I was forced to acknowledge the reality that I might take a bullet or some other weapon of death for my country and be shipped back home in a casket with a flag draped over it to be put six feet under... As a kid contemplating military service, I had never really resolved three fundamental questions that I struggled with a lot: 1) “Is it ok for me to kill another human in war?” 2) Where do I go when I die? 3) Is there a God, and if I can know Him, what does He want me to do with my life?
In my last blog post I spoke on the importance of defining an intangible and to some degree controversial subject of spiritual fitness development in military units.
The other day I found an opportunity to have an email exchange with a senior officer regarding the background of Freedom Fitness America. I discussed my passion in facilitating “total fitness” in units and in particular spiritual fitness integrated into physical fitness training. He responded back thanking me for my email and concluded that spiritual fitness was much more difficult to define and implement than physical or even mental fitness although he concurred it was important. He admitted to being a man of faith (I’m not sure his particular persuasion) and that while it was very important to him, he really struggled with understanding how to let others know this and help them along. I can totally relate to this difficulty. That being said, I have a bit of a different angle on how my personal faith has served to hone my readiness for future leadership in combat and could help leaders like the one mentioned above understand how to have conversations with other service members about it in an appropriate and respectful fashion.
Back in 2005, I was a 20 year old midshipman at the US Naval Academy (USNA) preparing to make a major life decision on whether or not I would commit to Uncle Sam to spend the next 2 years of my life at the academy and 5 years in the Navy or Marine Corps. If I signed on the dotted line, my trajectory was most likely to go down range at that time in either Iraq or Afghanistan particularly as I desired to be a Marine Officer. Former midshipman who went on to be Marines and Sailors had already died in the line of duty since 9/11. I had friends of mine from high school who had already seen combat. One of them got shot up 5 times with some shrapnel wounds from clearing a house as a Marine infantryman during the Battle of Fallujah in 2004. He had been transported home to Bethesda Hospital in Maryland where I got to visit him as a young 19 year old midshipman which gave me a taste of the reality of leading men and women in just a few short years after this time. I recognized the reality at that time projecting forward to being 23 years old potentially leading Marines in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was forced to acknowledge the reality that I might take a bullet or some other weapon of death for my country and be shipped back home in a casket with a flag draped over it to be put six feet under. I seriously wondered if I would miss the opportunity on getting married and having kids someday. For those of who serve our military or have served, we know this reality. Yet, we still do what we do. Somebody has to do it…
Back to my story though. As a kid contemplating military service, I had never really resolved three fundamental questions that I struggled with a lot.
1) “Is it ok for me to kill another human in war?”
2) Where do I go when I die?
3) Is there a God, and if I can know Him, what does He want me to do with my life?
Pretty big questions, and I had recognized these were questions that I needed to quickly answer if I was going to be ready to die a young death. Time was ticking by and in just a few short months I would need to get off the fence about my decision to commit to service at the USNA and to the military following that which is better known as signing your “2 for 7 papers”.
In the end, I was fortunate to have a friend of mine, Kassi, tell me who I could talk with to maybe get some answers to my questions. The individual’s name was Craig, a then Marine Captain and combat veteran of Iraq who had served in the ground forces leading an Amphibious Assault unit. He was also a leader in the Christian military community as a lay leader within the Officer Christian Fellowship para-church ministry at the academy at the time. I came to him and started off with thanking him for the meeting and told him my desire to understand his thoughts on the matter of killing in combat since he had been down range and was a Christian. I mean, what did the Bible say?
Now, to back up just a few months prior to this meeting, I had been in an ethics class where we discussed the ethical concept “Divine Command” Theory which broke down the idea of ethical principles based on what a “divine being” a.k.a. God said or commanded. The story we discussed was Abraham in the Book of Genesis being told to sacrifice his son Isaac. I will say that the ethics class, while not bashing religion and the Bible in general, did not necessarily promote it either and to some degree discouraged making ethical decisions off of religious belief. However, I do recall though the thought, “I do care what God says about killing” as well as other issues in life. Some nights leading up to my time with Craig, I lay awake and really struggled through these issues and wondered if it was ok to kill in combat and also wondered if God was real and there really was an afterlife? You know, the big questions 20-year-old college students think of instead of alcohol and the opposite sex. I also felt bad for things I had done up to that point in my life and while to some degree I could control my behavior, I also was realizing that it was hopeless on my own. Emotionally I was in a dark place at the time and needed to find hope and answers.
