These months, June, July, August, seemed surreal because like a lot of us here, we are not just soldiers, rather, we are Citizen/Soldiers. One weekend a month we would drill. We have a completely different life apart from Drilling. Just a few short months earlier, I was in my classroom, teaching 31 second grade students at Gideon Elementary School or Chatting with the Principle or fellow teachers. Having supper with my family, grading homework, having tea with my beautiful wife and snuggling our 4 children into their beds for a bedtime story and bedtime prayers was our life. We were raising our family with all the challenges and Joys that brings.
Then The War Began. Our Unit was Mobilized for war.
Why was I leaving all this behind? I though about this and was reminded of my son who had just earned his Tenderfoot in Boy Scouts. He has a dream of being an Eagle Scout someday. Something his father is. He and I both know the Ten Commandments by heart but we also know the Boy Scout Oath. The Oath begins with, "On my Honor, I will do my Best, to do my Duty to God and my Country." To God and My Country. Was I here for me, was it for my Family, was it my duty to God and Country? Our Advance team arrived in June, the rest were here in Iraq shortly after. The first night I arrived I was greeted by a brilliant beautiful sunset. The sky was dancing with colors. The night gave me the most beautiful array of stars I have seen in such a long time. That same night our Camp was attacked by mortar fire and soldiers were injured. One of countless mortar attacks to follow.
I realized the war was not over. We had much work ahead of us. As this small band of men and women in my unit began to build up our camp, so too was the building of relationships among each other, trusting others, a new family began to form. While we built up fortifications around our camp, One of the very first jobs our Chaplain (Major John Hunter) did was get a Chapel Tent established. Once completed, we would have our Bible studies and services there. These Bible studies were lively in their discussions and I marveled that we were actually in God's Holy lands. The lands spoken of in the bible. I never dreamed I would ever be in Iraq, Homeland of Abraham. Abraham and his descendents traveled all through this area. Here is where the Biblical Garden of Eden was. The city of Ur was not far off. The Ancient city of Babylon. King Nebuchadnezar. Tower of Babel. The Old Testament was everywhere I turned. It is one thing to be reading about it, Another to see, feel and touch history. Despite being in a war, God was blessing me every day. I could feel those at home who keep me lifted on High with their prayers, and I told them so. Something I stay humbly thankful for.
Prayers took on a whole new meaning in War. My commander told me that no one prays more than the soldier who is targeted for death. They are thrust into a situation where their lives may at any moment be extinguished. And he was correct. We do say a lot of prayers. Something happens on the inside when soldiers see and hear of their comrades being sent home in body bags. Life is so precious and so fragile.
But I soon realized that there was more to prayer then just me praying. I knew at times when My mind was racing, thinking of what I must do at a critical moment, It was often, the prayers of loved ones and my brothers and sisters of Calvary at home that were lifting me up with their prayers.
Our Camp continued to developed. We would not see those attacking us each day and night but we were reminded by the explosions all around us.
About a mile from our camp was the mighty Tigris river. So named because that is what she would become once the rains fell, a ferocious tiger. Her banks would over flow and flood the lands around us. Our camp was rich in the silt and mud carried by these floods. This was a very fertile land. The Tigris was also one of the two rivers that flowed through the biblical Garden of Eden. Her sister was many miles away. She was the Euphrates.
As our camp began to take form, so did my heart. As we continued to work hard, I began to pray hard. I thought about everything that I took for granted and I could still hear my wife saying to me, "War changes people". She was correct, but more importantly, Our God is behind change. As the days and nights ran into each other, I longed for my family, For the Land I Love, For Home. Then one evening as the beautiful sun was setting, I thought about being Baptized here. We were in Holy lands. This was a place I will probably not get a chance to see again. Was It possible? For me it was questionable, for God there was nothing that was not possible. I prayed asking for this blessing but my mind thought How? Inside and Outside our fences soldiers were dying. Outside our fences the enemy was Firing mortars, hiding improvised explosive devices and firing rocket propelled grenades and weapons at us. By day our soldiers would rebuild schools, but by night the explosions could be heard.
The Tigris was less than a mile away, the river was so close yet so far. While I held these fears I could do very little. But I cast them away. I could never possibly over come them but I could freely give them away. I could gave them to Him. And so I did. As the days continued, it was to Him I would humbly lay my fears. I never prayed more than at a time like this. Then I remembered what I had heard at Calvary. God's children get two answers when we humble ask him!!! YES or Better. My heart was glad at this truth. And again I prayed to be baptized in the Birthplace of Abraham. To be Baptized in the Tigris.
