Faith of a Soldier
“Dad, I’m going to have to exercise your angel.”
“My roommate asked why I believe there’s something out there,” Zinn recalls. “He said, ‘What if there isn’t?’ and I said, ‘Then so be it. But what if there is?’ ”
As Smith listened to the snores of thirty men sleeping in a single room—each with his weapon beside him—he’d say the Our Father over and over again.
“Some [prisoners] were just out past curfew or stole food. Some of their crimes were hurting Americans—but I didn’t know who was who.” He gladly left the sorting to God.
“How do you try not to hurt locals when they’re trying to hurt you?”
Edwards says of his time in Afghanistan, “It’s a place where it’s really easy to lose your religion, but also really easy to gain it.”
Craig Franklin was sent to Saudi Arabia with the Air National Guard during Desert Storm. Driving on a sun-baked dirt road, clouds of sand in front of him, he heard an explosion; the next minute, he was in a ditch. After that day, each time he slid behind the wheel his stomach tightened.
Franklin and the five other soldiers we interviewed (Michael Zinn, James Francis, Tom Smith, Brandon Edwards, and Hogan Wampler), all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, said their faith has helped them continue to love under impossible circumstances. Whether they were guarding the enemy or wiping away spittle from the contemptuous villagers they were trying to help, their faith was a moral compass in the arid desert, the urban chaos of Baghdad, and the cave-hollowed hills of Afghanistan. As they fought, surrounded by explosions, gunfire, and the dead bodies of their friends, their faith became the still point—the incorruptible center.
Drawing Aid and Comfort
In wartime, faith can quiet fear and comfort loss. Small expressions of devotion come into play, anchoring us to centuries-old traditions.
James Francis learned he was being sent overseas on New Year’s Eve. His priest blessed him, and Francis held his wife, Sandra, and baby daughter tightly. (See above for “Strength in Faith,” Sandra’s perspective.)
His Vietnam-veteran father said, “Jim, I want you to have my guardian angel. He’s old, but I want you to know he’s going with you.” Francis was absurdly pleased. The comfort that offering gave him soon doubled as a convenient code: While in Afghanistan, whenever Francis knew he’d be going into combat, he’d write, “Dad, I’m going to have to exercise your angel.”
Just as guardian angels may seem whimsical fluttering around the shoulders of a tough soldier, so too do tiny, tangible symbols like the holy medal of St. Michael, patron saint of soldiers. Tom Smith simply smiled when he received his medal from his aunt while in Iraq. But when the mortar rounds came close to hitting the double sandbags on the roof of his wood shelter, Smith reached for the medal and clutched it until the shelling stopped. It reminded him that he wasn’t as alone or as helpless as he felt.
Michael Zinn, who escorted a detonation team, also felt the need for a physical sign. One day he and his gunner answered a call—an IED (improvised explosive device) had exploded on a Humvee they’d driven past at least four times that day. It could have blown at any of those times.
“When I got to the scene, the gunner had been ejected, and he’d landed on the concrete face down,” Zinn recalls. “He’d slid across the pavement thirty feet. He lived, but he had no facial features.” That incident started Zinn thinking about life, death, and faith. “I guess what really calmed me down was, I decided I’d get a tattoo of Jesus on the cross,” he says, “to show God [that], ‘As much as I don’t always do the things we’re supposed to do and go to church, I always walk with you.’ On the back of my left arm, I got St. Michael casting Satan out of heaven—the old style, like from a stained-glass window.”
Zinn grew into his faith in young adulthood. As a boy, Zinn didn’t care much about religion. “Both my parents are deaf, so going to church didn’t really appeal to them because nobody there could sign,” he explains. However, his grandfather made sure the kids studied Catholicism and received the sacraments. “He was the one who got us believing there’s something else out there, something more to life than, ‘Hey, we’re just here.’ ”
For Tom Smith, Catholicism has been important since his years as an eager altar boy. Those liminal moments of Smith’s childhood—like getting ready for Mass—flashed back when he was in Iraq. He’d see friends pale with blood loss, their bodies swollen beyond recognition, a leg or arm missing, and he’d rack his brain: Why them? Instead of answers, he saw images: white cloth, the flicker of a just-lit candle, the host.
Smith recalls the sinking feeling that preceded most tragedies. “Some days you just knew something bad happened, and nobody had to say anything.” The worst day for Smith was April 29, 2004, when eight of his friends were killed in action. Doc, a 29-year-old who’d just shared pictures of his young children, was one of them.
That night, sickened by the randomness of his friends’ deaths, Smith looked hard for some sense of order and grace. Once again, images flashed back: standing in the sanctuary, preparing in reverent silence for the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Unfathomable love, redeeming us from incomprehensible sin.
• • •
Craig Franklin’s Air National Guard unit had always worked together like a machine, intricate gears perfectly meshed, until they were activated for Desert Storm. “I saw something I thought I’d never see,” he says, his voice heavy. “Certain people became very agitated; they said, ‘Maybe I don’t want to go over there,’ and they started to do things to make themselves ineligible, maybe incurring an injury or something. When I sat down and talked to them, I realized they had no faith. Once we were going to war, the ones who didn’t believe in God were the ones who started falling apart.” (See right for “A Moral Imperative,” an example of Franklin’s faith in action.)
