War & Grace
I sat at the edge of my cot and vomited on the floor.
I couldn’t think. I couldn’t feel. I felt as if everything that made me human had left me.
How could this have happened? I had done everything I’d been trained to do. I’d done everything right, checked every box. And it had all gone so tragically wrong.
I’d been emotionally and mentally prepared to lose men in combat. But not this. This tragedy had never crossed my mind. It ambushed me. It cut me down. It destroyed me.
I had become the living dead.
I laid back and rolled to my side, curling up like a child in the womb. I felt dead inside, and at that moment I wished my life would end. There was no escape from this death. This was my future now. This would forever be my story, and I would spend the rest of my life reliving this nightmare.
I prayed a Hail Mary, and I fell asleep.
THE GOLDEN CHILD
Growing up, I loved having the image of the guy who had it all together.
It was an annoying storybook. I was captain of the high school football team, president of our choir, got leads in the musicals, straight A’s, club presidents, and the quintessential “young person” involved at the church. Friendships came easy to me, and I found the unique high school ability to move fluidly through the cliques.
Teachers praised me. Friends’ parents trusted me. Sometimes, I even got awards when I didn’t even do anything.
I liked all these things, particularly the praise that came with it. No, especially the praise that came with it.
I think it was my older sister that first dubbed me “the Golden Child”. Perhaps it started as a dig, but every time I heard the phrase “the golden child strikes again,” I could help but feel proud. Afterall, more accolades, A’s, and accomplishments meant more praise. Affirmation became core to who I was. It made me something. It was evidence that other people liked that I existed, and that meant that I had purpose.
But beneath the façade of perfection lived a man with deep insecurities. The problem with others expecting so much out of you is the constant pressure to live up to their expectations. What would happen if I failed them? What if they saw the flaws below the white-washed surface of my life? What if they encountered the true man behind the mask of the Golden Child?
It’s amazing to reflect back on that time in my life and see how this fear of being discovered drove my decisions. When my class load got too hard, I dropped classes under the guise of being “over-taxed”. I self-sabotaged and deliberately limited my aspirations to things I believed I could sustain. I shot for the A- rather than the A+. Literally, this was the target of my studying. I needed to have a sustainable standard of excellence. I needed people to see me as above average, but never to the point that I was a water-walker. Afterall, A+ was a greater threat to the Golden Child than B-. At least that is how I justified my settling for mediocrity.
And when I did fail, regardless of the circumstances, I was a master at self-justification. A poor performance on the football field was ok, because I was still the captain and football was just a hobby. If I tried something new that threatened my A- record, I was quick to cut the cord and dismiss it as “just not my thing.” A sin against chastity was admissible, because I still wasn’t having sex like my other friends, and I knew which priests to meet in confession that would downplay my moral culpability. No matter where I fell short, I could always find someone who fell shorter.
And this was my life through high school, college, graduate school, and my arrival at the Marine Corps Basic School. Wherever I went, I learned to master the rules of the game and give the leaders what they wanted. I knew what to say, how to manipulate, when to charm, when to play the victim, and always how to claim the moral high ground. In exchange, I got my daily bread of affirmation. My drug. My dopamine hit.
It wasn't an addiction. It was winning.
A HOUSE BUILT ON THE SAND
I can remember standing in front of my platoon for the first time. We had just finished a light workout and for recovery I had them sit in a circle, giving each person an opportunity to lead a stretch and share a little bit about themselves.
I’ll never forget when it was Lance Corporal Jarmen’s turn. He sat us down for a butterfly stretch and said “Hey sir, I’m Lance Corporal Jarmen, and I’m probably the weirdest guy you’ll ever meet.”
He didn’t disappoint. At the moment turning toward Jarmen in his full butterfly stretch, I couldn’t help but notice his exposed testicles hanging out of his green PT shorts and resting on the cold pavement. How could he not feel that?
It became clear to me after my meeting with Jarmen that there’d be no bullshitting these men.
These guys didn’t care about where I went to school, my GPA, or how high I graduated at my training schools. Most of these men had done multiple combat tours to this point. They knew the types of leaders that would bring them home, and those that were in it for themselves.
It was around that time that my “affirmation well” started to run dry. Those first few months for me were one humbling lesson after another that I was the stereotypical boot-lieutenant making bonehead mistakes, overcomplicating things, and working harder at establishing my authority than building trust.
I became hypercritical of myself and increasingly insecure. I remember one such event where our company of roughly 125 men had just completed a 3-day training exercise. Everyone was tired, dirty, and wanted nothing more than to secure and get back to the barracks for a beer. The trouble was we were missing a radio. All the weapons were clean and back in the armory, all the Marines were present and gear put away, but there was one radio that no one could seem to locate. So with the men getting more and more irritated and our commanding officer cracking the whip, we began the search. We went through every vehicle, sent a search team back to the range in the dark, and did a shake-down of every Marine’s pack for the missing radio. Everyone was pissed.
