The four walls of his study in the home of the Rev. Billy Warren are lined with certificates, awards, commendations, newspaper clippings, medals and other keepsakes commemorating a celebrated and lengthy military career, as well as a life of service to the Lord as a local pastor. In fact, there are so many on the walls you can hardly tell if the room is papered or painted.
Each one framed with care, they tell the story of a young boy from the mountains who gave his life to his country and to God; a story of great faith, sacrifice, blessing and anointing under the provision of the Lord.
Born and raised in the High Country, Warren entered the military in 1952 at the age of 18. Dropped on the front lines of the Korean War with a seventh-grade education and nothing to his name besides the equipment issued to him, he went on to surrender his life first to the United States Army and ultimately to the Lord, who had big plans for him back at home.
“I took my training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I was issued a rifle, ammunition and equipment for battle and I flew in the army plane from Japan to Korea, and from the airplane I hit the ground with my pack. That’s when I was indoctrinated to combat,” said Warren. “I know all of these other medals are important, too, but the combat infantry badge, I feel, is one of the most honorable because it tells you and I and the whole world that you were in combat.”
He met Libby Oliver, the daughter of a local preacher, when he returned home from his first tour with the 40th infantry division, and they were married in 1954. Together, they raised two boys and two girls as they traveled the world on his military assignments.
Although he’d been raised in church, it wasn’t until 1958 when he prayed to receive Christ himself — a decision that would change the course of both his personal life and his career in the Army.
“I got saved at Mabel Baptist Church when Libby’s father was preaching a nine-year-old girl’s funeral. Linda, our oldest, was sitting on my lap. That’s when the Lord spoke to me and I was actually born again,” he said. “I knew that Preacher Barney and Libby and her mother had something that I didn’t have.”
From that day on, he entrusted his safety, his future and the wellbeing of his family to God, whose hedge of protection kept the young soldier safe in unimaginable conditions of war. It soon became clear that there was an anointing on his life, and his career was marked time and again by divine appointments and interventions on and off the battlefield.
Warren often jokes with his family that he returned to the military after receiving Christ to make up for his tough behavior beforehand.
“Before I got saved, I was a drill instructor. I had the little pogo stick and the Smokey the Bear hat. I was a pretty mean boy then,” he laughed. “Didn’t nobody pull anything on Sergeant Warren.”
His military career began to skyrocket, as well. In the 10 short years that followed his salvation in 1958, Warren rose in rank from sergeant first class, E4, to sergeant major, E9, the highest possible ranking for an enlisted soldier.
“Everywhere I went on assignment, as you can see from my record, I had a perfect record,” he said. “I got promotions, awards and letters of recommendation. The Lord was with me every move that I made.”
Warren was preparing for a second tour in Vietnam in 1970 when he was promoted to sergeant major, which allowed him to outrank his overseas assignment and earned him stateside orders.
“Vietnam was getting really bad at that time. We really don’t think he would have made it back from that if he hadn’t been promoted,” said his daughter, Lottie Warren Oliver. “God was in that, too. I give everything to God.”
Throughout his time in the Army, God strategically placed him in positions and experiences that would prepare him for the ministry, like performing funerals for fallen soldiers in Vietnam, although he didn’t know what the Lord was up to at the time. As sergeant major, he was first assigned as chief enlisted advisor to the U.S. Army Reserve in eastern Tennessee, where his duties included notifying next of kin.
“I was in uniform and driving the staff car, so everyone knew that something was wrong when they saw me. They’d always call me about four o’clock in the morning, as Libby can tell you, and tell me where to go and who to tell,” Warren said. “I couldn’t tell anyone but the person on record as next of kin — a father, a mother or a spouse. They would always say, ‘No, no, it can’t be my son’ or ‘It can’t be my husband.’ I had to have God on my side to do that.”
He was stationed at Fort McPherson, teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology and preparing for retirement in North Carolina when the Lord gave him his next assignment.
“I was in my quarters that evening, my Bible laying on the desk, and a voice spoke to me,” he said. “It was a still small voice, like it was real, though, and it said ‘You’re going to be preaching for me.’ I asked God to call my Sunday School teacher Otto Thomas instead of me, because he knew all about the Bible, but I never got an answer back about that.”
Two years into retirement back home in the mountains, Warren was ready to be used for the kingdom of God. From there he pastored at Clark’s Creek Baptist Church, Stony Fork Baptist Church, Gap Creek Baptist Church, Beech Valley Baptist Church and Union Baptist Church, which he will always call his home church.
“I announced my calling in February of 1976. From that time on until now, I only missed one Sunday preaching in almost 40 years,” he said with a smile. “We didn’t cancel church for snow back then. One time we only had three or four people — myself, Libby and Roscoe Brown and God. It was one of the best services we ever had.”
Now in retirement from the pastorate, too, Warren recently had the privilege to tour the brand new National Museum of the United States Army just outside of Washington, which doesn’t even open to the public for another year.
“I had seen most of the equipment during my career. I used a lot of it and knew what it was — the helicopters, of course, in Vietnam and Korea that saved lives and were operated by pilots who were well trained in the medivacs,” he said. “It was a wonderful sight for me to see something like that — something that I’ve been a part of in my military career for 22-plus years. I’m looking forward to the completion of the museum and the dedication of it next year. I hope we can be there for that.
“It will instill more of the freedom and duty we have as citizens of the United States of America to ask again, not what my country can do for me but what I can do for my country. I hope that’s instilled for the generation to come as they see the museum and visit there and have real foreknowledge of what the nation expects of them.”
Warren treasures the time he was able to serve his country and maintains he’d join back right now if they’d have him. He also gives the Lord all of the credit and is thankful for his most precious assignment — to lead lost souls to the kingdom of Heaven.
“Can you imagine … an old country boy, raised on the farm, went into the service when I was 18, got a high school diploma through night school and was promoted to sergeant major?” said Warren. “My name could have been on either of those war memorials for Vietnam or Korea, and I knew that. It’s only by the mercies of God that I’m here today to talk.”