Almost a hundred of us warriors and warriors-to-be collected ourselves in the North concourse, Gate 54, for the flight to Shannon, Ireland. If only that was our final destination. Maybe 18 or 36 holes of golf, followed with a big hot plate of corned beef and cabbage, a cold Guinness, and a good night’s rest at Molly O’Dwyer’s Bed & Breakfast, and then back home to my family and friends. But no, our destination will be another concourse while we hurry up and wait for our final flight that will take us just outside the combat zone.
As I look around, a few of the guys are on the floor playing cards. Scattered here and there are the white wires of iPods plugged into the dozen or so ears for the last downloads of favorite tunes. But most are just leaning back in the few chairs, or against the wall – quiet, restless, edgy, deep in thought, all of us wondering what it will be like. Just a few of the guys in our unit have been there before, and by looking at the veterans, they seem even more engaged in their own deep thoughts, just like the rest of us.
I watch a family with young children walk past our gate. The mother looks at us with a sense of worry and concern. A man in a suit with a brief case is too busy on his cell phone to notice any of us. Someone comes by with a cartload of magazines to restock the shelves in the bookstore. But for the most part, we are isolated. Each one of us so very much alone among the packs, gear, camouflage utility uniforms and combat boots.
I overheard our commanding officer offer words of encouragement to two of his guys while waiting to buy a newspaper in the gift shop. I wonder if he really is okay with all of this or if he’s just trying to keep our motivation up. I just don’t know.
As I scan my friends and buddies, those I’ve trained with, sweated with, and even yelled at, it hits me! Not all of us are coming home, and a few are coming home early – on a stretcher, missing an arm, a leg, blind or worse.
Maybe I will be one of “them”.
I glance down the concourse and the line at Starbucks is gone. I have a mission: To run from my thoughts. As I head straight toward what may be my last real good cup of coffee, two of my buddies see me and follow right behind. They also need a mission other than the big one ahead at the end of the long flight.
We all escape for a few moments. We’re on a coffee-run mission where I’m in control – a mission where I will return.
As I was ordering a large coffee and my buddies were adding bagels and donuts to theirs, an old guy behind me told the clerk, “I’m covering for these guys. The coffee and snacks are on me.” Well, he really wasn’t all that old. His suit was wrinkled, tie still tight, and he looked a little beat from what I could guess to be a lot of travel, but he had a great smile. We thanked him. It really meant a lot to us for him to pick up the tab. He mentioned that years ago he was traveling the same path as us – something about being a Marine in the “ol’ Corps.”
As we turned to leave, he thanked us for our service and handed each of us a little 12-page booklet; it had a strange title. He said that it would change our lives for all eternity. Well, it was small enough for me to stick in my back pocket and we were on our way back to the camouflage crowd at Gate 54 as they were calling our flight to board.
Well, you know, I forgot about that old guy and the booklet in my pocket. On the entire flight over the Atlantic I started thinking about if, and how, I would return. I signed up for this, but now the reality was starting to hit me. What was I thinking? My buddies back home were probably hanging out or sound asleep and I’m in row 38 B – a middle seat.
It took almost 34 hours to get to our final destination. We all nodded on and off but no one was able to pack in more than an hour or two of sleep.
It didn’t take long for each of us to be assigned to our final units. Mine was sent right to the front of the action. That first night at the outpost I was really scared. Some of the guys had just returned from an ambush and not all of them made it. The next day, there was an impromptu memorial service – a final farewell. It really shook me up.
For the first time in my life, I realized that I was up against the wall of fate. My life may end today, or tomorrow, or the next. I was stripped of all that used to prop me up: my old home town, my friends and family, my associates at my old job, the smile and hugs of my mother, my grandmother’s encouraging words, my accomplishments in sports, the decent grades I made at school and the music that kept me pumped up. Everything, just everything that was part of me is now 10,000 miles away. Nothing was filling the gap. I never felt so alone in my life. I never felt so hopeless, so cut off at the end of that proverbial rope. But I did my best to keep the tough guy image going, like most everybody else.
I was heading out in the morning to a high-risk patrol. How could I do what I was supposed to do when inside I was nothing but a bunch of meat and bones held together by sinus of terror. And then I remembered that book from the guy at Starbucks. I don’t know why, but I still had it with me – a little book that some stranger gave to me. I remember that it had something to do with making a change for eternity and just wanting to live for a day; eternity was a great idea whose time had come.
There on the front cover was the title, “Riding the Death Train”. I thought that was a strange title for a book that was to provide a “message of hope”. But I was ready for something because everything I thought I had going for me was rattling in the bottom of my stomach and falling through me like a sieve. I needed something that would plug the holes to my inner most soul, maybe even give me a chance – a chance to live and not die – so I turned to page one of that “death train” book.
There on the first page were the words: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” I read it again, and then again. I thought what kind of love is that; where someone would actually give their life for another? Would somebody do that for me?
I continued to read and flip the pages. In less than a few minutes I found the answer. It was a Bible verse that I’d seen on a placard some guy would hold up in the end zone in a few football games; “John 3:16”. I never knew what that meant. But here it was, in this little book, this simple verse, a message of hope about life; “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believe in him shall not perish, but have eternal life”.
Could there be no greater love than that God would sacrifice His own son, to die for me that I could live?! On the next page was the most impactful statement of all, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved”. Eternal life is a gift from God. At that moment, an inner peace I’ve never known came over me.
Well, the next day we all made it back from that patrol. But I know there will be more to come. I’ve never been through anything so horribly tough in all my life. I must admit that unshakable fear wants to reach out and put a hard grip on you, because none of us knows what tomorrow, or the next minute, will bring. We’re all anxious to come back home, to catch that final flight.
My buddy, an older combat veteran, told me something just last night that I’ll never forget. He put a hand on my shoulder, and with an inner resolve and compassion in his eyes, as he looked into mine, he quietly said, “Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is the presence of faith”.