About 3 hours later, it was nearly 9PM on a Friday at this point, I suddenly had this sinking feeling in my gut. I walked outside and opened the trunk of my car. There was the radio, still secured to my flak jacket. I picked it up, exhaled deeply, and began the painful walk into my CO’s office. The explosion and berating that ensued was audible to every person in the office, and word traveled fast back to the barracks. I can remember feeling such shame as I secured my platoon that night. All I wanted to do was hide.
So, I did.
I became very good at hiding, in fact. There was plenty of work to do in the office, and so that’s where my focus went. I put the “office” in “officer”. Afterall, that was where I belonged. It was my platoon sergeant’s job to take care of the men, and mine to do the paperwork. That worked fine for me. At least then I didn’t have to look in the faces of my Marines and feel incompetent.
It pains me to say, but I grew to secretly hate being around them. I know they hated me too. They saw and reflected back to me my own selfishness and egotism. The reign of the golden child was under attack, and the only thing I could do to protect my fragile ego was hide.
A DEATH SENTENCE FOR THE GOLDEN CHILD
I remember being in the company office when our CO brought us together and announced we were heading to Afghanistan. It was December of 2007 at the time. The company had only been home from their last deployment in Iraq for about five months, and we’d originally thought our next deployment was going to be returning to a winding-down war in Iraq to do some local security ops and turn the lights off at a few bases.
This was not a security mission. This was going to war.
While my fellow lieutenants around me gave a few whoops and started high-fiving, my gut began doing summersaults. Dread overcame me. Our light, safe, cushy security mission had just turned deadly. This was the type of mission that a real Marine lieutenant dreamt about. The type of kinetic fight that would put him and his men to the ultimate test. The type of combat that sought, closed-with, and destroyed the enemy. The type of war that makes you feel worthy to stand amongst the warriors of past generations, battle-tested, and capable of conquering anything.
But not for a fake lieutenant. Not for an egotistical set of stuffed cammies. There was no place to hide in a war like that. The fate of the golden child had been sealed. That mission was, and would be, the death-sentence for the golden child.
But relief came swiftly as my battalion tagged me for Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) school to get my Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) certification. We’d be doing distributed operations in small units, and each location needed to have a qualified person who could direct close air support should our small detachments get overwhelmed.
The selection was a triple-win for me and my ego. First, I got the dopamine jolt from being selected amongst my peers to go to a challenging course. Second, I would be returning to the familiar school-house environment where I knew how to perform and play the role of prized student. And best of all, I’d be away from the condemning eyes of my platoon for six weeks in sunny San Diego. It’d be good for them too, I thought. They’d be in the field training and gelling at Mojave Viper, a grueling month-long training op that, at the time, I was happy to miss.
TACP school was another notch in the belt of the golden child. Like anything the military teaches, it was a process. With a little studying and rote memorization, you could do it well. I breezed through the course, got my cert, and made my way back to the battalion with another accolade and new sense of purpose. Now I had a qualification that made me valuable. I was an asset.
I gave myself permission to feel good about myself again, and we began our preparation to deploy.
Who would have thought that a deployment could be so boring?
It had been a month since we arrived at the joint forces base in Kandahar, and we were still awaiting orders. We worked out, we slept, we drilled, we learned which chow-halls had the best food, we waited in line at the internet cafes, and, well, we waited.
During that month, finding a lot of time on my hands, I found myself heading across the airfield to a small chapel-tent to attend daily mass. I knew that once we pushed out to our outposts there’d be no opportunity for Holy Communion, so I seized the opportunity to grab some sacramental graces and store up for the impending famine.
It was in those daily meetings, of which I rarely missed, that I got close with another officer in my battalion. He was our JAG officer, and the only other member of our battalion that was making it to daily mass. It felt good to have a little camaraderie in my faith. Though I kept my Catholic Faith private, it was still an important part of me. Just not a part of me that I wanted to share with my men. They already had enough reasons to think me soft.
So, I kept my Faith behind a mask with all the other things I thought others would reject if they really knew me. In effect I beat them to the punch. They couldn’t reject me for these unmentionables if I rejected them first. I was like Peter in the courtyard before the cock crowed.
