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Soldiers and Saints

Note: My son, Tyler, is in the military, currently deployed in Afghanistan. Over the past several years, Tyler has mentioned various relationships he has had with different military chaplains, particularly one chaplain named “Mike”. I asked Tyler if he would write about his experience with those uniquely called to minister and care for soldiers.

We wanted to post Tyler’s article as we honor our soldiers this Monday—Memorial Day. Though this soldier may have came back, many do not. This reality should never be lost on us.

Spring 2015 – The C-17 transport aircraft feels different this time. Strange, yet almost familiar, a spacious, cluttered hull of metal that has flown me back and forth from Afghanistan during three prior deployments. I’m now 36 hours into my fourth tour – a frequent flyer in search of a rewards program. My sleeping bag is spread out on the cold floor, and only six feet lay between me and the outside temperature of -35 fahrenheit.

My mind drifts back to different times, darker times. Times when I made this exact same trip while a storm raged within, violent waves of questions crashing against the shoals of my soul. The precursor to what could have been considered a “melt down”, yet God’s grace prevailed. I recall a pastor-warrior speaking the words that stilled the storm.

April 2011 – It was another C-17 flight. Seventy-five soldiers packed seven to a row, all wearing protective gear as we flew home from Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. We had done our time, we were done, and the C-17 was flying away from war. No one spoke – words seemed too trivial. We sat quietly, reflecting on our experiences, each man trying to make sense of why we were returning alive and others – men who were better than us – followed in caskets. For their families there would be no reunions, no loved ones, no celebrations. Only grief, loss, confusion, and then a military funeral. Little consolation for an indescribable loss.

We had surged south in Afghanistan into the Zari District on the order of President Obama shortly after he took office. We had seen some of the worst fighting of “Operation Enduring Freedom”, losing so many soldiers that our unit was rendered “non-mission capable”. Yet still we fought.

Just before we left, the fighting had ignited again. The Medivac helicopters revved with urgency, the way they did when there was precious cargo to recover. They were going to recover another fallen Soldier from the 10th Mountain Division who had just replaced us. I remember praying “Please don’t let it be Andrew,…Or Russ!” I remember the nausea like it was an hour ago.

But now it was over, at least for us. I was going home. God had protected me from physical harm. Others weren’t so lucky.

In the cavernous C-17, I was angry. Why would God allow this? How could God do such a thing? Why would He permit such carnage? WHY?! The questions pounded in my head like the beating of a low drum, and they refused to be answered.

I stood, walking aimlessly around the aircraft, lost in thought as Tim McGraw’s “Something Like That” pulsed through my iPod. I locked eyes with our unit chaplain, Mike. “Hey Tyler”, he started, “what’s on your mind? ” Mike was one of those guys who instinctively knew when something was wrong.  Despite the stench of jet fuel and soldiers who had not showered in days, he could detect the smell of confusion, depression, and hopelessness from any corner of the plane. Mike’s war was for the souls of men, and similar to our Creed, Mike never left a fallen Comrade.

The scene was not pretty. I was angry, and my words reflected my pain. As a good pastor-warrior, Mike knew me. He was there for most of my major struggles. He had seen me at my worst, when the grief and confusion over the absurdities of war overwhelmed me. Mike was a man who made it a point to be there at every major event that occurred. Now he sat listening intently to my hard and dark thoughts of God.

For Mike, nothing was theoretical. He wasn’t just the chaplain, spitting out feel-good verses and handing out candy. He wasn’t disconnected from our lives and what we were going through. Mike was a man graced by God to answer life’s more difficult questions. I remembered back to other times. Mike spoke to our unit when Matt (not real names) died, when Rob had been blown up, and when Kevin had been shot. He rallied us all for prayer, and was quick on the draw with the right Bible verses.

Mike was also a man who sacrificed for his flock. He knew our minds, shared our missions, and he was there when bullets flew. Yet Mike had a different mission. His call was to tend the souls of his soldiers. Mike comforted us in times of need, prayed for us when we couldn’t pray for ourselves, and helped us stay the course when our strength failed from operational exhaustion.

Mike was our shepherd, his weapon was God’s word, and his parish was war. The call to care meant stepping into the horror and darkness of helping those defending our nation and defending each other. While most of us fought for physical survival, Mike fought for the survival of our souls and minds.

As I concluded my emotional torrent, Mike sat, carefully considering his words. He had been here before…with me nonetheless. He reminded me of God’s sovereign control over war and peace. Speaking with conviction, he talked of how God’s good intentions towards His people lay at the center of human struggle. Mike pastored me as only an experienced chaplain can do.

My soul responded and God grew bigger. (This was an experience I would not fully appreciate till later on.) But I also felt gratitude – a deep, resonant, faith-building appreciation for not just Mike, but the others like Mike. People who don’t staff churches or wear robes, but carry the same sword in different seasons, regardless of whether it’s “a time to kill (or) a time to heal” (Eccl. 3:3). Soldier-saints who meet soldier-sinners in their worst moments and help them find their way. Soldier-saints who respond to the call to minister and care for broken warriors.

I’m a soldier – this is my calling. The world of Sunday mornings and small groups feels far from the cold floor of this C-17. But I’m grateful to God that he calls men to shepherd soldiers until we can return home to the churches we cherish.

I’m grateful that when God called, Mike answered.

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