Then one night, while in Bible study and between some mortar explosions, the Chaplain said he needed some one to drive him to the helicopter pad on Saturday. He was taking a trip to Babylon. My Hand could not have reached any higher. I know God was talking. I'd better listen. After the Bible study, I spoke with the chaplain about joining him. I revealed to him what I had secretly been praying for the past few months. He said if there was room on the flight I was more than welcomed and then I asked if I could be Baptized. That stayed in question and would until I arrived, if I arrived.
I was so excited that night that I raced back to my tent where my heart was flying. I opened my locker and there saw my military uniforms hanging. They hung, one after another, 4 sets of desert camouflaged uniforms. I looked at all the uniforms and saw the one I held way in the back. It was brand new, never used, and covered in plastic to protect it from the dust. Should I use this for my Baptism in Babylon. This Baptism, should it happen, was a chance in a life time. It certainly warranted a new uniform. Not many folks get the opportunity to be Baptized in Babylon.
No I could not use that uniform. That was out of the question. I set this uniform aside when I arrived. I was prepared to use this brand new set for two very special occasions. I would wear it when I came home to greet my beautiful wife and our four beautiful children or if that was not meant to be, I was saving it for the time I would be called to Heaven.
I would not wear that uniform yet. That story was still waiting for an ending.
As the Saturday Morning arrived I awoke early. I had very few details about the trip but I was ready. Dressed in Full Battle Rattle I greeted my Chaplain. We drove to the helicopters in silence. We arrived at the Black-Hawk unit and I dropped him off. He said "Wait here Seelaus and I will check to see if there is room on this flight for you." I prayed. He returned a few minutes later and the answer was yes, there was room. We would be flying to Babylon and flying with many of the base chaplains. This was a tour of the ancient city of Babylon and King Nebuchadnezar's palace.
While we waited to board the helicopters that morning, I met our Brigade Commander For the first Time. He would be flying us to Babylon. The Colonel had such a air of confidence about him that I instinctively felt safe with him. It's the quality every great leader has. Instilling confidence.
As we prepared to lift off, I had many questions on my mind. What was it like to fly in a Black-Hawk? How soon would we arrive? What were we going to see? Would I be Baptized?
Soon we were in the air and flying at a low altitude! We were flying to the ancient city of Babylon. I was seeing Iraq now from A view that made it beautiful. Homes and villages were in clear sight. Irrigation canals and crops were everywhere. As we flew over head we would startle the herds of cattle and sheep and goats that roamed the country side. I would watch as great flocks of white birds would take to flight. I took as many pictures as I dared knowing that I must save some for Babylon and possibly my Baptism.
Time did fly so quickly and the City of Babylon appeared to us. To one side I saw a mound of earth and bricks. Was that the tower of Babel. Then the Palaces of Babylon appeared. It was breath taking. There before me where two palaces, one old and ancient another new and modern. We had arrived in Babylon. Ancient city of the Bible. Before us were King Nebuchadnezar's palace and Sadaam Hussien's former Palace which was overlooking the ancient city.
All our helicopters came in for a safe landing. We safely touched ground and the pilots began their power down. While we waited I saw smoke coming from our helicopter. I looked at the faces of the crews in the other helicopters as they watched us and I again watched the smoke. I wondered. Smoke and aircrafts are usually not a good mix. I stayed hopeful. Soon though the smoke stopped and we stepped out.
As we unloaded, we all gathered for a quick brief on what we would be doing. As that was happening there was a little commotion coming from the front of our helicopter. I soon discovered that our Helicopter was hit. The Helicopter pilot had blood splattered all over him but he was not hurt. Thank God no one was hurt. In flight we had been hit by a bird. As the briefing continued, I learned that Chaplain Robert A. Miller was speaking and that he had made this trip before. While I listened closely, my unit chaplain whispered in my ear. "Captain Miller was Baptizing another soldier and we could ask him to include me." I was thrilled. My heart was filled with Joy. As we walked to the entrance of King Nebuchadnezar's palace, I watched the man that soon would be Baptizing me. Robert A. Miller. Miller, a common name. But this was no common man. He would be granting me one of the greatest blessing I could think of. This man would be Baptizing me in Babylon, in the Holy Euphrates river, as it would turned out to be. He would hand me over to God in the sacred rite of Baptism. A few months earlier I did not think this was possible.