At our sixth week in the country, we finally loaded up the vehicles and began the 200-mile trek across southern Afghanistan to our outpost. I call it an outpost, but there was nothing there. No walls, no machine gun positions, no chow halls, hot showers, or shitter trailers. Just an open field next to an abandoned village of crumbling mud huts and empty market stalls. Certainly not the cultural center that our intel had painted for us. Nonetheless, this was home for the next seven months. This would be the site of many a sad day of mourning, triumphant day of celebration, intense moments of frustration, and memorable time of brotherly bonding.
This little plot of land in the barren Afghan desert would be the gravesite of the golden child.
It took a few weeks, but we eventually settled into an operational rhythm. The combat engineers arrived a few days after occupation and built us some much-needed HESCO walls and machine gun posts. They dropped off a massive shipping freight container that we were able to outfit as our Command Operations Center (COC), and we eventually even got some big squad tents for the men to sleep in.
While I got out on a few initial patrols, I kept close to the command post most of the time.
We took our first KIA in June of 2008 to a catastrophic IED on a vehicle patrol. I can still remember feeling the COC shake and the frantic radio calls that ensued afterward. I remember my friend Tom’s face when he returned from that patrol. It’s like a switch was permanently flipped. Those moments change you.
Ten days later, that same switch flipped in me when my patrol hit an IED. Someday, I want to write more about this event when I can do it justice. For the purpose of my story today, all I want to share is that that moment shattered any romanticism I had about combat.
I was angry. We all were. The enemy had killed our brothers, and we couldn’t even shoot back. If I was to put one emotion on myself at that point in the deployment, it would be powerless. But who wants to feel powerless? Anger is much stronger than powerless. So, I chose anger, I chose vengeance, and I awaited the day to avenge the lives of my fallen, avenge the assaults on my frail ego, avenge the golden child, and return the evil visited upon me to the enemy at the moment he emerged from the shadows.
That opportunity came on July 15, 2008. A resupply unit in route to our position came under machinegun and mortar fire about seven miles from our outpost.
They called for air support.
I had been waiting for this moment since I became a Marine. An opportunity to do what I’d been trained to do. To kill the enemies of our country. To defend my Marines. To be in the fight. I was waiting for the moment when all of my training would come to this climax. I was waiting to have my war-story to tell my grandkids about how the cowards who had taken so much from us in their arrogance had finally emerged to stand toe-to-toe with the most powerful military in the world, and this arrogance would be their fatal undoing.
The feeling of powerlessness was far gone. I was no longer angry. I didn’t need to feel anger anymore, because now I felt powerful. I felt justified. I felt righteous. This was the golden moment for the Golden Child. I picked up my radio, but on the call, and got to work.
Within 15 minutes I had two F-18s check in. Moments later I was plugged into their video feed. Seven miles away from the ambush, in the safe and controlled environment of my COC, I now had my birds-eye view of the fight. This would be a text-book Type-II control with a forward observer, just like I’d learned back in Coronado at TACP school. Within minutes the ground forces had helped me talk the pilot’s camera on to a small mud hut on the southwest edge of a village of forty small buildings.
Jackpot! The enemy was now in my crosshairs. I had clean geometries of fire. The strike would be on the edge of the village, minimizing the potential for collateral damage. I had a positive ID on the enemy with redundant confirmation on the target. It didn’t get much cleaner than this.
I had said the words “cleared hot” hundreds of times in training and simulations. They were nothing more than a simple command leading to the demolition of a hollowed-out tank hulk on a shooting range or simulation screen. But now, when I reflect back on the power that those two words held in that moment, the power of life and death, the power to save and protect my Marines, the power to inch us closer to victory, the power to exact vengeance on a faceless enemy—it’s an overwhelming power. That power was placed in the hands of a 24-year-old Lieutenant in that moment.
I keyed my radio, “Stitch 1, cleared hot.” Then held my breath.
Moments later my computer screen flashed. The room shook with an ominous WHOOMP! As the screen came back into focus and dust and debris settled, the building that had once been on the edge of that village was gone. In its place was a pile of rubble. With the scream of the F-18 passing over our outpost, the COC erupted with a roar of excitement. The posts lit up with chatter on seeing the strike in the distance. In many ways there was reason to celebrate. With five of our brothers KIA and five WIA at that point in our deployment we’d finally had the chance to dish it back to the enemy. This was a moment of vindication.
And all I can honestly say was that at that moment, I didn’t feel like celebrating.
The thought that I had ended someone’s life, perhaps a couple lives, came sweeping through my mind momentarily. But the thought passed me like the express train in a subway. I wasn’t about to get onboard that train at that moment. The thought came with this sleek gut feeling that something wasn’t right. I sat back in my seat and exhaled. I had fulfilled my purpose as a Marine. I had killed the enemy, and I was surprised by how I felt. It wasn’t what I’d expected.
