Stephen Sweeney was eleven when he first learned about JAARS. “The youth pastor at our church knew I was interested in aviation, so he took me to the a JAARS Missions at The Airport event at Smoketown, Airport near my home in Pennsylvania,” remembers Stephen. “I flew in the old Hiller Helicopter and loved the experience. I knew then that aviation was in my future.” What he did not know was that JAARS would also be in his future.
Stephen attended Villanova University on a naval reserve officer scholarship and entered flight training at Pensacola, Florida after graduation and commissioning. He trained as a naval flight officer whose mission specialty was electronic warfare. During his 15 years on active duty, Stephen accumulated over 2700 hours of flight time in EA-6B, F/A-18F and EA-18G aircraft He also flew combat missions in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya. But as successful as Stephen was in the navy, the Lord had other ideas for his future.
“I intended to make the navy a career, but after about 12 years on active duty, my first child was born, and my father died from cancer. I started to question my future and my priorities. I prayed for the Lord to show me the way.”
Stephen’s next assignment was to a squadron as a department head. There he had a “very challenging relationship” with his commanding officer. After two-and-a-half years in this difficult situation, as Stephen put it— “I felt like an Israelite in Egypt.”
Stephen sought “wise counsel” from senior officers whose opinions he valued. After prayerfully considering all the options and with the full support of his wife Julie, Stephen made the difficult decision to leave the navy just five years short of full retirement eligibility.
Stephen knew the Lord had directed his path, but the time after leaving the navy was difficult. “We had three children at the time with one on the way. I sent résumés everywhere, but nothing came up,” Stephen remembers. “I started to have serious concerns about supporting my family and my own self-worth.” It was Julie who suggested that he look into the organization he had encountered as a youngster —JAARS. “I talked to two of their aviation recruiters who told me about the opportunities at JAARS and how welcomed I would be. Julie and I made the decision to pursue the opportunity.” After the Sweeneys made this commitment, Stephen started receiving multiple job offers in response to his previously unanswered résumés. Had the Lord kept those doors closed long enough to enable Stephen’s work at JAARS?
“The job offers were certainly tempting,” admits Stephen, “but I felt the Lord was directing me to JAARS even though I didn’t have a clear picture of what I would be doing there. Julie and I decided that this was the direction the Lord was leading us, and we would continue to say ‘yes’ as long as we got green lights.”
Before heading to JAARS, Stephen needed a job while the family raised support prior to assignment at JAARS. “The Lord blessed us through a friend at church,” Stephen remembers. “His brother-in-law needed a salesman for his shed-construction business, and he offered me the job even knowing that I would be leaving at some time.”
“The way the Lord provided for us during this time was just incredible. During those months before I had to leave for mission preparation, my commissions jumped enough that I could afford the time off—it was like manna from heaven!”
One year after making inquiries into mission service, Stephen was at JAARS, assigned to the Missions at The Airport team. Interestingly, his first trip in that capacity was back to Smoketown, Pennsylvania, where he first learned about JAARS.
Stephen subsequently went on to other jobs with ever-increasing responsibility, culminating when Woody McClendon, then president of JAARS, selected him as his chief of staff. One of his important roles in this position was to assist in the job search for the new JAARS president. Now that the new president is in place, Stephen continues to help with his transition.
The 11-year-old boy who was first introduced to JAARS at the Smoketown airport had no idea that he would eventually play an important role with JAARS. But the Lord knew, and he subsequently opened doors and gave Stephen green lights all the way from Smoketown to Waxhaw. As Stephen put it, “The Lord brought us on a round trip.”