Bonding in the Midst of Chaos
In wartime, faith can also loosen tongues and build personal and spiritual bonds.
To his surprise, Smith found himself confiding in his unit’s chaplain assistant. “He was just a real good guy, about 6-foot-11, always easy to talk to. We’d talk about our families, our dreams—the talks were pretty deep.” He opened up. “You speak honestly with people because you don’t know if you’re going to have the next day.”
Smith also talked more to God. Smith’s field-artillery unit was crammed inside a wood shelter at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Saint Michael, just outside the Fallujah battle zone. As Smith listened to the snores of thirty men sleeping in a single room—each with his weapon beside him—he’d say the Our Father over and over again.
In Iraq, Zinn’s medic was a preacher’s son. They talked for hours about religion, comparing notes and bouncing ideas off each other. “My roommate was atheist, and he asked me why I believe there’s something out there,” Zinn recalls. “He said, ‘What if there isn’t?’ I said, ‘Then so be it. But what if there is?’ ” By the time Zinn finished basic training, he’d taught himself how to pray—not for what he wanted, but for what God wanted.
In Staff Sgt. Hogan Wampler’s second tour, he went to Mass regularly, and the chaplain asked him to be a lector. As he read aloud, he’d think about how every Catholic church across the world was hearing the same reading. He started to feel a tingling awareness, a sense that God was present and watching. When Wampler didn’t have time to go to church, he’d pray at night in the hot confines of his tent. “I’d just start a conversation in my head with him, ask for help to make it through the next day,” he says. “I always try to talk to him. I never want to stray far from God.”
Letting God Be the Judge
The sweet relief of Catholicism is the sense that God is all-knowing, the purest love in the universe. That means we don’t carry the burden of standing in judgment over one another; justice can be entrusted to the highest court.
When Zinn was stationed near the Kuwait border, he watched over detainees, searching them, feeding them, and guarding them. It was an antagonistic intimacy forced by the situation and characterized by mutual wariness. Yet somehow he never felt the sort of hatred other soldiers showed.
“I didn’t judge,” he says simply. “I understand that this is war, but they’ve been captured; they’re no harm to me. Some of these people were just out past curfew or stole food. Some of their crimes were hurting Americans—but I didn’t know who was who.” He gladly left the sorting to God.
In Afghanistan, Francis says, “There were guys who saw themselves as being in a holy war, but I didn’t.” He admits that the war did feel like a battle between good and evil—especially when he saw some of the atrocities the Taliban was responsible for; however, it didn’t feel like two religions pitted against each other. “Remember, I was training Afghans—I was helping the Muslims. I had more interaction with them than I did with the U.S. Army.”
He fought to go into the countryside and train more Afghans, telling his superior officers, “Look, until the people see their government, their army, working for them, they’re going to be seen as warlords.” As word spread, it wasn’t long before Afghans (some who had walked for a day at a time) came to find Francis and asked him to help in their village.
Unfortunately, many soldiers did not find that kind of gratitude. “They didn’t know why we were there,” recalls Staff Sgt. Brandon Edwards. “And the rule there is, whoever is the strongest is the boss. How do you try not to hurt locals when they’re trying to hurt you?”
Edwards soon realized logic didn’t work in Afghanistan. He needed something more powerful. Faith moves you out of angry, tit-for-tat reactions; it gives you a way and a reason to treat people with dignity regardless of what they say or do. Faith also alters perspective by putting everything into proportion. Larger truths dwarf private worries. A vast and timeless universe in which you’re connected to people all over the world, throughout history, is opened.
A Unique Sense of Community
Zinn saw hell in his first deployment—but it didn’t dissuade him from going back when another infantry unit asked for volunteers. “The only thing I actually knew was Iraq,” he says with a shrug. He trained with thirty men, forming friendships that wove the tightest community he’d ever experienced. “You’d take a bullet for them,” he says. “You felt like, ‘If it’s your life or mine, it’s going to be mine.’ ”
That kind of solidarity is hard to fathom in peacetime, no matter how much we talk in parish workshops about building community. Stories of combat, though, are filled with self-sacrifice.
Even the dogs of war can teach us, notes Edwards, who handled military dogs for the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan. “K9 is an interesting group, because we’re very tight,” he says. “Maybe there’s a little bit of a God complex—we’re in front with the dogs, looking for explosives and protecting everybody else.” That role carries terrifying pressure. In the slack times, when his unit wasn’t on the move or in the middle of bloody combat, Edwards would toss a tennis ball for his dog or just sit and pet him. “He’d lie in my lap. He just showed me this unselfish, straightforward love. There was no thought in his mind of being selfish.”
That was exactly the attitude Edwards wanted to have in his unit for the sake of his comrades. “You’re doing whatever you need to do so everybody can just get to the next day with their sanity,” he says, a world of experience behind the tight words. From time to time, someone broke. “They’d start what we call ‘pinging,’ which means they’re so stressed for so long that the littlest thing sets them off. You see things over there that most people will never see.” Edwards pauses, lets his breath out slowly. “You see all the evil in that moment.”
Faith was the only force strong enough to counter it, the only response that made sense. He says of his time in Afghanistan, “It’s a place where it’s really easy to lose your religion, but also really easy to gain it.”