Moments later that gut feeling would be confirmed. Indeed, something was not right. Something had gone tragically wrong.
SHAKING HANDS WITH DEATH
About ten minutes after the drop, our Afghan translator came knocking on the COC door. He had a cellphone in hand and was asking for our platoon commander, my buddy Tom. I watched as Tom and the terp shared a quiet exchange. Tom is probably the most stoic man I’ve ever met. While we grew a tight friendship together during that deployment, it had taken me a while to get a read on him. He had a poker face like no other.
And in that moment, I saw him gulp.
Tom closed the door and walked over to me.
“What’s up?” I asked.
I paused a moment. “It’s probably just bad intel.”
My heart began to feel heavy. “What’d he say?” I asked. I didn’t really want to know.
Tom let out a heavy sigh. “Well, one of our local contacts just called and said that there was nothing but civilians in that building we just hit.”
My heart sank. I grew up hearing the phrase, sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. Where was the simple consolation of those words now. My mind immediately went into solution mode. There had to be another narrative, one where I didn’t kill any innocent civilians. “This is just bad intel,” I thought to myself. “It’s just one report.”
But the reports kept coming. Over the next hour, every call we got relayed the same message. There was nothing but innocent civilians in that building I’d just leveled.
Tom got together a team to head out for a Battle Damage Assessment (BDA). This we needed to confirm for ourselves. As the second in command, he told me to stay behind. I parked myself in the COC and waited for our team to get on site.
Within the hour our BDA unit was on the edge of the village and the reports started coming in. A throng of locals were picking through the debris and unearthing the lifeless bodies beneath. With each radio message that came through the picture of the scene in my imagination got more vivid, more accurate, more detailed, and more distressing.
The first report came through sharing that a woman had been pulled from the rubble. Moments later it was a teenage boy, then a young girl. It was as if with every report the bodies of the fallen were getting smaller and smaller and more innocent. But I wouldn’t move. I clung to the hope that the team would soon report that they just saw a military-aged-male with an AK-47 by his side pulled from the rubble. I kept waiting for ANY justification that the strike, my strike, my command had been just.
It was at this time that our platoon sergeant turned to me. He was a man with multiple combat tours, a salty and seasoned veteran who had seen combat and what it does to men. He looked at me and asked, “Sir, are you sure you want to be in here for this?”
I flippantly dismissed his comment, putting on my masked bravado. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I need to be here.”
And, it was at that moment that the radio cracked, and the voice on the other end spoke.
“They just pulled a baby from the rubble.”
I’ve read a number of stories from combat veterans since that day, and nearly all of them describe this phenomenon of feeling their soul leave them in the moment of their most intense trauma. This was my moment. I was eternally present to that moment, yet I was feeling nothing. I went numb. I glanced around the room and saw half of the eyes were on me, and the other half were downcast to the floor. They both stung equally but differently, revealing both my condemnation and shame in that moment. There was no hiding. I had run out of masks.
I got up slowly, not saying a word, and walked outside. I immediately walked over to one of my sergeants and asked to bum one of his Marlboro Reds. I wasn’t a smoker. I wanted to feel something—anything. I suddenly became conscious that I was pacing. I was literally pacing and smoking like a neurotic. It’s hard to recall what I was thinking at that moment, but in the midst of my pacing I remember distinctly hearing a voice. It wasn’t an audible voice, but it spoke to the depths of me. It was a slithery whispered voice, and as it spoke I abruptly stopped in my tracks and gave it my ear.
“You know what you’ve done? You’ve committed the unforgivable sin. You’ve killed an innocent baby. There’s no hope for you now. You’re damned where you stand.”
Damned where you stand. The words sank in deep. They penetrated intimately deep. At that moment, having shed all of my masks, being open and exposed in my sin and vanity, the devil spoke his anti-word to my bleeding heart. That encounter with death was now the most intimate experience of my life. In an instant it swallowed up all of the hugs and words of love from my parents and family, the joys of friendships, the accolades and affirmations, even my moments before the Blessed Sacrament or in the mass.
I took the devil’s bait, nodded my head in agreement, and walked lifelessly into my tent.
I sat at the edge of my cot and vomited on the floor.
I couldn’t think. I couldn’t feel. I felt as if everything that made me human had left me.
I had become the living dead. This would forever be my story, and I would spend the rest of my life reliving this nightmare.
I prayed a Hail Mary, and I fell asleep.
I remember waking up to the sound of vehicles entering our outpost. It was dark at this point, and the resupply unit from the earlier ambush was just arriving. Had it been a dream? A nightmare? There was a short moment of hope where I thought I had dreamt it all. But soon, my mind gave way to reality and the memory came flooding back.
