Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Scars of War

"The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."
General Douglas MacArthur

Once in while I have the honor of meeting and speaking to a person who is in a different league. Today I met just such a person. I'll call him Sergeant K. He and I had a very interesting conversation. Actually I asked questions and he told stories. I say he is in a different league because he is what I wish I could be were I not a Chaplain. I would not change places with him for all the money in the world, but if life had pushed me in another direction, I would hope I had the kind of internal fortitude that I heard in his voice and saw in his eyes and felt in his hands.

Sergeant K probably tops out at 22 years old. He is short and muscular and has what might be called a baby face. We spoke for about 30 minutes and when we parted I felt as though I had met someone significant. He is a warrior and when I first encountered him, I liked him immediately.

As is the habit of most would be conversationalists, I approached Sergeant K and blithely asked, "How are you doing?" That was a pretty stupid question. You see, Sergeant K was lying on a hospital gurney, needles and tubes running in and out of his arms, with a bullet hole in one leg. He had been injured in a gun fight the prior evening and was being prepared for transport home. Having only a marginal understanding of the circumstances of his injury, and knowing that often soldiers appreciate the opportunity to decompress after a stressful situation, I asked him if he could remember what had happened. As he relayed his story, the innocence of his youth flowed intermixed with the maturity forced upon him by circumstance...and I was in awe.

On the night in question, Sergeant K and his squad were given the mission of getting a bad guy. They knew where he was and had a good idea of how to get him. They approached the house by darkness and began the assault. Sergeant K, being the veteran and leader of the squad went in first, clearing room after room. The bad guy was determined to fight back. As they entered one room, they met gunfire head on and Sergeant K was hit. They fought "for what seemed like forever". In reality the fight couldn't have lasted 20 seconds. Wounded and bleeding he directed his squad to withdraw so he could redirect a counter assault and tend to his leg. As they moved slowly back, a round caught the newest member of his squad, mortally wounding him.

As Sergeant K laid there on his back relating the story of how the building and bad guys in it were finally destroyed, tears wandered down his cheeks, slowly pooling in his ears. His days of mourning and wondering were just beginning. It was then that I was given the honor of praying with and for this wonderful young man. I prayed while he wept. We spoke a little longer and I left the hospital thankful for having had that conversation.

A couple more things bear comment that will help the reader understand the thinking and nobility of these great men. Less than a month ago, Sergeant K was in another fight in which he received shrapnel to the other leg. He now has two Purple Hearts pending. In spite of his wounds, he expressed a desire to be back with his men, engaged in the fight, supporting them and leading them. That desire and drive came from somewhere deep in his spirit; somewhere untouched by military training or conditioning; somewhere unavailable to man but open to God. Sergeant K's spiritual man played a huge role in his actions and attitudes and he displayed that unashamedly. As we talked it was impossible not to notice that in addition to the scars created by bullets and bombs, he bore a large tattoo on his left shoulder. It offered a window into the soul of the man and his understanding of why he does what he does. It read, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God."

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Politics of Greatness

I'm not a political person. I vote in just about every election, I have opinions, I pay attention...But that's about it. I don't often talk about political matters (you know what they say about politics and religion) and I blog about them even less often. I accept at face value the fact that I was blessed to be born into a free country where people are allowed to hold and voice their support of or opposition to the practices and policies of the powers that be. But sometimes you just have to step out of your norm and venture into the world of punditry. And so it is that this particular post will probably lack any measure of eloquence or my normal "word-smithery" because of the angst I feel over the topic at hand.

Over the past few days there has been much in the news about the death toll in Iraq. Fox News, CNN, even AFN News are discussing and spinning the magic number 2000 to the point of nausea. Frankly, one is too many. But this is a war, after all. Blood will spill, lives will be lost, and families will mourn. It is the nature of what we do. The problem is that every news source that I have access to is focusing on our casualties. One of the results is that the American soldier is demoralized. Not because one or more of his buddies may have given their all, but because he feels like the American people do not really understand what he is doing and are therefore not truly behind him. There are two sides to every story, but the American people only seem to be getting half of it. A basic understanding of Operational Security (OPSEC) forbids me from divulging details of some of the things I've seen and heard. However, there are some things I can mention.

First, 99 out of 100 soldiers I have spoken with understand that we are involved in something substantial and meaningful over here. They are not the mind-numbed robots many make them out to be. They are well educated, highly trained, well equipped professional warriors who know their job and want to do it.

Second, the men we are fighting here are evil, blood-sucking vermin. They kill indiscriminately and without remorse. Their goal is power, and they seek to gain it even if it costs the lives and spirits of all their fellow countrymen.

Third, while we have lost 2000+ of our patriot sons and daughters, the number of terrorists who have assumed room temperature is estimated to be anywhere from 5 to 20 times that number (depending on who you talk to). We are taking the wood to the bad guys on a regular basis and in spectacular fashion. I never cease to be amazed at the warrior ethos that drives this great generation of American men and women or their willingness to fight and die for the freedom of people they will never meet.

And in the middle of the violence, blood, gore, and mayhem, the American fighting man stands as the paradigm of brotherly love, seeking the best for others. He kills when he must but never without cause. He fights to free others rather than to gain something for himself. He sacrifices daily to ensure that this country of sand and dust and people will not be subjected to this kind of lifestyle forever. He offers the Iraqi people a chance to taste the freedom he enjoys. And for what? So that those with a public voice can point a finger of blame and disgust while decrying his efforts and belittling his mission?

