Tom Greco is shown with his wife Gail in 2021. A West Point graduate and former military commander, Greco now serves as lead pastor at Ontario Community Church. (Photo by Chelsey Schaffeld at [email protected])
By Gaye Bunderson
In the midst of fog and rain, a difficult military mission was scheduled. A helicopter assault unit was to go deep behind enemy lines to secure critical positions, preventing the opposing army from reinforcing its troops or retreating. The members of the air assault unit would be isolated from their allies and possibly put in the position of confronting the enemy from all directions. Making the mission even harder was a previously unanticipated flooded river and a subsequent sea of mud.
This was the daunting battle facing young U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Tom Greco, a West Point graduate and leader of the men who were tasked with accomplishing this formidable mission during the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm in the early ’90s. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had plunged his army into peaceful, sovereign Kuwait in an attempt to expand his domain, and then-President George H.W. Bush formed a coalition of allies to send him packing.
Greco previously thought of himself as a confident man, and to be sure his list of accomplishments was impressive; but with this mission, his self-confidence was shaken. He’d tackled so many things alone with assurance and determination throughout his life. Now with the prospect of possibly losing up to 40% of his unit – as he was warned by a higher ranking officer – he felt subdued.
“For 19 years in the military,” he said, “my mission was to prepare soldiers for war and bring everybody home.”
But could he bring everybody home from this military operation deep into Iraq and directly in the face of the well-armed, skillfully trained Iraqi army?
Thomas Greco was born in 1951 in Quantico, W.V., where his father served in the Marine Corps. The family eventually moved to Pennsylvania and Greco graduated from high school in the state that’s home to the Liberty Bell. He qualified to attend both the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He admits he gets seasick, so Annapolis was nixed; still, he had other reasons for choosing West Point other than being land-based.
“I liked the idea of being a soldier, of being an Army officer where you’re close to your soldiers in combat,” Greco said. “Going to West Point prepared me to keep our nation free, and I wanted to make a commitment to something bigger than myself – that’s the way God made me.”
But while at West Point, Greco wasn’t thinking much about God; he’d abandoned the God of his younger years. “In my second year at West Point, I ran away from God,” Greco said, admitting he was the typical youth seeking to explore a life apart from family and the routine of church attendance.
“I came to know Christ in 1991, so I didn’t come back to God until I was 40,” Greco stated.
Not coincidentally, that’s the same year he was preparing to lead soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division into a battle that would likely be the most dangerous they’d ever undertake.
“I thought I was hot stuff. I was a lieutenant colonel and the youngest battalion commander in the Army, and I thought, ‘We can do this!’ … But everything was going wrong,” Greco said. “I’d had faith in myself. I’d thought I could do it all and didn’t think I needed God at all.”
But Greco was about to face a sea change in outlook.
It happened that one night while overseas with his troops, preparing for the approaching violent engagement with the enemy, he pulled out his Bible and read in the book of Joshua about the battle of Jericho. He learned that in that battle God gave the Israelites a decisive victory over the Canaanites. All they had to do was be obedient to Him and God would defend them.
In the middle of reading, Greco’s chest began to tighten. Shortly after, he experienced a divine communication. “God said, ‘Why don’t you give Me this battle?’ God was getting hold of me,” Greco explained. “I thought I was leader of my life and leader of my soldiers. After that, I just knew Jesus was the leader of my life and my unit, and the pain in my chest abated.”
Rehearsals preceded the daring mission Greco and his soldiers would soon launch. “We practice so we can win; we learn to fight,” Greco said. “The practice and all the rehearsals went well. The commanders went from idiots to geniuses. I became more in tune with how God was in charge of my unit, not me.”
His unit got very good and reported back to him that “something happened we can’t explain.”
Greco, now 71, is fully able to diagram that actual battle and recalls all the details that transpired during those handful of hard days carrying out his assigned duty. Some of the many challenges the mission presented, taken from Greco’s own written testimony, included*:
- “Our satellite and reconnaissance planes told us we would be flying between and behind elements of potentially two Iraqi divisions. There were 5,000-6,000 soldiers in each division. These enemy troops were equipped with the latest Soviet-made equipment to include surface-to-air hand-held missiles. The weather was cold and raining.”
