As you read this article today, a mere two days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, I am sure you cannot help but to reflect on the realization that nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airplanes and then flew two of those planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, one of them into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and ultimately lost control of the fourth (with a little help from the passengers) crashing it into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in those attacks and I, and I am sure many of you, can remember exactly what you were doing when you learned of the attacks, and then were glued to television or radio to glean whatever information was to be had in order to try to understand it all.
In point of fact that’s exactly what I want to address today, but I don’t want to stop there. What I want to do today is not only share with you the activities of my day that September 11th so many years ago but to also provide some encouragement to you by filling in the rest of the story.
On September 11, 2001 I was a Staff Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps stationed aboard Camp Pendleton in Southern California. I began my day at 0200 (that’s 2AM for the uninitiated among you) by driving from my home to the armory for my unit. I was engaging in rifle range exercises that week and needed to check my weapon out before heading out to shoot for the majority of the morning. When I came off the firing line after the last string of fire, I noticed two junior Marines with their ears glued to a portable radio. I of course asked them what was going on when they replied in unison, “Some ***** idiot has flown a plane into the World Trade Center.” I thought, wow, that ought to make for an interesting news day. However, once I was in my truck headed back to my unit area the news really started to sink in as I listened to the radio. Not only had someone flown a plane (really two planes) into the World Trade Center it was apparent that this was a deliberate act! I immediately checked in with my superiors who informed me to continue with my established training schedule until they knew more – and to be ready.
I was in a daze as I went home that afternoon. As I walked through the door my wife just asked, “When do you leave?” I didn’t know then it wouldn’t be for nearly 15 months.
Another thing I didn’t know that September day was that my wife had just been saved a few months before while we were in the midst of a separation that seemed to have us headed for a divorce. I didn’t know that she was and would continue to be praying for me to repent and be saved for the next two years. I was only focused on being ready – I wanted to get in the “big game” and I would do anything to ensure my spot on the roster.
Flash forward. It’s now December of 2002 and I have just finished an exercise to perform a proof of concept in supporting the invasion of a Middle Eastern country. Our unit commander comes out and informs us that our mission is a go, we are no longer a notional unit but we have all been reassigned and will be departing to Kuwait in early January. I couldn’t have been happier – I was a fool.
I departed for Kuwait and ultimately Iraq in January 2003. My wife had been a Christian for going on two years and I still had no idea. In hindsight I can only think of her terror, watching her unsaved, foolish husband go marching off to war. But then again she was already developing into a woman of prayer, and she didn’t let my absence deter her pleading with God for my soul.
As part of the deployment each Marine was only allowed so much baggage, making the decision of what went and what stayed an important one indeed. I allowed myself one luxury, a Science Fiction novel by a favorite author, and what I considered a “necessity” as an American fighting man, a Bible. Even though I didn’t really know why at the time, as I had probably only read about four pages of this precious Book up to that point in my life.
Needless to say, the novel didn’t last very long in filling in what little free time existed. So in the evenings I started in on the Bible I had brought along by just opening it up and reading for a time before going to sleep. It was also about this time that I started to pray a little, once again I wasn’t sure why I prayed, I just knew it was something people did, especially when they read the Bible. Oddly enough I recall that I never really prayed for myself, mostly I was worried about my wife and children at home, and the well-being of the Marines entrusted to my leadership.
At about this time I met a man from one of the other units in our area of operation; I still don’t even know his first name. We were both Staff Sergeants (SSgt) at the time so he was Crockett to me and I was Lynch to him. What made me notice him was that he was different. He was never angry about things the way the rest of us were and I only heard him use foul language once, for which he immediately apologized to all in earshot, and trust me for the group I was with, this was unique behavior.
As it turned out SSgt Crockett was (is) a Christian, and it was soon evident to me that he took his faith seriously, not like the people I grew up observing claiming Christ on Sunday and living like everyone else the rest of the week. SSgt Crockett really trusted in God for everything; frankly I wasn’t sure if he was a genius or a moron, but I would have the chance to find out.
According to God’s perfect plan, SSgt Crockett was attached to my unit as a liaison for his own. Since we did the same job he was assigned to ride out the invasion of Iraq in my vehicle. This of course meant that SSgt Crockett and I were to spend every waking moment together for the next few weeks.
Then it happened, the moment of Truth, so to speak; it was two days after the worst sandstorm of the last one hundred years (at least that’s what the reporters were calling it back home). My unit had spent some pretty harry moments traveling during the storm, and the following day we had been ambushed during a stop to check the vehicles and other equipment.
So here I was following these events with a lot to consider: awards my Marines might deserve, injuries they may be trying to hide from me (thankfully there were none), but ultimately my thoughts continued to come back around to me. I finally understood that had I died up to that point that I was indeed going to hell. And more astonishing to me, I knew that I deserved it. But thankfully, God brought to mind the things I had been reading in His Word and seeing in SSgt Crockett’s life, that there was a blessed alternative to this deserved certainty of eternal judgment. You see, SSgt Crockett had been evangelizing me in a way only a Marine could have, by living the Gospel out in front of me while feeding me little bits of it at a time. So that evening when I had the chance I asked SSgt Crockett over to my fighting hole and told him, “I think God wants you to pray with me, and I know that I do, because I want what you have and I know now that He is the one that gives it.” SSgt Crockett’s response was to smile and tell me, “I think you’re right, and I’ve just been waiting for the right time.”
I was saved out of damnation that March afternoon in the Iraqi desert, as I responded to God’s sovereign call upon my life, redeemed by Christ to become one of His sheep.
And as most war stories end – I told you all of that in order to tell you this; When I look back on September 11, 2001, I indeed mourn the loss of all those American lives. I also mourn the thousands of lives lost since then in a global war against an insidious enemy. But I also look back on it with a heart full of thankfulness as this was a key event in my own history. It is the event that set in motion all the events that the Lord providentially put in order for me to come to the end of myself and submit to His will in my salvation by grace through faith in my great God and Saviour, Christ Jesus. And regardless of the loss and hurt you may have endured because of that day please take heart, be strong and courageous knowing that God works out all (and that means all) things for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28-39).