by Chaplain Don
It seems appropriate that I tell you about some heroes I met during deployment, and how thankful I am that they are willing to give everything for our great country. We ask so much of them, and I am proud to be in their midst, serving alongside them.
When I arrived at a small command outpost in Afghanistan, I simply walked around talking to the soldiers and learning their names. Because of the location and the constant enemy threat, no one left their hooch without a flak jacket.
The rest of the platoon was out on a patrol mission. They had left the day before to go over the mountain to a Shura (elders) meeting and were not expected back until nightfall. That would soon change…
Standing next to the mortar pit, I was talking to the guys in the mortar section. All of them were between the ages of 18 and 21. I was awed at their maturity, dedication, and belief in what they were doing.
One of the soldiers was from New Jersey. We immediately hit it off because I told him about growing up in Connecticut. He told me he was a Yankees fan. I let him know I was a Red Sox fan. We ribbed each other about our teams and laughed about being deployed for yet another World Series.
Soon I noticed a lot of commotion. Soldiers were running to positions, leaders were talking on radios and barking out orders. Just then, the mortar section leader ran out of the hooch and announced to the team, “Get ready for a fire mission guys!” he yelled. “The OP (observation post) has seen enemy moving in the mountains above us to the south and they are heading towards our scouts.”
The section sprang into action. When the firing died down, we got word that the scouts had escaped by a different route. It was unclear whether the fighters had been killed or had just retreated, but for the most part, the outpost was out of danger.
I wish the same could have been said for the patrol. On their way back to Bella, the squad, along with the platoon leader, got caught in a multi-directional ambush. A well-positioned enemy force attacked the patrol on a trail in the mountains with small arms, machine guns, and RPGs.
When it was over, the whole squad was either wounded or killed. Word of the attack made international news as the worst single attack on US troops in Afghanistan since the start of the war in 2001.
Earlier, I had questioned why God had sent me to this place at this time. I know now that I will never question God’s providence or sovereign timing ever again. Ministry to the soldiers there required everything I have ever learned as a chaplain.
Battling With Guilt
The squad leader was the last to come through the gate. Sweaty and tired, he looked like he had been through a lot. Dropping his assault pack on the ground, he sat down on a rock just inside the wire. I walked over to him. I could tell it had been tough for him.
“Hey sergeant,” I said patting him on the knee as I sat down next to him. “You did a great job out there.”
He shook his head in protest and quietly replied, “Not enough, sir. Not enough. I should have been out there with them.”
As we talked, I learned that his squad was the one that had been ambushed. He had gone to pick up some funds to pay the local nationals who work at the outpost.
He wasn’t on the patrol because he was doing a different part of his job–one that, on any other day, he would have thought nothing of. If the ambush had never happened, I dare say he probably would have enjoyed getting to go outside the post.
But today this young man faced the guilt that, as a leader, he was not with his men at a critical time in battle. That is the time they had trained for as a squad. It’s why squad leaders pound crew drills and individual tactics into their soldiers’ heads. The weight of that guilt was probably more overbearing for him than the actual combat would have been if he had been there with them.
Every muscle in his face convulsed as he gritted his teeth and pounded his fists onto his thighs. He cried out, “I should have been there with them, sir! I wish I could have been there!”
He buried his head into his hands and began to sob. I put my arms around him as I started to cry as well. “I know you do, son,” I said. “But for some reason, you weren’t. There’s a verse in the Bible that says, ‘In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9).’ What that says to me is that, as hard as it is right now for you to understand, God did not want you on that mission. You are alive today because of that. And the greatest gift you can give your squad is to continue to lead.”
He looked up at me with swollen eyes. I asked if I could pray for him, and we both prayed together that God would give him the strength he would need in the weeks to come.
“Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). How that verse rings truer than ever in my mind today!
I remain your faithful servant,