I walked outside and saw Tom walking toward the COC. I met him on his way in. I wanted to hear everything he had seen, yet, wanted none of it. “What did you see?” I asked.
Slowly, he began to unfold the details of the scene—how they watched as the weeping locals pulled the lifeless bodies of the fallen from the rubble. He described a distraught man with a numb look on his face from having instantly lost his family in a flash. He shared having walked with the village elder to the back of a flatbed truck on which were lined the bodies of the fallen.
“They were arranged in height order, tallest to smallest,” Tom spoke. “It reminded me of those Russian nesting dolls. You know, the ones you open and find smaller and smaller dolls inside.”
To this day, I cannot look at these dolls without recalling Tom’s words.
The moments after a traumatic event are like staring at the shattered pieces of a vase that has just crashed to the floor. You wonder how, or even if it is possible, to put it all back together. It doesn’t take long to realize that nothing will ever go back to the way it was. Most men and women do the most damage after a trauma when they try to return to life before the trauma. The old vase will never be the same again.
The word traveled fast around the tiny outpost. You can’t hide when you live with 80 other men on a post the size of a football field.
But rather than ostracization, my Marines, my brothers, became the first voice of God’s mercy. A number of them came to me sharing similar incidents from their own experiences in combat from prior deployments. What was special about this was their approach. Never did anyone tell me to just “shake it off”. They listened. They shared. They abide with me. There was no lecturing or advice giving. Their empathetic presence was the gift I so desired. I spoke counter to the lie of abandonment, shame, and isolation. It was an intimate encounter—a voice of mercy abiding with me in my place of despair.
Over the next few days, God’s voice continued to manifest through these prophets of mercy. My Commanding Officer came to our outpost, pulled me aside, and commended me for the call that I’d made. My Air Officer wrote me saying that he’d been listening to the radio transmissions and seeing everything I was seeing, and had I not made the call that he would have intervened and made the clear-hot himself. My Company XO shot me a secure message letting me know he was thinking of me.
Amidst all of this, I was still trying to cling to the Golden Child image. Aside from replaying the incident constantly throughout each day, I re-watched the video replay of the drop over and over. I scrutinized the steps I had made. Was the drop necessary? Had I been blinded by selfish ambition? It all seemed so textbook in its execution. Yet, it had gone so terribly wrong.
It was around this time that I took some of the photographs that I’d had out on my desk, put them into a box, and tucked them under my cot. Specifically, I removed the pictures of my newborn niece, Bella (her name means beauty). I couldn’t understand why I was doing it at the time, only that it felt right. I loved babies. I loved holding babies. I couldn’t wait to be a father someday. But now, the thought of holding a baby brought feelings of nausea.
In time, this made more sense. Aside from the horrific outcome, I hadn’t found anything wrong with the execution of my drop. In fact, the ensuing investigation revealed that, while it was an aggressive call, it was a licit strike and within my authority to do so. But this only led to a more terrifying thought: “At my combat best, the best I could do was kill a baby.”
As that thought wove its way into my subconscious seeking a solution, I silently resolved that I was a hazard to innocent life. If at my combat best I was a baby-killer, then I needed to get as far away from babies as possible.
I’d venture to guess that many who return home from combat arrive at similar conclusions. Imagine departing your home as the hero only to discover the hidden villain within you. These insidious and self-indulgent lies against our personhood can harden the heart of many combat veteran, barring them from receiving the transformative abiding love that is the real solution to their pain. Instead, we take the pictures of the things we love most, we take beauty, and we stuff them into a box. We shut away the memories that once told a story of how loved we are, how beautiful this life is, and how forgiven we are and leave only those horrific images in our mind. It’s like removing all the pictures of your loved ones from your house and replacing them with photos of the darkest moments of your life.
We forget God. We forget love. We forget beauty.
As days went by, I kept hoping to wake up each morning without the pit of despair and regret in my stomach. My CO had let me know that my drop was now going to be subject to a formal investigation. Already in 2008 the amount of Afghan civilian casualties in an already unpopular war was starting to mount, and top ranking coalition Generals needed to be able to answer challenging questions from the international community.
But the investigation was not the source of my anxiety. My mind was on eternal things. I had made the resolution that I would hold nothing back in that investigation; my pride, my desire to kill the enemy, my desire for vindication. If there were reparations necessary for this act, even if that meant a court martial and incarceration, I wanted to make those reparations in this life, not the next.
As the investigation approached, I got a message from our battalion JAG officer, Major Ryan Heatherman, over our secure network. While I opened the email with a twinge of dread, I also took comfort that its source was a man with whom I had shared many a daily mass while awaiting our orders in Kandahar. I will always remember what Ryan wrote that day.
