In the Valley of the Shadow of Death:
Good morning from Afghanistan. I am exhausted. I am soaking wet almost up to my waist. I am covered in mud from the knee down. It’s the kind of mud that just clings to you. It was dust a couple of days ago, but there have been heavy storms, hail, and heavy rains, and the entire camp where we are is just an absolute pile of mud. I’m feeling sick. I’m not sure exactly what I’ve come down with—some kind of cold, runny nose type of thing. But I wanted to do a recording this morning because my heart is full of joy.
Today I sent my first group of Marines on their own into a fight. We had sent a few people here and there to augment units or to go and get familiarization with different places. I won’t be too specific; although, if you’re reading the news, you’ll have some idea of what we’re up to. I begged to try and get on this convoy, and it looked like I was going to have a seat at one point, and then we had to cancel because some of our gear wasn’t ready. When we had called it back on a few days later, we had tried to limit the amount of trucks, and they said that there just wasn’t enough space for me.
I tried everything I could to be on this first convoy out, but I can’t be. I’m going to have to wait and pray. But this morning my job was to go out and to say a blessing for my Marines who are “loaded up for bear”. They have all their ammunition ready, loaded. They are game-faced. They are very serious. They are about the business of war. That’s what the Marines do. We go and we fight for our nation.
I showed up very early this morning, and it turned out that things had been postponed a little bit, and I won’t go into all the reasons why, but I hung around. I’m just very exhausted, very, very early in the morning, so that it’s really night and not morning. Eventually everyone started coming in, and there was just an electricity around this morning—everyone getting in, checking things in, checking them over again, officers huddled in one place, senior and staff NCOs huddled in another place, junior NCOs in another place. Of course, just the Marines, the PFCs and the lance corporals, huddled in their groups around their trucks—very busy. Everyone is loading up, and I’m floating around from place to place just having final conversations with people, asking if they’ve had a chance to talk to their family, asking how they’re feeling, and trying to be motivating if I can.
Just before they’re ready to go, the second lieutenant who is going to be running the convoy came up to me and said, “Sir, we’re ready.” I said, “Ready for what?” This lieutenant said, “We’re ready for your blessing.” The lieutenant put out the call, and everyone began gathering around, all the different Marines gathering around in a big semicircle. Then the lieutenant said, “All right, sir, we’re ready for you.” I walked in about calf-deep in mud, and everyone’s eyes were watching, everyone’s gaze was fixed, whether with some sense of expectation or a sense of no expectation, “What’s he going to say? What’s our final prayer going to be?” I’ll tell you, this is why I am a military chaplain. I walked into the middle of that semicircle, in the mud and the still falling rain with the trucks around, everybody ready to go, and I read Psalm 140:
Deliver me, O Lord from evil men. Preserve me from the violent who plan evil things in their hearts and stir up war continually. Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked. Preserve me from violent men who plan to trip up my feet. The arrogant have hidden a trap for me and with cords they have spread a net. By the wayside they have set snares for me. I say unto the Lord, Thou art my God. Give ear to the voice of my supplications, O Lord. O Lord, my Lord, my Strong Deliverer, thou hast covered my head in the day of battle. Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked; do not further his evil plot. Those who surround me lift up their head. Let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them. Let burning coals fall upon them. Let them be cast into pits, no more to rise. Let not the slanderer be established in the land. Let evil hunt down the violent man speedily. I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the afflicted and executed justice for the needy. Surely the righteous shall give thanks to thy name, and I shall dwell in thy presence forever.
As I finished praying and I said “Amen,” praying this psalm which is also found in the Book of Needs: Prayers for Soldiers Going off to War, the Marines gathered there, let out a sharp cry of “Hoorah!” which is our motivational shout. We use it all the time. When you’re passing someone in the morning and you want to say “hello”, a lot of times you’ll just say “Hoorah! Good morning”. When something is motivating to a crowd of Marines, they’ll shout in unison “Hoorah!” And they did. It was time to go, and I pulled out my bottle of oil from the lampada of St. Herman of Alaska. I said, “I’m going to be making my way around saying a blessing over all the trucks. If any of you want to come up to me, I’ll give you a blessing and anoint you to go into battle.”
I began making my way around the trucks, and I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to come up or not. There was one Orthodox going on the convoy, so I blessed him right away and then began making my way around. As I came around the back side of one of the trucks, I saw about 25 Marines standing in line. They had come around the other side of the truck while I was going around it. They were all standing with their hats and their beanies and their helmets in their hands and looking at me. I began going up to them with the oil of St. Herman and began to anoint them as they went into battle—for the protection of their souls and their bodies, in the name of the Father, and Son and Holy Spirit.
It’s hard for me to express how meaningful it is to have a physical touch with these people that I really care about, that I’m worried about. I think, to them, it’s a touch from God. You can see it in their face. They close their eyes and they feel the sign of the cross made on their forehead, and they feel safe, and they’re ready to go. When I’m done blessing, they have a big grin, and they say something, whatever, “Thank you, sir,” or “God bless you, sir. Are you sure you can’t come with us?” I know some of that is probably superstitious and some of it is probably just polite. But, after I passed the next set of trucks, there was about 15 more Marines waiting. I blessed them too, and there was probably a couple I didn’t. It wasn’t something that they wanted, and, of course, I’m not going to push it.
As I was walking away, the young lieutenant came up to me with a smile and took off his helmet. I said a blessing on that lieutenant. Then I looked him in the eyes and said to him, “Be strong and lead well, and I’ll see you soon.” So my Marines got into their trucks, tired and dirty and ready for battle. The engines started to roar and they began to slog out slowly, getting stuck a couple times, but our vehicles are very sturdy. Pushing out and there they go. They’re going down the dirt path, going outside the wire, and going out into the valley of the shadow of death. I can’t come up with a better phrase. I walk back to my tent, and I say a prayer all the way. I am even saying a prayer, quietly at times, as I say this to you. This is all very fresh. I just left a minute or two ago.
I heard somebody say one time, “If you can’t get behind our troops, you’re welcome to stand in front of them.” I think that’s probably an pretty incendiary way of saying that we all should respect and honor the sacrifice that our men and women in our armed forces make, no matter whether we agree with all the sociopolitical, geopolitical, decisions that are being made in the background that send armies to war. But I want to tell all of you that I serve with the finest group of men and women that I have ever met. They are brave and they are vulnerable. They are strong and they are young. They are unprepared and they are prepared. But they go and answer the call. They get up in the middle of the night, far from home, and they slog through the mud. They get on their trucks and they go. And may God bring them all back to me safely. But some may not come home.
This morning, this early morning, I’m so thankful for this work that the Lord has deigned to give me, unworthy though I am, with all the mistakes that I make, with all the pride in my heart, all the times I feel inadequate, and all the times that I lead on my own understanding and build my self image off of things that don’t last. I’m so thankful that he has entrusted me with this incredible opportunity to serve these incredible men and women who are the next generation that will lead this country.
Say anything you want about their fickleness and their unpreparedness for life. They were prepared this morning. I place them in the palm of the Lord’s hand. I beg St. Herman, by his prayers, to protect them. I beg the Archangel Michael and the heavenly battle host to protect them. I ask each one of you who are listening to this to pray for them. By the time this is posted, our operation here will be long over, but we’ll be in the middle of something else. My heart is full this morning, my heart is full. Thanks be to God. Amen.