, this could look like a men’s ministry or a missions group praying for first responders in their area, meeting with them, talking with them and offering the ministry of presence.

“One of the things I experienced when I was on active duty as a chaplain through the North American Mission Board was that churches would pray for us,” he said. “I’d get random letters from churches, and it was so encouraging. I like to think of this as a way to give back to the churches that prayed for me.”

From youth minister to military chaplain

Bradshaw was working as a youth minister in Jensen Beach when he heard someone speak about military chaplains at a men’s prayer breakfast. That planted the seed for his return to serve in the military as a chaplain. Having already served six years in the U.S. Air Force, he was commissioned as a Navy Chaplain Candidate while he pursued a master of divinity degree. Many apply for the role of military chaplain, but only a certain number are selected after a series of interviews and screenings.

With an endorsement from the North American Mission Board, Bradshaw first served as a military chaplain with the Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. This included deployments to Haiti and Iraq.

“I learned a lot about the ministry of presence because sometimes there is not a lot to say.”

Robert Bradshaw recalling his role as a chaplain when a military helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in 2011, killing 30 service members whom he knew and loved

Becoming a chaplain with the Navy SEALs, the military’s most elite special operations unit, required even more extensive screening for knowledge, skills, ability and capacity. He did not have to undergo the same intensive training that SEALs do, like the kind you read about or see in movies, as he was a chaplain to them, not one of them. But he ministered to the Naval Special Warfare Community for almost eight straight years, including Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), often referred to as Seal Team 6, an even more elite group that develops new equipment and tactics for the Navy SEAL organization. It was Seal Team 6 that took out Osama Bin Laden.

“Elite units hire for the best fit,” he said. “These guys were the best of the best. The intensity of the operational tempo was difficult. I was gone all the time, and I missed a lot. But it was the most efficient unit I’ve ever been with. The leadership was exceptional, and I got a lot of freedom to do a lot of ministry there.”

‘Pivotal moment in ministry life’

Bradshaw’s work with elite units included multiple nontraditional deployments to Afghanistan, East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. What stands out most from those is Extortion 17, the call sign of the helicopter that was shot down in 2011, when Bradshaw lost 30 members of his unit.

“I think that was a pivotal moment in my ministry life. I learned a lot from Gold Star families- those who lost someone in combat. I learned a lot about the ministry of presence because sometimes there is not a lot to say. You just sit there and hold on to someone whose life is falling apart. I got a ton of support from other chaplains and enlisted personnel. That was a beautiful thing as well.”

Bradshaw said it was difficult to lose guys he had worked with, those he knew and loved. “It was a real gut punch. The fact that I even functioned is a sign that God is real. I think what grew out of that was a larger trust in God and His timing. How else do you walk through something like that?”

He continues to offer support to Gold Star families at various events and serves as a volunteer chaplain at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce.

Bradshaw (left) serving as a greeter at the King’s Church in Washington, D.C.

‘A lot of ministry’

From 2018 to 2021, Bradshaw was screened and selected to serve another elite unit, the White House Military Office, where he served 11 months as deputy director for the chaplain directorate and two years as director. In addition to being chaplain to those military members, he was also available to the Executive Office of the President and the Secret Service as requested.

On his professional resume he lists the experience like this: “Led and extended unprecedented care to more than 3,100 personnel and their families across 5 operational commands in a geographically dispersed area throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest, a historic presidential election, and inauguration, aiding in a smooth, yet challenging presidential administration transition and culture change often in time and information constrained environments.”

“I was there during the ugliness in D.C. and trying to walk to work in it,” he said, mentioning that he lived and worked downtown. “I got to do a lot of ministry, though.”

Bradshaw said his favorite part of D.C. was attending a local church plant, King’s Church, which is part of the SEND Network. “We enjoyed being around young professionals and interns there loving the Lord,” he said. “We taught a home group in our rented condo. We had a great time.”

Bradshaw leads a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service in Afghanistan 2011.

His final assignment with the Marines at boot camp brought him back to where he started—as a chaplain for the Marines. “I ended with a Marine Corps boot camp, coming full circle from where I had started. Great leaders and such a good community on base. It was a great place to step off into a new context of ministry.”

With Bradshaw and his wife Cheryl being University of Florida graduates, and Cheryl’s family living nearby, the couple sensed God calling them to Gainesville when he retired from the military.

“It’s been a blessing in a lot of ways,” he said of his current role. “We’ll see where all this takes us. I would love to work myself out of this job and see what else happens. This is only a part-time position. I’m retired and I’m still involved in other things. What’s our overall ministry going to look like? I am not sure God has fully shown us that yet.”

1 Comment
  1. Nankya Suzan says

    Great journey as a child of God.
    Thanks for the sacrifice of your life for serving our God even at such an age its really amazing and inspiring.
    May you live to the fulness of your life to fulfill the purpose of your creation.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.