Skip to comments.Faith & foxholes: Amid death and destruction, veterans find solace in God
Posted on 12/25/2003 2:14:00 PM PST by r9etb
One found God after a rocket attack.
Another held on to his faith in a daring helicopter rescue.
In the loneliness of the battlefield, yet another discovered "in the darkest of times God's light shone the brightest."
At a time when the U.S. is at war and the American soldier is especially honored, five Colorado military veterans shared personal stories of faith in the foxhole.
On Thursday, they will join 2 billion Christians worldwide who will celebrate Christmas, marking the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ, 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.
Since then, the angel-borne greeting, "Peace on earth," has been regarded as the message of the day, though unrest marked the first Christmas - just as it does now.
Yet faith survives in the worst of times, these veterans say.
In conversations with the Rocky Mountain News, each talked about how their service to country led to service for God.
Following are their stories, told in their own words. Their remarks have been edited for space and clarity.
Jack LaPietra, 56, is pastor of New Life in Christ Church, an inner-city Hispanic ministry in north Denver. He served in Vietnam as a first lieutenant in a field artillery unit.
I had been commissioned in the ROTC program at the University of Pittsburgh. I wasn't a Christian then - I had lost whatever faith I had in the first semester - but the Lord blessed me anyway: I was a leader in student government, man of the year, very middle class. I was bound for law school.
It was April 1971, and I had been in Vietnam for less than a year. We were stationed in the Central Highlands, operating along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. My roommate in artillery school had been killed the first day out on patrol. It was a real hot spot.
I was petrified. I was not ready to die. I didn't know if there was a God awaiting me. It was time when the "death of God" movement was big, and the message on college campuses was that anybody intelligent wouldn't believe in the Bible or Jesus Christ. So I was already in the throes of despair about the meaning of life and what came afterward.
The night we were supposed to pull out, I was awake, playing pinochle with four guys. I was an insomniac. We knew if you slept at night, you died.
A few weeks before, the unit next to us had been overrun and there were 90 percent casualties.
Anyway, about two in the morning we got hit. It was so close you could feel the heat from the rounds.
It's paralyzing. Blinding. You don't know what's happening. Dirt's flying, the grounds shaking, there are flashes, explosions. My bunker was sprayed with shrapnel. I'm thinking are those guys - the Viet Cong - coming through the wire? Or is it just a mortar attack?
I wasn't ready to die. I had done no business with God yet. So what I said is, "If you're up there, get me out alive, life and limb intact - you can see I made the contract rather airtight - and I will study the Bible and if I discover you're real, I will give my heart to you."
I had met a Christian earlier who was going to Denver Seminary. I told him my doubts, and he told me to write to the seminary, that there were still people with intellectual capabilities who believed in God. They wrote back and said they would pray for me. They also sent me application papers and I thought, "Wow, this is premature!"
Anyway, I had been carrying those papers around, and by now they were covered with mud. But maybe an hour after the attack, I got my paperwork together and sealed the envelope.
That was a turning point. I had the prospect of ambush ahead of me, and I still had doubts, but I also had a new peace and a sense God was going to see me through.
People may wonder why my conversion stuck - a lot of so-called "foxhole conversions" don't. First, it really hit me hard - that indelible sense I could suddenly die without faith. I also reached this point where I was genuinely grateful to Jesus Christ for dying for me.
My family always thought I would attain great things - law school, politics, maybe a senator someday, maybe president. They had, and I had, these great hopes. But after surviving that experience in Vietnam, I told Jesus I wanted, out of gratitude, to serve him as a missionary for the rest of my life and work with oppressed, broken people. God just gave me this heart to do that.
Don Armstrong, 54, is pastor at Grace and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Colorado Springs. He piloted a helicopter in Vietnam.
One of the things that happens in the midst of real combat is that you enter into what I call a combat calm. You become very focused on your precise task and are actually able to filter out the chaos around you.
That's what happened one day in April 1971.
Our unit was almost all practicing Christians. We prayed together and read the Bible together almost daily. And I'm convinced prayer life was absolutely what saved our lives. Because instead of living in terror and fear we lived in the hope of the Resurrection. That instilled in us a calm and presence of mind so we could fly straight into the face of enemy fire in complete control.
That day a Scout helicopter connected to our unit was shot down in a rubber plantation heavily populated by the North Vietnamese Army. The crew radioed to us they were completely surrounded and the enemy was closing in.
I was circling right above them at about 1,500 feet. One of the Cobra gunship pilots radioed to ask if we could go in and pick 'em up. Then he gave me what seemed counterintuitive, crazy instructions - the angle was odd, more like a landing approach.