“Matt, I’m coming out this week for my investigation. I’m going to be asking you some difficult questions. But fear not. I’m bringing you the Eucharist.”
Fear not, I’m bringing you the Eucharist.
Having been two months removed from my last mass and confession, Ryan’s words brought an immediate consolation. Here I was, in the depths of my despair, the darkest point of my life where I felt furthest from Christ, and my God was preparing to cross a desert minefield to abide with me in my very flesh—that flesh that was presumably “damned where it stood.” How could that be?
THE LORD ARRIVES IN BAKWA
When the Eucharist rode into our outpost, that’s when things really started to change.
I recall Ryan coming into our COC, geared up and dusty from the 100-mile trek across the Afghan frontier. He was a welcome sight. He had carried our Lord. I couldn’t help but think of how Mary, the new Ark of the Covenant had also carried our Lord. I suspected Mary was there with us as well.
Ryan spoke, “Matt, I brought as much as I could so that the other Catholic Marines on the FOB can also receive. Do you know of any who might want to partake in Holy Communion?”
My insecurity about my Faith began to bubble to the surface. Like I’d mentioned I kept my Faith private—hidden, to be more accurate. I knew nothing about the faith life or religions of my Marines. But here was our Lord. Perhaps there were others longing for Communion like I.
I left the COC and sheepishly started to make the rounds through the squad areas. I wanted to get through this uncomfortable task as soon as possible. I’d worked hard to keep my Faith hidden. Afterall, I didn’t need to give my men another reason to think me soft.
And (Surprise! Surprise!), no one came. It confirmed my conviction to keep my Faith quiet. They obviously didn’t want it.
We consumed our Lord, Ryan and I, after praying an Our Father in the corner of the COC. While I remember the moment, there was nothing extraordinary in my receiving that day. I had no sudden rush of consolation or sensual experience of Jesus’ presence. It felt the same as any other time I received our Lord.
But the Lord works in ways so intimate that they remain hidden even to us. An encounter with Jesus always comes with a commissioning, a dismissal, a sending forth. The Lord was about to awaken a desire in me that had been hidden below masks of perfection, bravado, and vain-glory. A desire buried below mountains of insecurity, self-centeredness, and external acts of piety. The Lord was liberating me. That Eucharist sewed new seed in me, and God intended for it to bring forth fruit, fruit that will last.
AN AWAKENING CALL
A few hours later there was a knock on the door to the COC. I opened it and found four of my Marines.
“We heard that communion was available,” they share. “We’ve come to receive.”
This was a surprise. I’d assumed that when no one came to receive earlier it was because no one cared. Now I started to think it was more so due to my feeble attempts at spreading the word.
I let them know that we had already consumed our Lord. I could see a look of disappointment in their faces, and I really felt their longing at that moment.
In my desire to provide some consolation, I had an idea. “Hey fellas. Why don’t we get together every Sunday and have a Lord’s Day? We can get together for 30 minutes and go through the mass as best we can, and at least have a spiritual communion.”
Again, to my surprise, they said yes.
From that point forward that was our practice. Every Sunday we would gather, go through the readings of the Liturgy and take some time to make a spiritual communion with our Lord. Our numbers were never staggering, but they were consistent. And I loved it. I was discovering a new way to serve my Marines, and I was able to share a part of myself that, prior to that, I’d kept hidden. And they wanted it.
Shortly after we started our weekly Lord’s Day, one of my Marines approached me and asked if I would ever be willing to pray a decade of the rosary with him. At that point, I was already taking time for a daily rosary, so I upped the ante on him. “Why don’t we pray a full rosary, and do it every day?” And so, we did. We consistently had three to seven Marines each day gathering under the shade of our Cammie netting for the rosary. And not all of them were Catholic. It truly was a mixed crowd. But regardless of Faith, in those 25 minutes every day we had a small fire team of spiritual warriors praying for the protection of our outpost through the intercession of our Blessed Mother.
We started that rosary on August 16th, took our last casualty on August 14th, and redeployed back home in early December. There were some incredible moments when I knew that our Blessed Mother was looking out for us.
On one occasion we were on a vehicle patrol when we got attacked by a vehicle-born suicide bomber. I was in the third armored vehicle in the column about 100 yards behind the lead when the bomb detonated. Even from inside my vic I could feel the concussion hit my face. When I looked up, all I could see was a huge cloud of smoke and debris where our lead vic, Tom’s vic, had been. My heart sank. As the second in command, I grabbed the radio, prepared to go into casualty evacuation mode. What was seconds felt like minutes passing by, but as the dust settled, there was vic one, right where it had been, fully intact. Reports came through that everyone, even the turret gunner who had been directly exposed to the blast, was rattled, but ok.
