And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hell followed him. ~ Revelation 6:8
The men looked at me as a good luck charm. You don't want that as a chaplain - you can't guarantee anything, after all. Things just don't work that way. That said, I have to admit that our unit never lost a member to combat on whatever outpost or convoy I happened to be. Even so, with all the flying lead, fragmenting steel, and explosions directed toward us, even I couldn't escape the face of death.
Every week I held a service at each combat outpost (COP), with two at Camp Blessing on Sundays. Attendance varied from 5 to 25, with some guys showing up every week, and others dropping in on occasion. I never had someone who only came once.
One Tuesday, as I was getting ready to move to the next COP, one of the regulars walked by. He said, "sorry I missed the service yesterday, chap - I'll catch you next week!" I really liked him. Chaplains do a lot of marriage counseling, normally for "issues", but he and his wife had come in to see me one day, "just to get better". That's the kind of marriage counseling a chaplain dreams of! I waved at him and smiled, and headed out to join my convoy, which was headed the opposite direction from his.
When I had a choice, I always rode in the front vehicle (of a four-six vehicle convoy). It's the most likely to get hit by an IED, and it was important to me that they knew I wasn't scared. Well, looked like I wasn't scared, at least.
We rolled out the gate and headed east. As we approached a town, there was a huge explosion in front of our vehicle - they had missed, blowing the explosive too early. At nearly exactly the same time, we started getting radio reports that the convoy going the other way had also been hit. We turned our convoy around to go provide security and assistance. When we arrived, they had already told us that there were two dead and one seriously wounded.
We stopped about 80 yards short of the other vehicles (my truck was last on the route back). Over the objections of the sergeant in the truck, I jumped out and ran toward the disabled truck, saying, "yeah, ok, cover me" before I disconnected from the intercom wire. As I came nearer to the blast site, I saw that the truck had somehow been flipped 180 degrees from its original direction and was on its side, with chunks of metal, concrete, and dust all over. There was no fire.
Someone stopped me on the way to the truck - the medic. I could hear the MEDEVAC helicopter already approaching. The medic said, "Sir, he's hurt really bad, you've gotta pray for him." The man was strapped down to the stretcher already, prepped for evacuation, and I knelt down next to him and prayed - yelling to try to be heard over the helicopter noise.
Why was I yelling? Was God unable to hear over the sound of a Blackhawk? I yelled for the injured man, for the medic, and anyone close enough to hear. They needed to know that I was praying, and what I was praying. I wasn't there for me, and I wasn't even there for God. I was there for them.
As they picked him up and moved him toward the landing zone, I walked to the truck. I knew they were dead - no hurry. One man was halfway out the door on the driver's side, pinned to the ground crushed beneath the vehicle. His skin was completely green. GREEN. Not like the green crayon, but a grey-green covering that made him look...unhuman. As I knelt down next to him, crucifix in one hand, mace of holy water in the other, I realized why - he wasn't human anymore. The bond between body and spirit had been ripped apart, the most unnatural thing that can happen to a person. After praying for his soul and his family, I stood and went to the turret, where I knew I would find my "regular" who had missed that week's service.
All I could see was his waist, from the back. He was covered in all kind of war debris - ammunition, boxes, and I don't even know what else. I tried to pull him out by his waist, but couldn't budge him. I tried for a while to dig him out, throwing items out of the truck, but the distribution of debris and mangled armored truck parts was beyond my ability to move. The senior man in the group told me they would need to put the truck upright in order to remove him. So, after a moment to bless my brother's body and spirit, separated until the Last Day, I walked back to my convoy.
We found out later that his wife was pregnant with his child, conceived shortly before he left for the deployment. Was that the answer to my prayers? It certainly didn't feel like enough. A widow and a fatherless child left behind, while those who killed him didn't even have the decency to fight it out with us. His teammate dead, his sergeant wounded in body and soul. If my faith was based only upon what my parents told me, or what I came up with on my own, or even what I shared with a group of peers in school, an event like this would have broken it. But a God who is real doesn't only speak through life and good times. In many ways, his voice is easier to hear in the despair and in the valley of the shadow of death. And, in the midst of this violence, He was calling us to Himself.
(Photo Credit: Jonathan Springer)