You know those guys. After a full day of playing Call of Duty from their mother’s basement, they splatter all over the INTERNETS how they would do such-and-such in combat, brag about their guns, post pics of them with their subdued US flag, OAF Nation, camouflage hats. But, they’ve never seen a shot fired in anger. As they say, everybody wants to be a tough guy until it’s time to do tough guy stuff.
But I was aware of my lack of combat experience. While interviewing for a special operations unit, I was asked to rank order 16 character traits. For #16, I put, “courage”. When the interviewer asked me why I did that, I said, “I have never been under hostile fire. I like to think that I would do what was right, no matter what, but I don’t think anyone really knows what they will do until they are in the middle of it.”
45 days later, I was on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter with 35 other men, flying down the Pech River Valley at midnight. As we landed at FOB Blessing in the pitch dark, the co-pilot said, “you have three minutes to get off of the LZ before mortar rounds will start landing.” Let’s just say, something tightened up immediately.
We were off the LZ quickly, and the mortar fire didn’t happen (the enemy rarely attacked at night in that part of the country). However, the daily attacks, on and off the bases, began right away. But, despite all of the flying lead and explosions, there was very little in the way of casualties that first month. My first “firefight” wasn’t a big deal. I was in an armored truck that came under fire , and the bullets just bounced off of the vehicle. It probably only lasted three minutes, and there were no casualties. There were other times of more intense fire, bullets and explosions, with similarly little damage to people.
One day, the commander’s security detachment had a short firefight with the enemy and a wounded soldier came in. It turned out that he had a gun jam, and then grabbed his secondary weapon, but in the heat of battle one of the rounds he fired hit the inside of his own turret – it fragmented and cut his face in a couple of places. Standing in my customary place at the head of the surgical table, I joked, “I’m sorry, private, but you’re not gonna make it. Are you ready to meet your maker?” He cracked back at me, “F- you, chaplain!” We all laughed.
However, a week later, that same group came under intense fire from heavy machine guns and RPGs. I wasn’t with them, but was in the command post (CP) listening to the radio. The news was coming in – out of four trucks, two were disabled. There was one KIA, several wounded, one of them badly. I stood in the CP, helpless. As men fought for their lives, one of whom ran 150 yards under intense fire to get to one of the disabled vehicles to help that team, all I could do was pray for them.
The same young man I joked with on the table was the one who was badly wounded, and the medic at the combat outpost couldn’t save him. My praying didn’t save him, and my morning prayers didn’t save the driver who was killed by an RPG to his head. Did my prayers matter? Was it somehow my fault for not praying enough, for not believing enough, for not doing enough?
What did I believe about God? Why did I think those beliefs were true? Where did those beliefs come from? Moments like this force us into answering these questions. Just like Call of Duty Warrior who can talk a big game, when we think our faith is real, we can talk a big game – until it gets real.