I grew up going to church every Sunday and church camp every year. But despite all that time spent in His house, I never felt like I knew God.
I didn’t realize who He was until I joined the Marine Corps after going away to college at the United States Naval Academy. The Marine Corps trains the humanity out of you. They do this so you can do the job they are asking you to do. They do this so you can function in a world where everything and everyone is tearing each other apart. They do this so you can survive and come home and hopefully bring your men home, too.
I deployed to two combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan – one as a Scout Sniper Platoon Commander and the other as a Marine Corps Special Operations Intelligence Operator (now known as the Marine Corps Raiders).
While I was there, I began asking questions. Why do some people get hurt while others are saved? Why do such horrible things happen to such great men? Why take the life of my friend before he can meet his brand new baby boy? Why spare me? Why allow me to do the horrible things you command not to do? Will you ever forgive me? Why would you want to forgive me when I can’t even forgive myself?
I realized that I didn’t know God like I thought I did. I had just been going through the motions and thought that the way I was feeling was how everyone else was feeling. But when I went to war, the distance between me and God continued to grow despite my constant prayers.
Every day I asked God to keep me safe. To let the next step not be my last. To let that fire-fight not hit me. To save my men. To let my friend – the one who was blown up yesterday – make it through. To help me make the moral decisions as an Officer despite feeling nothing but pain and anger. To help me find the strength to keep going. I worked at 7000 RPMs for 10 months and it took a toll on me mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally.
When I came back from war, it hurt for me to go to church, and I felt I had nowhere else to go to find peace. I felt that I had used all my “chits”, and I wasn’t deserving of his love and grace for all that I had done while deployed. So I stopped going. I started saying, “I don’t need God. I can do this on my own. I can fight this on my own. If I can’t do this on my own then all I am is a weak man, a liability.”
I pushed down the feelings: the heartbreak, the sadness, the sorrow, the anger, the fear. I put on a face that showed the outside world that everything was okay, but that arrogance, anger, fear and sadness made me lose my family, myself, my love, and I almost took my life twice.
All I wanted was for the pain to stop. I broke. And that is when God came to me.
While I was living in California, I decided to go back to church. I got there early, sat down, and cried. When the service started and the singing began, it took everything I had not to lose myself in front of everyone. Marines don’t cry! Push it down! Fight it!
I refused to sing or pray or even stand up because I was so ashamed to be in His presence, but I didn’t know where else to go. Another song started and everyone but me stood up. In that moment, I heard a voice over my shoulder say, “Stand the f*** up.” I turned around and saw an 85 year-old woman looking at me. God knew I needed that aggressive language to jolt me and start me on my path to knowing Him.
My heart immediately changed in that moment. I knew she was an angel sent by God to help me find a way to take that first step. She and I became friends, and she helped get me through one of the toughest times in my life when I needed connection more than anything.
It wasn’t until that moment that I knew the difference between truly knowing God and just going through the motions. I felt it. I met God for the first time that day. God revealed Himself to me.
Healing is a long game, though; and that wasn’t the end of my struggles. As with anything in life, we often revert back to what we know, and for me, that was my training. I moved to Virginia and spent ten years fighting to push down my feelings. Fighting to not let them bother me. Fighting to find connection and to feel ANYTHING other than anger and sadness. But every time I pushed them down, they came back up stronger. I would burn the candle at both ends to try and distract myself from the pain. But all that did was remove me from who I was and push away everyone who ever loved me.
I broke again. But this time, I asked for help.
I knew I wasn’t going to survive without it. God put the right people in my path to help me find help. I was so broken that I had to be admitted into an intensive outpatient program. Even though I was far from home, God kept his angels on my shoulder.
I was in a group of combat veterans from all walks of life – from Vietnam vets, to army infantry, to fellow Marines, to homeless vets. We were all struggling to find our way, and in doing so, we learned that we were neither alone nor eternally broken. Each one of us had reached that point where it was either ask for help or face death. Find a way to forgive ourselves or find a way to stop the pain. Find a friend or feel alone. Find God or continue to push him away.
We had to read a book called “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse.” It’s a book that encourages us to “live courageously with more kindness for [ourselves] and for others. And to ask for help when [we] need it – which is always a brave thing to do.”
‘What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?’ asked the boy.
‘Help,’ said the horse.
‘Asking for help isn’t giving up,’ said the horse. ‘It’s refusing to give up!’
During my time away at the treatment center, I chose to not give up and find a way! And while that way was scary, unrelenting, and felt so far away… I battled my past to give hope to my future…I took one step everyday. The program and God gave me the tools I needed to take those steps despite how far I knew I had to go.
‘But we have such a long way to go’, sighed the boy.
‘Yes, but look how far we’ve come’, said the horse.
It wasn’t until I was able to ask for help and find connection that I was able to have the courage to face my trauma. From that new place of strength, I could begin working towards God’s purpose for me and learning to feel His love. Over the last year, God came in forms that helped me in ways I didn’t even see. He put the right people in the right place at the right time to help me take one more step – one more step towards community, one more step towards God, one more step towards life. The counter to trauma is connection, and God provided that connection for me. Sometimes all it takes is someone truly asking about how you’re feeling and being there to listen.
So when you see someone, say something, anything, because you never know how your kindness will influence their day. It may be the thing God wanted you to do to help them keep going.
‘When things get difficult, remember who you are.’
‘Who am I?’ asked the boy.
‘You are loved’ said the horse.
‘Sometimes I think you believe in me more than I do,’ said the boy.
‘You’ll catch up,’ said the horse.’