Combat introduces elements into life that we don't find back at home, like flying bullets and explosions. It also removes distractions that affect how we think.
Last time, I shared how very, very few people think of God in the midst of a firefight. However, in those gaps between fights, people think. A daily, acknowledged, consistent, life-threatening danger leads people to think about what matters, and what may matter. Even a high-risk area like ours was really a year of boredom punctuated by regular bursts of intense activity.
When we think about what a deployed soldier or Marine is missing, we think of the important things - spouse, kids, neighborhood community. They also miss out on beer, nightclubs, and parties. Internet availability is a challenge in places that are being blown up all the time, so most of the guys had to share a few public computers with everyone else on their outpost. Even video games were limited to a few consoles that small units shared. So, they had a lot of time that wasn't wasted by unimportant things or demanded by important people. They had time to think - in fact, they had time with little else to do but think.
Sometimes that thinking revolves around the issues I've discussed before - killing, their friends dying, or the loved ones they miss. But, with time to think to spare, their minds also go to some things they rarely think about at home: God, sin, and eternity. Of course, some brush it off and rush into something to distract themselves. Others found themselves talking to me over a chessboard, or while we smoked tobacco (I picked up pipe smoking, while others went with cigarettes or cigars). Those conversations are as unforgettable as the flying bullets.
I heard what were, to me, the strangest ideas at times. That the "forbidden fruit" of the Garden of Eden was, actually, marijuana - or, from another soldier, that the forbidden fruit was sex. I talked to guys who didn't think God existed, others who though He didn't know what was going to happen, and others who thought He knew, but couldn't really do anything about it. I wasn't there to give theology lessons - if they asked me what I thought about their ideas, I'd tell them, and hoped they would ask themselves "four questions" - what do I believe, why do I believe it, where do those ideas come from, and are those answers good enough? Other times, I was just a listening ear, someone who cared and knew those thoughts of the supernatural were not "weak". I can't think of a single time I should have "corrected" their thinking without that invitation.
In the baptism pictured, while I celebrate the inward and spiritual change pictured by the outward and visible sign, I think most of one of the men in the picture off to the side. He didn't call himself a Christian but came to the baptism anyway (actually, of the dozen or so men who came to the baptism, very few self-identified as Christian). Less than three months later, that man was killed by enemy fire while I was in the states.
Did I say the right things at the baptism, the only time I know he heard about the eternal on that rotation? Were my words and actions enough to motivate him to ask those questions, to seek to know the God who made him for a purpose beyond a death in an unforgiving place? If part of my purpose in that valley was to bring God to soldiers, and soldiers do God, did I do it well enough when it mattered?
I don't know, but I'm thankful for a God that not only exists, knows, and acts, but has mercy and grace as part of his character - my faults were neither unexpected nor unforgivable. Neither are yours.