He said, "Trust me on this."
The approach angle and rate of descent didn't make sense to me, but in combat it's crucial to do what you're told no matter who tells you.
That's also a mark of Christianity - trust and obedience. And my definition of that comes from the people I flew with. It's a level of trust that's religious in nature among what I call the communion of pilots. In that environment of calm and trust one feels literally tethered to God.
So we started in. There's usually radio silence on a combat mission. But that doesn't mean there's total silence. Even in those days we had stereo cassette recorders, and most pilots had favorite music playing as we went into combat.
A favorite was And When I Die from Blood Sweat & Tears. I liked that and also an arrangement of Eric Satie's Trois Gymnopedie. If you know the group, you know these pieces when you hear them.
So I punched some Eric Satie on the stereo and started in. Rockets and gunfire erupted all around us. Inside the helicopter, I was being hit all over by a rainstorm of empty .60-caliber brass casings fired from our own machine guns.
And all the time I'm in the middle of this combat calm.
We get to the ground and can see the enemy running toward us, shooting. The crew of the downed helicopter tears over to us, jumps on and yells, "Go go go!"
Later, I found out why the Cobra pilot had me go in on such an odd angle: Two other helicopters were covering me. One was shooting rockets under me and the other over me. So If I had descended the way I thought made sense, I would have been hit by our own cover fire.
Something that always seemed especially symbolic of that trust is the bolt screwed on the top of the helicopter - the bolt that holds the whole unit together. It's called "the Jesus nut." In flying those missions, you feel literally tethered to God by the Jesus nut, like it's a literal strap.
So that's how I survived mentally, emotionally and spiritually in a time of combat. I'd float into the chaos knowing that, as the prayer book says, "Whether you live or die, you are the Lord's."
Cindy Neal Ostlie, 44, served in the Army from 1987 to 1989 and was on ready reserve status when she was called back for Operation Desert Storm. Today, she's a stay-at-home mom and school and church volunteer.
I joined the military knowing it was going to be a lonely, dark place. I wanted God to use me. I was 28 years old, single at the time, and I saw it as an adventure.
Just knowing where you're going to go after you die - that helps too. I got in trouble a lot for smiling too much - for having faith in the Lord, whatever happens. But as a Christian, I know whatever happens is going to have a good result.
I had served first in Korea. At the start of Desert Storm, I was praying to the Lord - "What more can I do?"
Then I got my orders sending me to the front lines.
My orders said I would be driving trucks and collecting body bags. When I heard that I thought, "Lord, I'll do any job, but I don't want that."
But I know God is going to go with me wherever I go. So even though, honestly, I wanted the comfort of being with my friends, and I probably wouldn't know anybody from that unit, I was ready.
As it turns out I got a different job. I was a chaplain's assistant and assigned to a unit that carried rations and ammunition all around Kuwait, Iraq and Iran. When you're carrying food and ammunition - yes, you're a target. But honestly, the enemy didn't seem very strong and surrendered fairly easily. People would just walk up and surrender.
The reason I look back fondly is that in the darkest of times God's light shone the brightest.
A battlefield is a very lonely place. All your props are gone - all your comforts are gone - you just have a sleeping bag and a tent and not-so-great food. You're with people you didn't really choose to be with, and there's the fear of the unknown.
Don't get me wrong; there are many, many enthusiastic people out there happy to serve their country - but I want to be honest about the hardships.
A lot of the people didn't have faith out there.
In the middle of night, they'd come in with flashlights and say, "Are you awake?" They'd want to walk around the perimeter and talk about God.
One night I heard, "Neal, are you sleeping?" It was a young man with kids at home. He was crying as we walked around, saying how he missed his wife and kids and was afraid. He didn't want to go to the other guys or talk about it in the daytime. But at night, with me, he felt safe doing that.
I shared with him he could trust in the Lord. We ended up praying together.
You do a lot of introspection on a battlefield, in wartime. My prayer is that there would be a revival there now in Iraq, among the soldiers, that they would get close to the Lord and realize the things that really matter.
When you have faith you can see anything through.
Metropolitan Isaiah, 72, leads the 12-state Denver-based region of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. He joined the Marine Corps in 1952 and served until 1960.
The motto is, "Once a Marine, always a Marine." It's surprising how many people I've met who served in the Marine Corps. I was in Galveston recently and met an older gentleman who had a Marine Corps pin on his lapel. I said to him, "Semper Fi," and he returned the greeting. Wherever I go I find people like that.
Of course, given my position now, some people are surprised I was in the Marines. I like to say I went from corporal to Your Eminence.