On another occasion, my own vehicle hit an IED on the way back from a night patrol. It blew off our tire, and rattled us good, but again, everyone was ok. The EOD team said that it had been a low-order detonation, meaning that for some reason the explosive had detonated slower causing a reduced blast. Had the smaller Humvee behind our larger up-armored vehicle gotten hit, it would have split it in half.
For me, one of the most profound interventions from our Blessed Mother was when I was in the COC one night as one of our night patrols was returning. There was a choke point, a narrow canal crossing, that they needed to cross to get back, and it was notorious for IEDs. All of our intel and aerial reconnaissance from that day indicated that the patrol was headed for a minefield.
As the patrol neared the intersection, I raised the squad leader, Jeff, on the radio. I had a bad feeling about this. There were other ways to get back to camp. It might take another four hours, but at least everyone would get back. We went back and forth on it for about a minute. He was certain he could dismount, grab his metal detector, sweep the intersection, and then get the vehicles through safely. Finally, I deferred to his judgment as the lead on the patrol.
Moments later, the room shook.
My heart sank. I pictured Jeff's wife looking me in the face on the night we boarded the bus to leave Twentynine Palms, making me promise to bring her husband home. Like a fool I’d said yes. What would I say now? All I could do was grip the handset and wait for the frantic calls for CASEVAC to start coming through.
I waited 30 seconds—nothing. Then 60—still no report. Finally, I keyed the radio myself asking for a SITREP.
To my surprise I heard Jeff’s voice over the radio. He sounded as surprised as I did, but evidently for a different reason. “I stepped out of my vehicle about 100 feet away to start my sweep, and it just…blew up.”
I made him repeat it to me again. “What do you mean it just blew up?”
“I don’t know how else to say it sir. I stepped out of the vehicle and the intersection in front of us just blew up.” At this point, it was even starting to sound comical.
I shot back, “Well, is anyone hurt?”
Jeff replied, “Nope.”
“Any vehicles damaged?”
The whole thing seemed surreal to me. Within the hour, the patrol cleared through the intersection and was pulling into the outpost. I went outside to meet Jeff. I’ll always remember what he said to me. “Sir, I don’t know how to make sense of this, but this means something.” I don’t know where Jeff was in his walk with God up until that point in his life, but I could see the Lord knocking on the door of his heart. I still pray for Jeff.
You could chalk all of these things up to dumb luck, coincidence, or chance, but I believe that our Blessed Mother and her angels were guarding our platoon under the covering fires of that daily rosary.
HEALING HIDDEN WOUNDS
By the time we pulled back to the safety of Camp Leatherneck on our way home, while recalling the harsh reality of my drop was still a near daily occurrence, I found some consolation that the pit in my stomach had softened since that first day. I believe a big reason for this improvement was my focus had been turned elsewhere. I found significant healing in growing in my own capacity to serve, leaving little time to naval gaze and ruminate on “what ifs” and “if onlys”. While a traumatic event can inflict a terrible wound, the real lasting damage is done by the thoughts and perceptions that we choose in the days, weeks, months, and years following the tragedy.
With God’s grace, I was choosing mercy. Mercy would be the source of my redemption, and the only way to attain greater mercy was to discover how much I needed it.
That meant discovering where I had played the villain. I believe there are such things as pure victims in a tragedy. I know that I did not intend to kill innocent people that day. I know that the enemy attacking from that village was responsible for putting those lives in danger, having even used human shields in the past. I can accept where I was a victim that day and where forgiveness would need to be part of my healing. But as I held the merciful hands of Jesus and Mary and observed my own interior motives on that day, I discovered a dark place where I had played the villain.
Specifically, I recognized that I was seeking personal glory through the taking of another human life. Though they were my enemy, my desires to dispatch them were tainted with a vicious self-love and vainglory. To the extent that I desired my own glorification through their demise, however justified in the law of armed combat, I used a human person as a means to an end. This is never good.
But awareness of wrongdoing is a necessary condition for repentance, and repentance is a necessary condition for mercy. If mercy was going to be what transformed me, and God had promised me His mercy, then what did I have to gain from turning away from this ugly murderous spirit in my heart? Why would I choose to remain in a cycle of destructive self-justification, hiding, and mask-wearing?
Why would I hide from the very God that held the power to heal and free me?
Confessing this sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation was a tremendously healing moment. God’s mercy is real, and his merciful love meets us in our place of misery, transforming it into an intimate marital chamber of heavenly nuptials.
