The hardest times aren't always in the midst of the fury. Sometimes, they are when you are nowhere near it. When your brothers need you most, in the worst possible circumstances, and you aren't there for them - what do you do?
I missed the birth of my daughter, Claire. This was a deliberate decision by my wife and me. Claire was scheduled to arrive about a month into our deployment. I could have stayed at home and left late, or come home the week she was due. However, that would have meant going 11 months apart, which we wanted to avoid. So, on July 6th, my wife brought baby Claire into the world with her mom in the room, and me on the other end of the phone. I can't imagine I was particularly helpful for that. Thankfully, I've been present for most of the other kids' arrivals into the family!
Anyway, my leave period was scheduled for halfway through the tour. By that time, we had lost four of our warriors to enemy fire in five months. In the weeks before my departure, our unit launched two large-scale missions into hostile territory. I asked to go on both, and was told "No" in both cases. So, I was stuck praying and listening to the radio in the command post for each.
Both missions went very similarly. A night movement into the valley (the Chapadara Valley and the Korengal Valley), followed soon afterward by sustained enemy fire for hours on end. Incredibly - supernaturally, it seemed - we had no one killed on these missions. As I recall, we didn't even have a serious injury in those battles (though we had a serious injury back at one of the other combat outposts (COPs) while most of the soldiers were away on the mission).
On paper, they never should have played out that way. Both were known insurgent strongholds. Both times it was hot and heavy. Yet, the team came back, mission accomplished, with heads held high and no losses. Though we had another, similar, mission planned, I headed out for leave without any real worries.
But then, a call came at home. We had lost one to enemy fire on one of the COPs. Then, another call - this one for a medic lost in the early stages of that planned mission. Horrifyingly, another call came in. We had lost FIVE more of my brothers to enemy fire as that mission continued. Then, in a strange, frustrating wrinkle of bureaucracy, my return flight was denied on the appointed date. After two more days of trying to get the system to work, I just bought my ticket to Atlanta so I could hop on the daily flight back to theater.
But, of course, I was too late. Seven men died in the time I was gone, which was more men from our unit than we lost the entire time I was with them, before and after. I never wanted the guys to think I was a good luck charm, and I knew that their lives didn't depend upon my presence - but the facts stared me in the face. In their time of greatest need, I wasn't there for them. My tears at home didn't help them. My prayers from afar seemed empty. While a good friend handled the chaplain duties for my stunned unit, I was half a globe away, in peace and security, and didn't even get back for the memorial ceremonies.
Why would God do that? Why would He make it look like I WAS a good luck charm? Why would he prevent me from helping them in their grief? Does God only show up when his special agents (clergy) are around, and we are left to fend for ourselves otherwise? Does a man's failure to see the future clearly curse not only himself, but his fellow man with him?
I still don't have all of those answers. But, when I made it back to the war, I was able to see something I needed to know - I wasn't the only chaplain, or the only man, who could help my brothers in grief. My friend stepped up and made a real difference in their lives. Other men, many who were solid in their faith, filled the gap in ways that still make me proud to know them. And, of course, the damage of those days did not end within 72 hours. I still get calls, years after the fact, from men who struggle with the losses of those days. It's an honor to walk with them when days are dark.
The truth is, that faith isn't given just to help you through a moment. It is a gift to be given to others, through relationships and hardships, in the flames of battle and in the simmer of memory. It proves itself real as time and life progress. It not only helps you to see reality, it helps others see what is real as well. And, as the year in the Pech Valley continued, I would have plenty more opportunities to see that reality.