Bullets only strengthened Texas couple’s resolve

PAYNE SPRINGS—Don and Teri Caswell thought they would just lay low when they returned to Yemen seven months after a terrorist attack on the Jibla Baptist Hospital where he had served as a pharmacist. As the last family on their flight to come through immigration, Yemeni officials couldn’t figure out why their passports had no reference to their prior travel to the country.

“They kept looking at the passports and looking at us as if to say we know you’ve been here before,” Teri Caswell recalled, explaining that they had been issued new documents before traveling back to Yemen. After retrieving their bags, Don Caswell finally satisfied the curiosity of the local authorities: He lifted his shirt, revealing the scars from the bullets that hit him on each side.

The attack of Dec. 30, 2002 claimed the lives of three co-workers—obstetrician Martha Myers of Alabama, hospital administrator Bill Koehn, a Kansas native, and purchasing manager Kathy Gariety of Wisconsin. Caswell was the lone survivor.

A day later, Myers and Koehn were buried at the top of the 22-acre compound where Jibla Baptist Hospital sat. The funeral attracted 40,000 Yemeni nationals, lining the street for a half-mile outside the hospital gates to pay their respects.

The Caswells and their two sons were flown to a safe location in the Middle East before returning to their home in Eustace.

“Every single person at the International Mission Board, from Jerry Rankin on down, were all so supportive,” Teri remembered. “Whatever they could do to help us, they did it. It was amazing.”

Their gratitude extends to the Southern Baptist churches that contribute to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. “Our missionaries go out on the field and they don’t have to worry about raising their support when they come back,” Teri added. ‘Because of that, we can send more people.”

Having served 18 months of a two-year commitment when Caswell was injured, the couple never hesitated in their desire to continue the work they’d begun, returning to Yemen in August 2003 and eventually settling in Payne Springs, Texas.

Upon their return to Yemen that August, Caswell assumed responsibilities at the Jibla compound, helping coordinate the work of volunteers from other countries. “It was a lot harder to keep a low profile,” he said, referring to guards stationed at their residence. “They would question anyone who came to visit.”

“We were going to try to lay low, but there was no way,” Caswell told the TEXAN. “The big sheik always wanted me to sit by him and show people my scars,” he recalled with amusement.  

Other scars remained under the surface. “I used to not believe in post-traumatic stress, but I do now,” Don said. When their term was completed, the Caswells headed to Winston-Salem, N.C., where Calvary Baptist Church provided counseling for the entire family before returning to Texas in May 2005.
Don struggles to find words to describe the many ways his life was changed by the experiences of Yemen.

“Things that used to be really important to me are just not that important anymore,” he said. “I used to get all up in the air about different things we were doing at church.” Now he sets his focus on taking the gospel to the lost.

“It’s not how big the church is but what you do outside the church in sharing the love of Christ,” he added.

When he can break away from his job at a local pharmacy, Caswell participates in mission trips with First Baptist Church of Malakoff, where he and his family are members. During a vision trip to Greece, he traveled to the northern region witnessing to Muslims who had migrated from Turkey.

Their youngest son joined Don on a trip to Malawi and ventured out with an interpreter to share his own testimony. Next summer he will travel with other teenagers from the church to serve in Costa Rica.

Ten years after the attack on hospital personnel, the Caswells speak with gratitude for the opportunity to serve with the three Southern Baptists who were martyred, having particular affection for Myers, who had served in the country for 25 years.

“She was dedicated to God,” Teri explained. “Her calling was to God and that’s who she answered to.”
That example inspired Teri to develop a similar resolve. “For me, that’s been the biggest thing that I learned. If God has called me to do something, by golly, I’m going to do it.”

For now that determination is channeled through Faith in Action Outreach, a ministry offering “life sustaining services to neighbors in need.” Begun as a food pantry by a small group from another church, the work was handed off to First Baptist Church of Malakoff with nearly 100 people volunteering.

As an outreach adopted by his Sunday School class, Don travels to Tyler each week along with other men to retrieve thousands of pounds of food from East Texas Food Bank.

The ministry provides food each month to 1,200-1,500 people representing about 350 families from Henderson County. About 100 undernourished elementary school children from four school districts receive grocery bags filled with kid-friendly items.

“We do more than just food,” Teri explained. “We have probably doubled the amount we give out and now we have the clothing closet serving about 350 families,” she said, adding that the donation of a building allows the ministry to house both the clothing closet and food pantry in the same location.
The Caswells saw the fruit of meeting basic human needs during their time in Yemen. “The best ministry we had was through the hospital and orphanage and in helping the widows,” he said.

Teri recalled one widow who responded to their offer of help, trusting Christ as Savior. “Then her children, one by one, came to know the Lord because we met a need first,” she added. “It’s really true that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

That approach to ministry has made a difference in the lives of people to whom they’ve ministered in East Texas as well as Yemen. “We’ve had six or seven salvations since we started. That’s not bad for one year in a country saturated with the gospel,” Teri said.

Thinking ahead to a time when their youngest child graduates from high school, Don said, “We still have a heart for missions and are hoping in the future that we’d like to go back overseas,” contemplating some type of member care role in support of IMB missionaries.

“Or maybe even use the experience we’re having now with the food pantry to do some kind of hunger relief,” Teri added. “I feel like God is training us for what he wants us to do next.”

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