Returning home, God continued to bless me with intimate encounters with his merciful love. There was a moment when my sister prayed over me and had a vision of me crouched down at the foot of the cross weeping uncontrollably. Around me she saw eight Afghans reaching down to pick me up. The thought that I might be able to have a spiritual communion with the victims of my tragedy brought a tremendous consolation. Indeed, love is greater than death. Love conquers all.
I had another encounter with God’s merciful love a month later while on retreat. A priest with a special charism for healing asked to pray over me. As he placed his hands over my heart (one on my back and the other on my chest) he bowed down and begin speaking in tongues. As he did, his hands became incredibly hot! Before I knew it, this well of repressed grief gushed forth like a geyser and I began weeping. In that moment, a woman came and cradled me like a mother cradling her child, and I had a vision of being cradled in the arms of our Blessed Mother.
I was coming to learn that Christ’s healing was cyclical. While he could heal my heart completely in a single abrupt moment (all moments being eternally present to Him in eternity), His way was so gentle. He was slowly revealing and systematically healing my wounded heart, and each healing opened me to a greater desire for his mercy and increasing confidence in his abiding love.
Perhaps the most profound moment of healing came in 2013, then nearly five years following my tragedy in Afghanistan. I was on retreat and felt called to remain before the Blessed Sacrament while the rest of the group went to lunch. While I sat in quiet prayer, I heard the Lord speak to my heart, “Matt, I want to go back there.”
I knew exactly what there meant. It was back to the day of my drop; back to the pain, shame, and agony that I longed to forget. I began to question our Lord, replying, “Come on Jesus, we’ve been there before, I’ve had my big cry, I’m healed, you did it.” In my mind, I couldn’t see how the Lord could heal me any further. In comparison to many of my peers I was thriving in my post-traumatic growth. What else was there to heal?
That’s when he spoke, gently, assuring, saying, “Matt, I want to show you where I was that day.”
Trusting the Lord, I took his hand, closed my eyes, and it was almost instantaneous that I was whisked back to the COC in Bakwa. But I wasn’t in my body. Rather, I was viewing the scene as a hidden cameraman capturing the moment, and the video began with the moment following those tragic words, “They just pulled a baby from the rubble.”
The camera was fixed on my face. I could see the moment when my soul left me and I began to despair. It was silent—lonely—empty. But then the camera began to widen, and next to me was Jesus. By the look on his face as he looked upon me, I could see that he was experiencing everything—everything that I was going through at that moment.
But my eyes never met Jesus. My gaze was transfixed on my own despair. I watched myself get up, walk outside, and bum a cigarette. As I began smoking and pacing, Jesus followed after me. He kept trying to intercept me and embrace me, but at the moment I reached him I would turn and pivot the other direction. He came alongside me, urging me to turn to him, “Matt, look at me. Look at me. I’m here. Matt. Matt. Matthew. Look at me.”
Then I saw myself stop and give my ear to another voice. It was the voice of condemnation whispering “you are damned where you stand.” I watched myself nod in agreement, and sulk away to my tent, leaving Jesus behind.
From inside my tent, I watched myself get sick and curl up into a ball on my cot. Now the camera was low on my sullen stone face, slowly rising over to me and zooming close on Jesus. He was standing about six feet away from me, crying softly, hand over his mouth. Then again, the camera widened to reveal another presence in the room. Standing to Jesus’ right was Mary. Her face was firm. Her eyes were fixed on me. She never took her eyes off of me. Jesus spoke to her amidst his tears. “Mom, he, he doesn’t want me.”
She never took her eyes off of me.
Our Blessed Mother began to approach me. As she knelt down behind me, she began to softly caress my shoulder. Then, she began to sing to me like a mother sings to her child.
That was the moment I prayed the Hail Mary.
My brothers and sisters, when Jesus and Mary come into our place of pain and sorrow, it is transformed from a place of death to a place of life. Yes, there is still pain there. Yes, I recall, even as I write now, that heaviness of heart and sorrow of that tragic day. But the pain and sorrow has been swallowed up in a surpassing and abiding love. The penetrating intimacy of that tragedy has been consumed by an even deeper and abiding intimacy. That moment is no longer defined as a place of pain and condemnation. It is now a place where Jesus and Mary met me, and loved me.
Wherever you might be in your healing journey, know that there is a God who loves you and desires to meet you in your place of pain. He is a gentle healer. He allows us to set the pace. The end of our tragedy is never meant to be death. It can be, but that’s not why our great and loving God allowed it. I can look back on that day now with sorrow, but also a surpassing joy and gratitude. While I mourn the tragedy, I also would never want to lose the intimacy with Jesus that has sprung forth from it.
Behold, he makes all things new. Ours is a God who raises the dead. How might he desire to work his new life in you?