When I woke up this morning it was just like any other day. I gave thanks to God that His mercies are new every morning, and attempt to be a better father to my children, husband to my wife, and pastor of my home.
But then I was reminded that today was Memorial Day. There was a time in my life where my thoughts of Memorial Day were on a day off of work, a BBQ at the beach, or a cold beverage with friends and family. This has changed much over the years. As a disabled veteran of the United States Marine Corps, I have lost brothers overseas fighting for our country. Having paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country, they gave their lives fighting for the freedom of so many people who don’t even know who they were. Some of the very people that these brothers of mine sacrificed their lives for, spend their own lives disrespecting the military every chance they get, or don’t even think twice about why they have the day off today.
And you know what? That’s okay.
You see, as a member of the Armed Forces this freedom is the very thing we fought for. Yes, we fought to give people the freedom to use social media to condemn the military, as well as days like today. We fought to give people the freedom to take a knee during the National Anthem as well. We fought to give people the freedom to suddenly become military experts by making judgements about war, condemn our governments decisions for going to war, and do it all from the comfort of their living room and behind a computer screen. But what really gets me on a day like today was being reminded about my Marine Corps brothers who were lost in combat, both overseas and at home.
Eric Sandoval was a Marine Corps Scout Sniper I had met while on my first combat deployment back in August of 2001. We were both members of 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, 1st Marine Division, and stationed on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Ca. Mark Ryan was also a member of our Battalion, serving alongside me in Weapons Company. When we deployed in August of 2001, the last thing on our minds was that there would be a terrorist attack on United States soil, let alone become the first Marine Corps infantry unit to respond for that same attack. But that’s exactly what happened. After a few days training in Darwin Australia, our Battalion Commander rewarded the Battalion with a night of liberty on the main strip. I can speak first hand that simply saying we “took over the strip” that evening is a major understatement. It was during this night that an evening of cold beverages, dancing, and relaxation from the grueling Darwin sun, changed in an instant. Shore partol (Marines and Sailors on Duty) we’re running up and down the street yelling at all serviceman to get back to the ship. I ran to the nearest pay phone I could find, attempting to call my young wife of all but one month to let her know something was up! I had just married Diana in July just before we had left on deployment. Suddenly, a senior Marine on duty grabbed the phone from my hand and hung it up with a great force.
“Get back to the ship, Marine!”
Not knowing what was going on, a buddy and I started walking towards the ship. I will never forget the panic in the streets that night, as Marines and Sailors aggressively tried stopping cab drivers, or start running back to the ship themselves. As we were walking I noticed a small liquor store open with a couple of Aussie’s watching a television with their complete attention. It was at this moment when I finally seen what all the fuss was about. My heart sank as I seen those planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York. Even as a junior Marine on my first deployment, I was aware that something was very wrong and that things were going to change for me at a rapid pace. I’ll never forget what the two Australian men said to me next…
”Good luck, mate!”
Even writing this seventeen-years later those words send chills up my spine. The following month we entered Pakistan, and a month after that we were the first Marines to enter into Afghanistan. I share this story not because we were the only Marines ever to serve in combat; because we weren’t. I don’t share this story as if many other men and women didn’t give their lives for their country in other wars and in other places; because they have. I share this story because of Ryan and Sandoval. These men were both with me when these events took place. I share this story because although Ryan would later lose his life serving his country overseas, Sandoval would also lose his life in 2010 while at home with his family. I share this because Sandoval was likely suffering from injuries he earned in while serving in combat. I share this story because the brain injury he suffered from is likely the very same injury that I’ve been diagnosed with as well. I write this to remind people that just because your veteran might come home in one piece, there’s a good chance he or she is suffering from an invisible injury that’s a challenge to diagnose, and not so easy to see right away.
The hope of a believer…
Although I vaguely remember the times I shared personally with Ryan, or the many times I shared along side him in training or in combat, I do remember one thing quite well. I remember the cold hard fact that I never shared the Gospel with him. The same can be said when it comes to Sandoval. A Marine I came to know much about as he left 1/1 with me, and as we reported together to Edson Range, Camp Pendleton, California. We would serve as Primary Marksmanship Instructors for Range Company. It was here where I joked with him daily about his stature (he was short and stout), as well as his laid back attitude despite being a former Sniper. We talked daily on the rifle range together while teaching Marine Corps Recruits how to shoot while in Basic Training (boot camp). Like Ryan, I never shared the hope of Christ with him either. I can’t even begin to think how hard it would be to suffer from these invisible injuries like a traumatic brain injury, panic attacks, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, migraines, fear, loneliness, etc., apart from the hope I have in Jesus Christ. I guess this is why many veterans become addicted to alcohol or drugs, both legal and illegal. Maybe this is why so many take their own lives.
I thank God for His grace in saving an individual like me. After all, it is by His grace alone that I’ve been given a faith to believe in Him and a forgiveness of sins that have caused much harm to myself and others. It is by His grace that I’ve been adopted as His son, given a new heart, and filled with the same Holy Spirit that raised Christ from the dead. It is by His grace alone that I write this story today in the comfort of my home and in the presence of my family, all while not numbing myself of the injuries I earned while serving my country. But it’s not all about being relieved from feeling any pain, because it’s still there. It’s more about the clean slate I’ve been given as Christ has already paid my debt, and has given me a righteousness that is not my own and that I do not deserve. It is by His grace alone that I have been placed in a saving relationship with the Father. It is by grace alone that when He looks upon me from His glory He sees not my brittle body and the many injuries I have earned. No, He sees His Son Jesus and His righteousness that covers me. When I suffer from my own injuries I know He has already suffered for me. I know that my suffering is not meaningless, and that He has promised that I might know Him in my suffering…
“…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…”
In closing, I share this article to remind all that when you see a veteran don’t be afraid to thank him or her for their service. I can tell you first hand that this mean a lot. But more importantly, if you’re a believer I encourage you to share the gospel with a veteran as well. Share the gospel with anyone for that matter. For the last several years I’ve struggled greatly as many (even my own family and friends) have looked at me as damaged goods, someone to feel sorry for, or someone with no hope. When I lost my home, my car, and my family became homeless, there were only a select few who helped me in my time of need. For this, I am forever thankful for them. But while I finally reached out to the VA for help for these invisible injuires, my hope was always as strong as ever. The reason for this is because my hope comes from something (or someone) outside of myself and not from the inside. My hope comes from the perfect One, the name above all names, and the One whose perfect love has been given to me despite my personal struggles. When my faith was weak, He was strong. When my depression was weighing heavily on my shoulders, it was my hope in the risen King that helped me focus on His finished works, and not my unfinished ones.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not our story, it’s His. It is not something that can be lived out, but a story of the perfect One who has already lived it for His people. The gospel needs to be spoken to everyone you come across, even Veterans like Ryan and Sandoval. I don’t know if either of these Marines ever met the risen Christ, but every Memorial Day I’m reminded of the opportunities I missed to introduce Him to them myself. My body may be broken but my savior lives and has redeemed me. It is because of this my hope has never failed. He has promised that He will finish the work He has done in me, and for these things I will praise His name always. Christian, share the hope you have with a veteran today. Teach them about the finished works of Christ and of the promises that we have in Him, both present and future…
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new…’”