In Church One Sunday

My Marines gathered to worship last Sunday. It was during our reunion, and we had celebrated hard the night before. I was invited by the pastor to offer words of welcome. I went forward to speak on behalf of these 13 warriors from the Vietnam conflict. Many are now walking with a limp, one is blind, and all were wondering what I was going to say to a congregation that was hosting our time together. Here are the words God gave me.

“Good Morning. On behalf of India Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Regiment, First Marine Division, I thank all of you for your hospitality. Steve, you cannot see the smiling, welcoming faces all around us, but I assure you we are encircled by love in this sanctuary-this room where we partied yesterday and where we worship today. Friends, we are enjoying our reunion this weekend, in spite of the weather. We are not afraid of rain…or mud. We’ve been in the deluge of monsoons for weeks at a time. We are no strangers to the rain.

You have welcomed us home these past days. This was a gift some of us did not receive fifty-three years ago. You have thanked us for our service, and we have replied, “It was our privilege.” We don’t see ourselves as heroes, nor do we consider ourselves victims.. We were honored to serve, to rise to the call of duty, to defend freedom and the flag of our nation.

This reunion was made possible through the efforts of many, especially Pastors Ronnie McBrayer and Garet McHugh, and Carolyn Mullins and all her volunteers. Including those who helped with airport transportation.

Now to India Company, let me say this. Back in those days, when things got too horrible, even for us, we had a phrase. And it was, “Don’t mean nuthin.'” “Don’t mean nuthin.'” Of course it was denial. We couldn’t bear what was actually happening. It was our defense mechanism. Well, I want to say this to you Marines as we look around this room. This DOES mean something. It means a whole lot. This is a place of shalom, of safety and rest. This is the church where Martha and I belong. These are the people we love and who love us. The ones who have prayed for us, supported and encouraged us, and who have befriended us.

This is our home, and we have found God through Jesus Christ in this sacred setting and among these people. I hope you, my fellow Marines, along with your wives, will feel something of that belonging here today.”


I’ll never forget him.

He was a large man, boarding our plane after Martha and I had settled into our seats. He lumbered down the aisle and stopped, right across from me. He sat down hard, like he was punishing the aircraft.

I noticed the cap he was wearing; I’ve seen it many times over the past few years. The wording was, “Dysfunctional Veteran: Leave Me Alone.” If any phrase in our language speaks volumes, that warning tells a story that most of us don’t want to hear.

Normally I honor a troubled veteran’s request, and I refrain from speaking. Even when I know our life’s journeys have been along similar paths. For most of us, compassion guides us to withhold conversation out of respect for a wounded warrior.

The tall man’s facial features were darkened. His countenance was clouded. Anguish seemed to be written into the lines on his face. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. His right hand, showing signs of aging far beyond his years, was holding his head. I wondered if he was suffering a headache…or a heartache. Or both.

I was struggling to keep myself from opening a conversation. But then that “still, small voice” that I’ve heard all my life told me to go against my intuition and speak.

I leaned over to him and said, “Excuse me, Sir. Can you tell me about your hat?”

He violently twisted his head to me and ours eyes met. I could see rage, and murderous anger that I’ve seen in my own mirror from time to time. His unspoken message to me seemed to be, “How dare you invade my space! Can’t you read? I would kill you if I could!” But the malicious momentum was instantly stopped when I pointed to the Marine logo on my shirt and I whispered, Vietnam.”

His hate-filled face vanished, and a faint smile appeared. He knew I understood. When he then offered his hand to me, we became brothers in an instant. We said to each other, simultaneously, “Thank you for your service.” And we then we went silent for the flight to Nashville.

When the plane landed, as passengers filled the aisle to move onto their final destinations, I again broke the silence. My words were, “Has the VA taken good care of you?” And he replied, “Yes.”

I then shared just a glimpse of my life, “I’m glad you’ve found help. The VA doctors and counselors are the reason I’m standing here right now. Twenty-five years ago, I was all but dead inside. But by the grace of God and the kindness of caring and competent people, I’m here talking with you. PTSD was the demon, but now I’m well along the road to recovery.”

He pointed to his head, “It’s PTSD that almost took my life. Now every day is a gift. I was in Navy and was serving aboard the USS Iowa.” At the mention of that vessel, the air between us shuddered. The Iowa was on a training mission in April, 1989, when a gun turret exploded, taking the lives of forty-seven sailors. The fire from that blast reached 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and vaporized everything in its path. Human beings disappeared. Only a few remains were identifiable.

My friend had witnessed that carnage and had been part of the effort to quench the fire and save the ship. He also was on the team that tried to clean up the burned out turret. Unless one has been exposed to that kind of trauma, there is no way to comprehend the horror and the helplessness that overwhelms all the senses.

This sailor told me he was on his way to San Antonio to meet a shipmate he hadn’t seen since the tragedy. They would join others for a memorial service for those who perished on that dreadful day. He was hoping for some closure and some healing, and I told him I would pray that he would find what he needed.

As the line started moving, I shared with him that I was on my way to Florida to prepare for a reunion of my Marine unit from Vietnam. We spoke, again simultaneously, and said to each other, “I’m glad you made it home.”

And that was it.

More Reflections

I listen to the Christmas carols and recall times early in my life when this music sounded like home and peace and hope. Those are good memories, and I wish everyone could remember those holidays with a smile. But I know that is not the case for those who experienced painful moments during the season of Christmas and New Year’s.

“Silent Night” was often the song that was played during the candlelight services on Christmas Eve. I can still see the flames brightening the faces of friends and family who had gathered for the evening worship time. Sometimes it was held at 11:00, so when we left the church it was already Christmas Day. Snow would often greet us as we were heading to our car.

I learned as the years rolled along that the holidays were often marked by strife at home and abroad. I thought of the men and women in uniform around the world, far from their families as they defended our freedoms. And then I became one of those men, sitting in a small hut built with ammunition crates on a dark hill in Vietnam. More about that later.

Christmas Reflections

It’s that time of year again. Time to remember. And pray. And try to maintain a sense of peace amid all the business and clamor of the season.

I’ll be blogging these next few days as I attempt to describe emotions that seem to arise every December. Words often fail to capture our deepest thoughts and feelings. So a lot of what I’ll post will be beyond words, if that makes any sense at all.

The year that is ending was filled with good activities and many challenges. I look forward to sharing the journey with you.