As a toddler in West Baltimore, Sgt. Robert Wise sang gospel hymns before he learned to drink from a cup.
So when Sergeant Wise, 28, was sent to Saudi Arabia last December, he naturally made sure to pack a battery-operated keyboard. Two days after arriving in the port of Ad Dammam, the sergeant, who is an Army communications technician, lay minister and gifted musician, was holding gospel services in a tent.
"The Lord gave me a vision. I went to the desert specifically for the purpose of having services," he said by telephone this week from his home in Stuttgart, Germany.
Now, Sergeant Wise faces a special court-martial Oct. 24 in Stuttgart -- and he says it's all because of his preaching.
He is charged with abandoning his communications van and leaving his M16 rifle behind on April 2 in Saudi Arabia, along with three lesser counts. But Sergeant Wise says the charges were trumped-up, brought against him because Army chaplains were jealous that his religious services, complete with music and a 20-member choir, drew more worshipers than theirs.
"People have the right to choose where they're going to go, and that's what happened. We didn't recruit folk, we just had church. Our services were more emotional, with shouts of 'Hallelujah! Amen! Thank you, Jesus! Glory to God!' There was more liberty to praise God freely," Sergeant Wise said.
The Army chaplains involved, who disputed Sergeant Wise's account when his story was first reported in the Wall Street Journal, now refer all inquiries to public affairs officers.
Maj. Susan Ives, chief of command information for the U.S. Army V Corps in Germany, said Sergeant Wise's preaching and the charges against him are completely unrelated.
"The two have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and we feel totally comfortable saying that," she said. "The charges are basically that he abandoned his vehicle. That may sound innocuous, but Sergeant Wise ran a communications van that supported two medevac units. . . . He left it without permission, without letting anybody know, leaving his M16 rifle unsecured in the open van."
For his part, Sergeant Wise says he can prove that he was actually repairing telephones, with authorization, at the time, and that the van was locked. That's why he demanded the court-martial, rejecting his company commander's offer of an administrative penalty, he said.
He faces the possibility of being busted to private, losing two-thirds of his pay and being confined for up to six months. If convicted by a jury of three officers and four enlisted soldiers, his Army career would almost certainly be over. As it is, his company commander has threatened to block his re-enlistment next July.
But, Sergeant Wise says, "The Lord is on my side, and God is going to fight my battles."
Religion comes naturally to Robert Wise. His mother, the Rev. Virginia Wise, formed the Wise Singers and spent two decades performing gospel music in black churches up and down the East Coast. As a young child, Robert joined his five older siblings in the group.
"When he was about 2 years old, Robert used to lay down and go to sleep until it was time to sing. Then he'd get up with his bottle and sing his part and then lay down and go to sleep again," said Mrs. Wise, who is now pastor of Baltimore's New Rose of Sharon Baptist Church, a small congregation she founded in 1980 at North Carey and West Baltimore streets.
Robert was a "loving kid," said his father, Ceylon Dexter Wise Jr., but he also got into more than his share of scrapes as a nTC teen-ager. "He didn't take no tea for the fever. If you wanted to fight, he'd fight, that's all. He was mischievous with a capital M," Mr. Wise said.
Then Robert met his future wife, Karen Corbett, who already preached as a teen-ager. They married while students at Carver Vocational-Technical High School in West Baltimore. After he graduated, Robert Wise enlisted in the Army in 1982.
He was assigned to Germany in December 1983. Soon both Wises were preaching to the troops, and five years ago they opened their own church in Goppingen, near Stuttgart.
Sergeant Wise's preaching was never an issue until he went to Saudi Arabia. As his 514-member 51st Signal Battalion moved from post to post in the desert, he would erect a tent, play gospel music and preach to homesick soldiers in the sand.
In February, his "Field Med House of Prayer" at an evacuation hospital about 30 miles from the Iraqi border caught the eye of an American pool reporter, and news of Sergeant Wise's tent ministry was published in several U.S. papers, including The Evening Sun. He told the reporter that he had "saved" 200 soldiers, but steered clear of proselytizing Muslim Saudis.
"God gives you wisdom. And wisdom tells you not to do that," he was quoted as saying.