Bob Ossler is no stranger to personal trials. From an early age, he watched his mother, a single parent, struggle to support his two older sisters and his younger brother. The pain of his father’s abandonment of their family erupted in school where he acted out. By age 11, his mother remarried, and his new dad adopted all four children, bringing stability to the family. Finding his sweet grandmother collapsed on the floor one day, he watched as emergency medical technicians rescued her and transported her to the hospital. This early incident kindled Bob’s desire to be an EMT himself.
Throughout his early childhood and teen years, he was the target of bullies who discovered his sensitive nature. Undiagnosed attention deficit disorder kept him on the edges of an educational system not yet prepared to handle his inattention, learning style, and behavior issues.
Yet distractibility became Bob’s best attribute, giving him a curious nature that enabled him to explore a wide variety of interests.
In high school, Bob mastered chess on his own. Instead of winning with the strength of the King or Queen, he learned to win with weakness. Chess taught Bob how to how to think strategically: Sometimes he won with lesser-ranked pawns or a knight. His father’s friend affirmed him: “The strategies you use in this complex game, thinking eight to ten moves ahead and playing multiple games at the same time takes real intelligence. You are incredibly smart and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
In the Military
After graduating from high school in 1976, Bob still harbored a strong interest in medicine, but wasn’t ready for college. He joined the U.S. Air Force and trained in x-ray technology and psychiatric evaluation. Bob screened service members with emotional difficulties, administered tests, and referred them to psychiatrists and the social services department when results indicated that need. As part of his training experiences, he took an IQ test and found out he wasn’t as stupid as the kids in elementary school labeled him.
Trapped by Religious Fervor
While serving in the military in California, Bob worked with a young woman named Dixie, a born-again Christian. She and her husband, Roy, drove him nuts with their Gospel-and-Jesus-and-being-a-sinner talk. Despite their intense religious fervor, they became good friends. Dixie invited Bob to a spiritual retreat. Bob’s response? “Sorry. Not interested.” But for weeks, Dixie harassed him “You don’t want to miss this. This retreat will change your life.” Trapped by Dixie and Roy into attending, a fuming Bob marched up to the retreat speaker and challenged him, “I’m a decent person. I try to live a good life. So I make a few mistakes. Why do I need to change my life?”
With two thick Bibles in hand, the speaker said, “Let’s talk.” Using Bible verses, this godly man answered Bob’s hostile questions, fired one after another. The more the retreat speaker shared, the more disarmed Bob felt. The speaker’s warmth and genuine personality touched Bob’s heart and he began asking serious questions. The speaker spent all night pointing out Bible verse after Bible verse in response to Bob’s challenges. He didn’t mock Bob’s questions or tire of his endless curiosities. His knowledge of the Bible impressed Bob.
Bob was no saint and carried a load of guilt. As he listened to this man share the Gospel, Bob’s tone changed from obnoxious jerk to enjoying the question and answer dialog. That night Bob became a Christian and never turned back. This spiritual encounter in his twenties led him to believe God was in control of his life, and God had plans for Bob, just as promised in Jeremiah 29:11-14. “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord . . .’”
Decision Point: Conflicting Goals
After the military, Bob was torn. His life interest in medicine pulled him one way, but his newfound faith tugged him another way. He enrolled in classes at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, earned a Bachelor of Science in Christian Ministry, and met his wife, Sue. On May 29, 1982, Bob and Sue married, and ever since that day, he has affectionately called her Swaggy, a play on her maiden name. They’ve experienced their joys and trials, but they’ve clung together. Now married for 34 years, he’s still devoted to her. Sue has been his rock, his best friend ever.
Throughout his adult life, Bob’s been an eager learner. He wanted to know everything and do everything tied to emergency services and helping people in distress. As soon as he mastered one area of service, he stretched out to obtain training in a related area. He earned his National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians Certificate, the higher-level EMT certificate, from Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, IL. He became a certified firefighter and worked for the Chicago Fire Department. Along the way he got his pilot’s license; trained in post-traumatic stress disorders and critical incident stress management; earned an Associate in Applied Science Degree in Mortuary Science/Pathology with honors at Chicago Citywide College; completed his embalming internship at Cook County Morgue, Chicago, IL. and his pathology internship at Loyola Hospital, Maywood, IL.; received his Master Scuba Diver Certificate and served as an air-sea rescue scuba diver with the Chicago Fire Department; and earned a Masters in Pastoral Ministry and a Doctorate in Pastoral Ministry both at Christian Bible College and Seminary.
Health Issues and Heartache
In their marriage, Bob and Sue suffered through health issues and heartache, yet their faith triumphed over fear. Sue suffered one miscarriage. She gave birth to a daughter with hydrocephalus, Heather, who endured twenty-five major surgeries, including brain surgery and open-heart surgery. They loved their child with special needs no matter what. Now an adult, Heather lives independently, recently earned an associate’s degree in journalism, and works hard for a living. After launching their beloved three daughters into adulthood, Sue was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy and chemo treatments.
Bob’s personal understanding of suffering deepened his faith and commitment to compassionate care ministry. Volunteering as a chaplain at Ground Zero ripped Bob out of a comfortable world of calmness and routine into a world of chaos, despair, and suffering. This experience was the most significant work he ever faced in his life.
His background and experience in emergency services prepared him for Ground Zero, but not for the video loops of disturbing scenes playing through his mind long afterwards. Even as Chaplain Ossler offered comfort and hope to others, Bob struggled with significant emotional turmoil. The gruesome sights of recovered broken, mangled bodies buried amidst a fiery trash heap permeated his soul and challenged his mental equilibrium. Now, by the grace of God, he’s moved through those horrible visions.
Fifteen Years after 9/11
Fifteen years after 9/11, Bob Ossler serves as the Pastor of Visitation and Evangelism at Cumberland County Community Church in Millville,New Jersey. He also volunteers as a chaplain with the Millville, New Jersey Police Department. Once again, Chaplain Ossler works with severely traumatized people in the worst moments of their lives. Bob invites them to share their stressors and crisis as he shares the comfort of prayer and God’s grace.