Warriors and heroes
On Feb. 13, 1970, I arrived for Recruit Training (now called “Basic Warrior Training”) at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., and was assigned to 2nd Battalion, Platoon 223.
My father warned me that it would be tough. I had no idea just how tough. I had played football in junior high and high school for five years and for one season after high school. I lifted weights and had been taking karate lessons for about four years. I thought I was prepared. I was not.
As tough as the physical strain was, the psychological stress was greater. I had been a church kid since I was 15 and had always believed in God. Heck, I even attended Sunday School and was president of my church youth group. I thought I knew how to pray during tough times. I didn’t.
The first two weeks of boot camp seemed like two months. If we received any letters from home during that first two weeks, I don’t remember it. I was lonely, homesick, and frankly, afraid.
I was afraid that I was going to fail and go home a non-Marine. I was afraid that I would do something stupid and incur the wrath of the drill instructors (which happened whether one did something stupid or not). There was a war in Southeast Asia going on and, when I thought about it, I was afraid to die.
After two weeks, I scheduled a brief appointment with the chaplain, just to talk things out and try to get my head together. The chaplain, a Navy officer assigned to listen to would-be-Marines like me, was compassionate and encouraging. At the end of our time, he prayed with me and gave me a pocket size New Testament and a small booklet called, “The Serviceman’s Guide.” As I walked back to the barracks, I still had issues but I also had hope.
A few days later, after a particularly grueling and brutal experience, when my performance was, I felt, unacceptable, I went to bed depressed. The very real feel of failure visited me again.
Quietly, I got up in the middle of the night and, carefully using my flashlight, retrieved the booklet the chaplain gave me from my foot locker. I prayed silently, “Dear God, if you are real and if you are in this horrible place — and if you care about me — let me know somehow and I’ll do whatever you want.” I didn’t pray for success, just assurance.
I opened the booklet in the dark of the night and, with my head under the wool blanket, read these words from Isaiah 41:10: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”
In that moment, I felt — and that is the right word — what John Wesley had described two centuries earlier when he reported that, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” In that moment, I knew that I knew that God was real and that He was, in some mysterious fashion, present with me and involved with me. I also knew that he would see me through.
From that Tuesday night, I was no longer afraid — not of failure, not of the drill instructors, and not even of death.
I graduated boot camp, earned the title of United States Marine, and eventually received an Honorable Discharge at the end of my enlistment. It was a life-changing experience, both the Corps and that night on March 3. Later, I felt called to the ministry and fully intended to become a Navy chaplain and do for Marines what that chaplain did for me.
It was not to be. I “temporarily” entered the pastorate at age 23 and have remained there since. I have served as a law enforcement chaplain for nearly 22 years and I suppose I began to do that, in part, because I still felt, and still feel, a sense of call to serve the warriors — albeit warriors in the community — who put their lives at risk every day.
I wonder sometimes about that Navy chaplain; I wonder if he knew he changed my life that day 41 years ago? I wonder what he would think if he could see me now, no longer a 19-year-old scared kid. I wonder how many lives he changed in his career.
He is long since retired, but others have taken his place, serving soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, and putting their own lives on hold and at risk. Chaplains, too, leave families behind and they, too, get killed in war zones. They may not carry weapons but they also are warriors and heroes.
It is said that Marines love their Corpsmen (medics) and their chaplains, both of which come from the ranks of the Navy. I never needed my life saved by a Corpsman but I did have my life saved by a chaplain. And on this day, over four decades later, my heart is strangely warmed still.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and is the mission pastor of Christ the King Fellowship in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]