Saturday, April 10, 2010

Soldiers, Farmers, Atheletes...and Memories of "Operation Desert Storm"

Yesterday, I was at Campus for Christ (C4C) at SFU's Year-End Banquet with many of my close friends whom I have known over the last couple of years while doing my Master's degree. While a sem-formal dress code has generally been the norm for this event, this year was a costume dress code of soldiers, farmers and athletes, based on the corresponding verses from Paul's second letter to Timothy in the Bible:

"Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athelete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard working-farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything." (2 Tim 2: 3-6, ESV)

All of my friends came dressed very fittingly, and some of them who dressed as farmers looked very pretty in their outfits! I had chosen to dress up as a soldier as best as I could, although I'm not sure if I did a very good job of it. Among the things I'd used for my costume were a pair of outdoor boots with a camouflauged pattern on them, and a borrowed BB gun that was a replica of an M14, made mostly of metal and quite heavy. While the dinner was a really fun event, after it was over it gave me some cause for serious reflection on what it takes to be a soldier, particularly in the context of my childhood memories of the First Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm [1].

Operation Desert Shield, followed by Operation Desert Storm, began shortly after my 9th birthday. My parents and I were living in the Middle East at the time, in a very well-known coastal city that was not very far from the conflict. I vividly remember feeling a palpable feeling of tension in the air, amongst our family friends and my classmates in school, as they worried over what would happen if the fighting in Iraq and Kuwait spread down through the region to the country in which we were living. My mother had recently become pregant with my sister at the time, and I used to watch the news on television with her in our family living room during the course of the war, sometimes for several hours throughout the day. We sat and watched in silence the footage of the day and night bombing campaigns on Baghdad, tanks moving across the desert as the Coalition's armored column fought in the intense desert heat, missiles being loaded on aircraft at allied bases and aircraft carriers, shells fired from destroyers, Iraqi Scud missiles landing on Tel Aviv, and everything else that occurred during the course of those tense 7 months, which are too many to type here. It was a strange feeling to experience as a child, knowing that all of that was happening not very far up the coast from where we lived. During that time, my mother accumulated a massive pile of newspaper clippings covering the conflict from start to finish, which she later gave to me and I still keep carefully today. I remember helping her store water in large buckets at home, as well as stocking up on food in case the food supply at the supermarkets was rationed or cut short during that time.

Yesterday, as I recalled and reflected those memories and more of many years ago, I was suddenly reminded of a special issue of Newsweek magazine that I had preserved from two years ago. It was titled 'Voices of the Fallen: The Iraq War in The Words of America's Dead" [2]. Related to the events of the more recent military campaign in Iraq, the entire issue was exclusively dedicated to a much more personal and deeply moving aspect - the excerpts from the personal journals of the men and women soldiers who had died in combat there. I found the magazine today morning, and took a photo of the magazine cover, which I have posted below.

The section in that issue that I was reminded of in connection with my costume and the verses of 2 Timothy 2:3-6 was called 'Last Letters', and titled 'If you're reading this...'. It began with the following opening paragraph:

"Combat troops live everyday with the specter of their mortality. Ususlly, they ignore it and do their jobs. But at some point, heading for a war zone or shaken by a close call, many of them write letters to be read only if they don't make it home alive. They want to convey the things that matter to the people they love the most, putting their hopes and thanks and blessings on paper. Each of these letters was left behind by an American who gave his life in Iraq."

There was a letter amongst the many photographed and printed in that section that had made a deep impression when I first read that issue. It was the last letter to his family written by Corporal Steven Gill, an American marine who was also a Christian, and brought me to tears once more as I read it today morning. I have taken a photograph of that too. Since the print may be a little difficult to read, I have typed out the contents of that letter below:

"Dear Mom, Dad and James.

If you are reading this, you will know that I am no longer here with y'all and that I am at a better place than all of us. I have been brought up in a loving Christian family that I thank God for everyday. I was taught to fear and love God and to rejoice in the knowledge that his Son paid for all of my horrible sins that I have committed in my 24 years on this great planet. Up until this time I have led an adventurous life that hasn't been perfect. For the anger and tears that have been caused and shed on my behalf, I ask for all of your forgiveness. Know that I wish I could have done better but I've cherished all my time with you all.

To my only Brother James - I love you James, even if I showed in a way that was sometimes hard to tell. I know that one day you will find a good Godly girl to marry and take care of. I wish I could been there as your best man. Know that the Lord loves you James, and when you seek Him, you will find Him, and His peace.

I know you are still searching James, but when you find that Peace, the answers that you still seek will fall into place. Go in that direction. JAMES that is my prayer. I love you BRO.

To My DAD. What can I say, you are the Man I've always wanted to be and hopefully to become. You have given me a life that could only have hoped to have given to a wife and kids. If you look deep into your heart Dad, all the good qualities you see, know that you passed them on to me. If in the future someone asks you what your son was like, tell 'em "He was just like his old Mn" and I'll smile down from Heaven and be proud. I love you Dad.

And finally to My Mom. A mother's love cannot be described, it can only be felt. It is peace, it is security, it is the warmth of arms wrapped around you and the knowledge that no matter what, all will be right in the world as long as my Mom is holding me. I wish I could have felt that one more time. You are a Godly woman mom, no son could have asked for or received a better woman. An angel sent down from heaven. I love you Mom.

Well that's about it guys. As for the WAR we've fought the good fight and I guess it was my time. If anyone should ask what happened, you tell 'em that your son didn't die doing what he loved, but doing what he thought was right. That America is the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, and it wasn't going to change. Not on my watch. All I can ask now is that when I get to Heaven the Good Lord will greet me with open arms and say "Well done, good and faithful servant!" Rest easy and be at peace, for I will see ALL of you there in the future.

All of my love.

Your Son,


The postscript to this letter said: Cpl Steven Gill, Round Rock, Texas, 24. He once aspired to be a minister, but after 9/11 he wanted only to join the Marines. He arrived in Iraq on his first tour of duty in March 2005. On July 21 he was killed by an IED near the village of Zaidan, southeast of Fallujah.

As I type this out in sober silence, I am deeply thankful to the men and women who gave their lives during the course of Operation Desert Storm. Because of them, my family and I are alive today in a different part of the world. My sister is particularly special to me in this regard. As God would have it, she was born on Palm Sunday of 1991, almost exactly one month after the end of the First Gulf War, and one week before Easter Sunday. Fittingly, my mother wanted to give her a name that was connected to Easter, and chose two Russian names: 'Tiffany', derived from 'Teofania Anastasia', meaning 'manifestation of God' and 'Tanya', meaning 'Resurrection'.

In the verse thast was the theme of this year's C4C Year-End Banquet, the Apostle Paul wrote "Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him." In a talk that he gave there, John Hau our Campus Director challenged us to think over the things that might cause us to waste our summer. I think over this last semester of my Master's program, God has been doing some awesome things and shaping some very strong convictions in who I want to be and what my priorities are. I hope that this coming summer time, I will share in Christ's suffering and and please Him who has called me.

To those who read this, I would be interested in knowing - what does it mean to you to be a soldier, farmer or athelete in the context that Paul writes to Timothy? What is important to you? What would you be willing to pour out your life for?

- The Wisdom Seeker.


[2] Newsweek Magazine, April 2nd, 2007