During my meeting in Smoke Hall of the USNA with Craig led to an initial response from him that took me off guard much like a judo move.
He didn’t really answer my question about killing in combat although he confirmed that he had been part of lawful killing in Iraq and felt peace about it as a Christian. He then went on to tell me a story of another Navy Company Officer peer of his who had recently died running a Navy Physical Readiness Test (PRT). Craig asked me what made me believe that I would go to heaven after I die? I tried to explain up to that point my knowledge of religion and Christianity which pretty much summed up my personal efforts to be “good”. Craig pressed a little bit further with different passages out of the Bible from Psalms and Galatians 6 which made me realize how really bad off I was in terms of my spiritual state but with hope that if I truly trusted Jesus with my life in a heart of faith and obedience, that I would be forgiven of my wrong doing, find peace, and enter into eternal life. Sounds good of course, but I remember realizing that this would cost me something. At the time I knew that the biggest thing for starters was I would have to deal with behaviors that deep down I knew were offensive to God. I would have to deal with the reality of not going my own way in life but rather discovering and walking out a path of an invisible God’s making. This would certainly mean letting go of my plans in life at the time and being ready to face ostracization from co-workers, friends, and family. All of that happened to some degree or another. I remember at the time with Craig thinking, I am going to spend eternity somewhere, and I want to spend it with God in heaven. I did not want this guy to think I was a heathen or something despite my past. I did not know if it was my past upbringing, experiencing the Christian community, reading the Bible, or a combination of all of these along with God’s Spirit,but I felt in my heart that what Craig was telling me was true and I needed to make a decision off of what was presented to me right then. So I decided to wholeheartedly trust my heart and life to Jesus. Well, I didn’t feel like angelic wings spread over me, but over the course of the next few weeks I would experience power to overcome my offensive behaviors and begin to experience a feeling of peace, wholeness, and love in my heart that I would later come to recognize as God the Holy Spirit. Life would never be the same and I was excited to tell others about it! Moreover, I felt confident that I could sign my commitment papers and face death bravely. I would later learn the difference between killing vs. murder in the context of military or law enforcement service which I feel provided a conviction for me to prepare for the realities of military service that has been and can be a future force multiplier on the battlefield when there is no longer time to consider such issues.
I realized that God was more real than ever and coming to Him through Jesus was the real deal. In fact, I have seen the power of Jesus operate in the lives of individuals all across the world in various nations, ethnicities, ages, genders, backgrounds, etc. even with people one would think impossible at coming to Him. However, as I went on in my early adulthood, I discovered it was not polite in some circles to tell others about my faith in Jesus. Thankfully Kurt Parsons, a Navy LT at the time who was a P-3 pilot, Company Officer at the Naval Academy, prior enlisted Navy Diver, and a former BUDS student, took me under his wing to mentor me in the finer points of the Christian faith with the practical application of living it out in the military community. He taught me through his own personal example while teaching me the ropes what it would look like to one day share my faith on active duty in the operational forces outside of the academy. I recognized the importance of being a living example for others and building positive relationships with others. From there, a bridge could be built from which an appropriate conversation could be had at the right time and place to relay how my faith made a difference in my life.
In the same year of my initial faith journey awakening, outside public expressions of faith especially from a Christian standpoint were starting to considered taboo as military members who were passionate about being open about their faith would come under fire over the next decade. This would be a major backdrop in how I would learn to live out my faith and help others answer the big questions of life I mentioned before that men and women going downrange to serve their country have to resolve personally. I would have to figure out how to balance being congruent to my new found devotion to Jesus while doing so in a way that was respectful in a pluralistic religious and cultural environment. However, this is where I learned what it would take to be an influential and respected leader among others which could provide opportunities to tell others about my faith. But more on that later in my next blog post.
Until then remember, land of the free because of the brave!