I joined the Marines after high school. The draft was on. Some people thought I was going to seminary but I said to myself, "I don't want to be labeled as a draft dodger. I'm going into the military first, and I'll find out where the Lord is leading me."
Since I was a young boy I always liked the Marine Corps. Our neighbor was in the Marine Corps and I admired him.
By then, the Korean War was winding down. While I was studying to be a radio operator, half my group went to Korea and my half went to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Later I was transferred to the Sixth Marines, assigned to the Sixth Fleet - and another half of my group went to Korea.
So, twice I was not in the group assigned to Korea. I consider that the guiding hand of the Lord. I never wanted to kill people, and I never did.
Now, I was not a conscientious objector - I had a rifle and if an enemy was coming toward me, I would regard it as a matter of self-defense.
The position the Orthodox Church takes on war differs in some degree from Western Christianity. We do not consider any war to be justified, whereas Western Christianity outlines certain provisions for a just war.
Orthodox Christianity does say certain wars are unavoidable. And one who participates in them does so for the sake of self-defense, either of themselves or their country.
What I liked about the Marine Corps is that we were told from the first day we were a complete zero. We had no parents, no loved ones, no God. Everything was woven up in the drill instructor. I accepted that. I was structured in my own way, and I accepted the discipline. I liked it.
It doesn't mean you're giving up your religious principles; you're differentiating between what you have to do in this world, while your soul can think its own thing.
You know, I grew up with very strong Greek and Christian doctrines, and we were always reminded that throughout history our church has been attacked time and again. The attitude of the church is, this is only a temporal situation; we cannot lose focus in the promise of Christ and his coming kingdom. That phrase of the Lord, "We are in the world but not of it," has always stayed with me.
So, I believe that there are things in the military that are compatible with Christian faith. As a matter of fact, I strongly believe every young man should experience a few years in the military. It helps a person to become disciplined. People don't have enough discipline in their lives today.
In life we have to sacrifice to preserve our higher principles. We cannot relax them. The Marine Corps teaches that. There's a song I learned in childhood that has a line in it I believe in very strongly - "It is better to live one hour free than 40 years in slavery."
William "Bishop" Jones, 54, works for the U.S. Postal Service and is an elder at House of Joy Church. He served in the Army from 1968 to 1971, including one year in Vietnam.
I grew up in a church, but I wasn't totally committed to serving God until years later.
Looking back over my life, I believe an experience I had in Vietnam 33 years ago was a moment when God reached out to me and started to set me straight.
In April 1970, I was stationed at a place called Dong Ba Thin, right across from Cam Ranh Bay, the main base for the U.S. military. One night we had a rocket attack. The enemy really went on the rampage.
What normally happened is the rockets would go over us into Cam Ranh Bay. But that night, one rocket dropped short. It woke everybody up. Then came another one - hitting around our perimeter.
I was going to roll over on the floor and wait until it stopped. That was usually safer than trying to run outside.
But that night, a white mist came into the room and hovered there. It definitely caught my attention.
Then it spoke to me, saying - "William, get out of here."
The voice - it was an audible voice - sounded like my mother, who had died about two years before.
This peace came to me, and I thought, "This is real."
So I didn't hesitate. I got up and threw on some clothes and took off running.
As I tore across this field I heard a big roar, like a race car. I looked back, and the sky was filled with this big red ball. From that angle it looked like it was coming right at me. I kept running toward a bunker. When the explosion came it was so close it pushed me right into the bunker.
The attack lasted 15 minutes. Then one of the fellows came in and said, "Your room was blown up."
The rocket had fallen within eight feet of where I was sleeping. That shook me up.
Obviously, I wasn't hurt - but the real miracle was nobody else was, either. But I didn't really understand what had happened until 1983, when I got saved.
A brother-in-law led me to Jesus. As I started studying the Bible, I came to understand God had a destiny for me. As I reflected over my whole life, I saw how many dangerous times I had been through, and how I had come out unhurt.
I started realizing God had chosen me to do something. So I started to preach the Gospel. God gave me a ministry called "Spirit of Power." I teach twice a month at Arapahoe County Jail. As I see people there, I'm able to tell them how God brought me to where I am now, able to walk upright. I believe, and I tell men in jail, that God has kept each one of us to this day to be used by Him - not just to sit around while people's souls are being lost.
Looking back, I believe the things I went through - especially that night in Vietnam - was God's way of keeping me safe so I could do His will someday.
I believe that white mist was God's way of warning me. He knew the sound of my mother's voice, even more than an angel's, would get my attention. And it did.
When I heard that, it's as if a light opened up that gave me the peace to know what to do.
Following are their stories, told in their own words....
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