- “Our UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, loaded with 14 heavy-laden soldiers, would be flying 150 miles deep into Iraq, less than 15 feet off the ground, at 90-100 miles per hour and with pilots wearing night vision goggles.”
- “Our soldiers advanced to their assigned objectives. The flooding had been more extensive than our photos showed and we could not dig foxholes because of the high water table. We also did not want to build up our positions, thus telling the Iraqis, ‘Here we are.’ We conceded that to maintain our position, we would have to remain exposed, both to the elements and the enemy.”
In the same testimony, Greco details the comfort he took from believing God was guarding them:
- “On Day 2 the weather had soured again, cloud cover and dense fog came in, and our soldiers were cold, wet, and scared. Our USAF air cover and attack helicopter support were unable to support us. We were alone on the battlefield – “sitting ducks” – for the Iraqi artillery and tanks. We had no cover from artillery, no place to hide, no air support and no way, except by foot, to run or evacuate any wounded. But we had, in our heart, my heart, God’s promise that He was our leader.”
- “For the next two days we fought violent fights. The landscape around our positions was surreal. Burning vehicles littered the fields. Large craters from artillery were everywhere, and numerous Iraqi lay dead on the roads and fields around us. We waited for the Iraqi brigade to come, but it never did attack us. The initial report I received was that this Iraqi brigade just ‘disappeared from any radar.’ We later found out the Iraqi armor brigade that was advancing towards our positions was stalled by bad weather, sandstorms, and poor roads. This Iraqi brigade was decimated by another Army mechanized/tank unit as the storm lifted in early morning of Day 3. The two parallel storms on Day 1 and the storm on Days 2-3 often reminds me of the events and God’s provision during the exodus of the Israeli nation from Egypt. The ceasefire order came on Day 4. The coalition forces, more than 400 miles south of us, had defeated the Iraqi forces, liberated Kuwait, and the war was over in just four days.”
Greco said of the experience: “That changed my whole life, those four days.” He retired four years later. Instantly, his mission in life had changed. “After I came to know Christ, my mission was to share the Good News, through teaching, leading, and by example.”
Once out of the military, he explored options. He taught at West Point, teaching ethics and leadership. Later, he moved west with his wife Gail, who is from Idaho and has family here. While attending a church in Boise called New Heights Christian Fellowship, the pastor at that now-defunct church asked him to take on a pastorship. That was his first time pastoring a congregation.
As his life changed, so did his priorities; he’s now putting God and family first. Gail had been a soldier as well when the couple first met but retired from the military earlier than her spouse. “She was an incredible Army wife,” Greco said. “Gail lives by her faith. She would pray for me, take me to church. She was planting seeds that sprouted and grew during Desert Storm.”
Everything he learned at West Point and while serving in the military has been useful and beneficial in his current calling. He is presently lead pastor at Ontario Community Church.
While he did not attend seminary, he teaches classes at seminaries and helps the students understand how to deal with difficult people; administration and running a meeting; and overseeing finances. He attributes his military training to his being effective in these categories and said, “Military skills are easily transferrable, including organization, structure, and leadership skills.”
Currently, an important interest for Greco is work he is doing with YUGO, or Youth Unlimited Gospel Outreach, helping build houses for the poor in Mexico. Gail had been on the building mission twice without Tom, who owns the fact he was just dragging his feet.
“On the third trip, in 2007, Gail told me, ‘You’re going!’” He did and has now gone every year since and helped build 45-50 homes. He also ultimately became chairman of the mission, and when asked why he was initially reluctant to go, he admitted he was worried his carpentry skills wouldn’t pass muster. He claimed that, at the time, he could barely handle a hammer.
But he said God told him, “I don’t need your talents and gifts. I just need your heart.”
God has pretty much had Tom Greco’s whole heart for 31 years now.
Tom and Gail live in Star, Idaho, and the former army officer is training for a triathlon. He has also written a book titled, “Living in the Light.” Having served in the military for 24 years and having retired with the rank of colonel, he values his service and does not forget what and who he left behind, including all the soldiers he was able to bring safely back home. With God’s help.
*These are direct quotes, edited for brevity, and are a mere summary of the confrontation.
Tom Greco may be reached at [email protected].