An Answered Prayer for a Military Chaplain

He was terrified of going into battle in Afghanistan. Then an angelic being soothed his fears.

Posted in , Jun 25, 2021

Military men in conversation with a glowing angel in their midst; Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

”We got hit yesterday,” the convoy commander announced. I was still groggy from lack of sleep, standing in the heavy morning air that unforgettable February day in 2002. I glanced at the soldiers around me, standing at attention, backs ramrod straight. I could feel the nervous energy buzzing just under the surface. “We expect to get hit again today.”

I had flown into this remote location in the arid mountains of southern Afghanistan the night before, arriving at 3 A.M. on a Chinook helicopter. I’d slept a handful of restless hours in someone else’s cot before stumbling to this meeting. I was to be part of a convoy traveling to visit an Afghan warlord, about two hours from our current location. While the commander reviewed logistics, I found it hard to focus. I had been in Afghanistan for only a few weeks, and this was my first combat deployment.

Before dismissing us, the commander turned to me. “Chaplain,” he said, “would you say a prayer for us?” I nodded, not trusting my voice. I had to clear my throat before I managed to sputter out a prayer. Exactly what words I used to ask for God’s protection were a mystery to me.

I was a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve and living a quiet if busy life as a pastor at a church in Pennsylvania when I was called into service after 9/11. I was assigned to the Third Battalion, Third Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They were also known as the Green Berets, among the most elite soldiers in the world, the kind that completed the most dangerous missions on the front lines.

As the morning meeting broke up after my prayer, I remembered the words of one of my seminary professors. “Your job as future pastors is to keep your heads when everyone else around you is losing theirs.” It was my duty to be a voice of reassurance. But how could I reassure anyone when I myself was terrified?

Initially I had refused the assignment to Fort Bragg. But the senior-ranking chaplain on the phone said something that made me reconsider: “Larry, if the unit goes into combat, they won’t have a chaplain. Every soldier deserves to have an accompanying chaplain in combat.” So now, several months after that call, here I was—needed more maybe than I ever had been as a chaplain, wondering how I could be of any real service at all.

I stood nervously watching as the 15 soldiers in the convoy prepared to leave. All of them had sidearms and carried additional weapons—rifles and knives. The Humvees we’d be traveling in were loaded with M-50 machine guns. The convoy would be ready in the event we were attacked. I was assigned to one of the vehicles in the rear.

I took a deep breath and checked my inventory: Kevlar armor and helmet, canteen, first aid pouch. A chaplain was considered a noncombatant; I wasn’t issued a weapon. Not that that would make much difference if shells started flying.

Three other people were assigned to my vehicle. I climbed in and took a seat in the back. The motor roared to life, shaking me in my seat. The sound was deafening, like the engine of an airplane. The first vehicle took off, kicking up dust and sand, then the next. Then it was our turn. We followed down the winding makeshift trail. The canvas sides of the Humvee were rolled down. Still the hot, dry desert wind blew through the vehicle as we moved over the punishing terrain.

I felt sick with fear. My palms were sweaty. My head was spinning. My heart was beating so hard, it put me in a state of panic. I couldn’t talk myself down.

Desperate for relief, I did the only thing I could: I bowed my head.

“Lord,” I said, my voice drowned out by the roar of the Humvee engine. “I need your help. I can’t be present for these soldiers because I’m so nervous, I can’t think. Please help me. Please. Amen.”

I looked up, but I’d found no relief. I was powerless in the face of my fear. I tried to concentrate on the things around me: static, then muffled chatter from the radio. The driver yelling something to the man sitting shotgun.

A sharp desert wind cut through the confusion. I felt something pass through the Humvee from the rear. Something otherworldly. It wasn’t visible, but I felt it. It was concentrated in the empty middle seat beside me. My skin tingled under my body armor, where it brushed against this strange entity. Whatever it was, it was bumping right up against me with every jerk and bounce of the Humvee. The presence wanted me to know it was close. I looked directly at something I wasn’t able to see with my eyes. But the immediate calming assurance I felt told me I was looking at an angel. Words seemed to echo from within me: God wants you to know that he’s always with you. You’re never alone. No matter what happens, he’s got you.

My heartbeat slowed. I could breathe. Really breathe. My mind began to clear. As the fog lifted, so did the fear. I knew I could focus on the soldiers and their needs in the way God had intended. The angel presence faded, but its calming reassurance remained.

Our convoy wasn’t attacked that day. We completed the mission without incident. For the remainder of my deployment, I carried that experience with me. When fear overtook me, I pictured that faceless, formless angel who sat beside me in the Humvee. I shared the undeniable comfort from above with the unit and our commanders. God had heard my prayers and answered them so that I could do the job I could not have done on my faith alone.

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