I'm not a political person. But my soldiers deserve to be heard and respected. They are a new generation of American and have earned the title "great".

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

When Worlds Collide

Joe…Java…Black Gold…Liquid Joy…It has lots of names. I call it My Precious. Take your pick. For me, coffee is one of life’s great joys. I love it on a cold morning when it’s kind of drizzling outside, and the house is quiet. I love it on a hot Iraqi afternoon when you have to flitter from one shadow to the next not to suffer heat stroke. I just love coffee. A wonderful side benefit of the Elixir of Life is that it gives you a nice pick up when you want to really start your day.

Battle Dress Uniforms…Desert Camouflage Uniforms…Advanced Camouflage Uniforms…They have lots of names and lots of colors. The nice thing about Army clothing is that you never have to think about what you are going to wear on a given day. A wonderful side benefit of military clothes is that you don’t have to worry about whether or not they are entirely clean. After all, they are supposed to blend in with the dirt around them. That’s why they are so great.

Today started a little later than usual. I was up last night talking with a soldier a little later than usual so I slept a little longer today. This meant that as I rushed to make it to our daily Mission Oriented Prayer Huddle I was a bit groggy. Having thrown on the nearest pair of BDU’s, I stumbled into the operations area and grabbed that first fabulous cup of Heaven on Earth. I made my way to my desk to sit, sip, and wake up. And two worlds collided.

One misplaced bottom heavy styrofoam cup, coupled with one wayword elbow, and clothing and coffee became one in a single moment of searing pain bordering on nirvana. I quickly stood to my feet in a futile attempt to separate blazing burlap from sensitive skin. Suddenly, I remembered that I am a soldier surrounded by other soldiers and one cannot jump around screaming as though one’s lap were burning with the fury of a white hot sun. So I casually limped to the nearest paper towel to attempt to undo the process by which flesh and cloth are fused into one organic pair of multi-colored-earth-tone pants.

So my morning got off to an interesting start. And once the swelling and redness disappear, I think I’ll have a cup of Joe.

Monday, October 24, 2005

I-tensil Utensil

I can't imagine that there is anyone over here that does not want to go home. It's very fulfilling to be a part of something so big and to play a role in the freeing of an entire nation. But it's like Dorothy said, "There's no place like home." They treat us pretty well here, but there are some things that just can't be replaced. As I sit down for meals and talk with soldiers about life, service, home, girls, boys, families, etc. everyone misses something. For one it coffee out of his favorite mug. For another it's the morning newspaper. One guy will miss the smell of his children or the taste of mom's lasagna. Everyone misses something. Everyone looks forward to getting back to that something. Everyone dreams of normalcy. That's where the sacrifice of these great people is most clearly seen. In the little things they willingly give up to live and work in a rat hole. And they don't complain or blame or whine. They just keep fighting and working and dreaming of going home. These are truly great people.

Like the next guy, I too, want to go home and hold my wife and my sip coffee from my own work in my yard. But having been deployed to several locations in a very short period I miss one thing more than any other. For me plastic is the problem. It's those silly plastic forks with the hollow tines where everything you eat gets jammed in there and it just feels funny in your mouth. I miss real silverware. Ah the feel of smooth aluminum or steel or tin or whatever they make silverware out of (maybe its silver). I'm no utensilogist, but I know a good fork when I see one. Knives and spoons are not an issue. Forks are what I miss. Like I said, I'm no different...just like the next guy...kinda.

You see, unlike the next guy, I have the perfect spouse. She knows me and loves me anyway. She's perfect. So, recently I was home just long enough to drive my kids to school a couple of times and kiss my bride. And just before taking off again for parts unknown, she bought me a fork! It's not a very fancy one, but it's perfect. Neither is it a girly fork. It has a nice big handle that’s a manly black and silver; it’s easy to hold onto with perfectly straight and smooth tines. I love my fork. So now when I go to eat breakfast or lunch or dinner or just an afternoon snack, I reach into my pocket and pull out my little friend...and we enjoy a meal together. There's no place like home, even when it's the size of a fork.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

A True and Stirring Tale

In order for the reader to get a genuine feel for the emotional tone I hope to create with this story, he or she would do well to find the nearest patriotic CD and let it play softly. If that's not possible, think of your favorite song of patriotism and begin to hum quietly to yourself as you read. I find a soulful rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to be especially emotive and appropriate. "Mine eyes have seen hmmm hmmm hmmmm hmmmm hmmmm coming of the Lord."

It is surely impossible for the casual reader to understand in a real way what it is like to be living in a war zone. Since this conflict began, our forces have done a splendid job of thwarting the plans of the enemy, all the while working to improve his lot in life. Where we once slept in tents, we now often sleep in plywood huts. Where we once walked everywhere, we now often are afforded the use of a car. Where we once ate Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's) from a plastic bag, we now have dining facilities that on occasion approximate real chow halls. And it is just outside one of these dens of culinary delight that a friend recently saw something that stirs the heart and ruffles the soul.

(Are you still humming?)

Just outside the kitchen entrance, where breakfast, lunch, and dinner go from chicken to nugget, was seen a stack of boxes bearing the warning, "Grade 'D' Meat - Prisoners and Military Only!"

Together...Nice and loud, "Over hill over dale la la la dee da dee la caissons go rolling along!"