Irvington native faces court-martial in Germany Sergeant who is lay minister rejects charge of leaving his Saudi post.

October 17, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

The living room in the Irvington home of Ceylon and Virginia Wise is a sort of shrine to their children.

All around the small square room, the six Wise offspring smile from photographs shot at various times in their lives. Their athletic trophies are arrayed on twin book shelves, alongside photos of the Wise children's own children.

Four of the Wise children are ordained ministers. They followed the example of their mother, the founder-pastor of New Rose of Sharon Baptist Church at North Carey and West Baltimore streets.

Virginia Wise proudly points out the photos and the trophies and, addressing the subject of children, says, "You know, the Lord never brought a child into this world that wouldn't be taken care of."

Now, Ceylon and Virginia Wise are praying -- and calling on others to pray -- that their youngest child, their son Robert, will be "taken care of" during his current ordeal in a foreign land.

Sgt. Robert Wise, 28, is a communications technician with the U.S. Army. He also is a "lay minister" who has led Christian services near his base in Germany and also in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War.

On Oct. 24, Wise will face a court-martial in Stuttgart, Germany. He is charged with leaving his communications van without permission last April 2 while U.S. troops were pulling out of Saudi Arabia.

However, Wise, his parents and other supporters claim the charge is trumped-up. They say the Army wants to punish him because he was a better minister to Gulf War soldiers than were the regular military chaplains.

"No question about it, it's jealousy [among the chaplains]," says Ceylon Wise, Robert's father.

An Army spokesman in Germany told the Wall Street Journal that religion has nothing to do with the action against Robert Wise. The sergeant left his post improperly; that accounts for the charge, the spokesman said. Wise has said that he had to leave the van to repair telephones.

If he is found guilty, Wise could be confined to quarters for six months, demoted in rank to private and shorn of two-thirds of his pay.

Army spokesman Maj. Barbara Goodno at the Pentagon says Army officials in the U.S. were not commenting on the Wise case. Neither Robert Wise nor Army spokesmen in Germany could be reached for comment.

Wise's parents will talk about the situation, but they take care not to say anything that they believe might hurt their son's case. In fact, they called him in Germany and sought his advice on how much to divulge for this article.

The parents phone their son regularly. Virginia Wise says, "He sounds fine. He keeps strong. He's a religious person."

In an interview at their home, the Wises describe how Robert was born prematurely, weighing only 3 pounds, 10 ounces at birth. Doctors feared he might not survive.

"But he hung on and made it," his mother says. "No one gave him much of a chance. And now look at how far he's come in life."

His parents say he was a "normal" kid growing up in West Baltimore.

At Carver Vocational-Technical Senior High School, Robert fell in love with a classmate, a religious young woman named Karen. They were married and now have three sons, ages 10, 5 and 2.

Robert Wise joined the Army in 1982 and shortly afterward was stationed in Germany. Ceylon Wise, 58, says his son had hopes of joining the Army's chaplain corps next year. But first he must get through the court-martial.

According to Virginia Wise, Robert and Karen are both ordained ministers in a U.S.-based Christian denomination known as the Church of God. In Germany, both husband and wife have co-pastored a Christian congregation of Army personnel and their families, the Church on the Move for Christ.

"Karen was ordained before Robert," says Virginia Wise, also 58. "Robert didn't get the call until he was 23 or 24."

She then shows a photo of Robert before he got his call, comparing it to a more recent picture.

"Look at his eyes in the older photograph," she says. "There's something missing there. They don't have the same light and spirit that you see in him today."

It was Robert's spirit that made him such a successful minister in Saudi Arabia, and that may have led to his conflicts with Army brass, the Wises say.

Robert Wise went to Saudi Arabia last December as a member of the 51st Signal Battalion. From the start, he sought to divide his time between his technical duties and ministering to the souls of soldiers in the war zone.

He reportedly led services in tents and under camouflage netting at airfields and hospitals in the Saudi desert. As the Wises tell it, Robert's "spirit-filled" worships drew more soldiers -- particularly black soldiers accustomed to the boisterous church services they knew back home -- than did the more sedate services of the Army chaplains.

"Those soldiers needed more than a cigarette, more than a drink, more than something to eat. They needed something spiritual," says Virginia Wise, her voice gradually rising as if at the climax of a sermon.

"They'd been sitting around for months, worrying about themselves, worrying about their families, worrying about all that nerve-gas talk. They wanted that release of clapping their hands and singing out. They needed a spiritual morale-booster to fill the gap. And Robert filled that gap. He filled that gap."

Asked if she believes that the regular chaplains weren't meeting the soldiers' spiritual needs, she replies, "Let's put it this way. He was getting 70 to 80 people at his services, and the other chaplains were getting 10. So you figure it out. Who was doing the better job of giving the soldiers what they wanted?"

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