As the tour guide began to take us around the walls of Babylon. The chaplain and I approached Him. "Chaplain Miller" I asked, "Will you please include me in your Baptism today?" It seemed my life was hanging on what he would say. But for a moment he did not speak a word. His eyes and smile told me what no words could ever say, It felt as if God was saying, welcome home my lost son. Then his words came" Of course!" "Of course!", I repeated. "Of course!"
I was baptized in Babylon. In the waters of the Holy Euphrates River. The date was August 23, 2003.
A trip, or time or event is so much better when your heart is filled with Joy and happiness. Here I was, one of the first Americans in decades to tour the ancient city of Babylon and now to be Baptized here. A prayer made real.
The next few hours went quickly, I was enthralled by the history our guide gave us as we toured the Palace of King Nebuchadnezar. Everything here was new to me. The words from the Old Testament often spoke of this town and place and of her peoples, I had read it many times. But for the first time I was placing the words with the place. Here is where so much history happened. I was touching seeing and experiencing where once before I was only reading. As we walked down ancient roads, along fortress walls and through courtyards and kingly rooms I listen intently to our guide speak. Here is where Daniel was thrown in the lions den she would say and here is where King Nebuchadnezar defended his palace and here is where Alexander the Great was. As we walked my camera constantly clicked. I kept a careful count though. I must save some for the moment of My Baptism.
As a tour came to an end we came to a carved statue of a mighty lion and it was standing upon a man. I ran my hands across to fully take it in. I hadnseen this on a postcard once. A postcard.
We thanked our tour guide and walked to an open market. There were merchants selling their wears and as we walked through, there was variety everywhere. I filled my pockets with gifts for my family but the greatest gift was from God, a gift He gave to me. A new heart.
I was ushered out as the group had finished and now was waiting for thengroup to all get together. It was time. ALL of us walked from the Bazaar to a dirt path that the Chaplain had seen from the air. This led to the water. We started walking. I felt a tremendous feeling as we walked because I was not alone. Thought I had only just meet most of these people, it was as if we were family.
We arrived at a road that went to the water and Captain Miller noticed there was one person missing. The other soldier who came here to be baptized. We must have left him back at the Bazaar. He went back to get him at the Market. At last Capt Miller returned with him and we walked to the waters. I would be Baptized in my DCU's and my new friend in his flight suit. As we approached the holy waters of the Euphrates, Capt Miller asked the Soldiers living there if he had permission to perform a Baptism. Those waters are not clean they said, but permission was granted. About 13 of us walked down to the edge of the water. I emptied my pockets of all my belongings and I took my shirt off. I then gave my weapon and camera to my unit chaplain. Please take a picture I asked. He smiled and would.
That is when Chaplain Miller asked everyone else to walk along the edge of the water about 70 feet away from the point we were standing. Something struck me at that time but I could not understand it. But God's grace would. I would realize later why this moment was important. I could only fully comprehend the significance from a view on High.
Chaplain Robert A. Miller began to walk in the waters and we watched. He
instructed us to watch him and when he had gone out far enough and was ready, he would call us out to him. He was ready and he waved us on. We began to walk and I was first to reach the Chaplain. As I walked a fear of mine was destroyed. Baby fish were swimming all around. Every step I took, I would watch them scatter. I was happy to see life in these waters. The echos of unclean water faded from my mind.
I was now in the water of the Euphrates river. The Holy waters. As we reached the minister, I was never more confident in my life. Then in a way I had not heard before, the minister spoke to all the witnesses on shore.nThe Lord was using this man and I watched and listened to him. God indeed was great. I was asked to kneel and it began. The minister was at once speaking to me, speaking to the witnesses, speaking to himself and speaking to God.
There was no speech writer in history that could have spoken more eloquently or more courageously. God had given me the best, no doubt in my mind. I will never forget. This was God at work and as the words rained upon me like flakes of gold, it came time for me to speak. In all the confidence that a soldier could muster I proclaimed "Before God, I DO!"
I was Baptized. Baptized in Babylon, Baptized in the Holy Euphrates river. I stood up a different man, it was my prayer to be a humble and faithful servant. I watched the next Baptism. Upon his Baptism we all shook hands and proceeded to the shore. We were Greeted by friendly faces, smiles and handshakes. Soldiers who were serving their country, who served God. As we arrived on shore, I thought, God did it!! I wondered about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Had they too been Baptized in the Holy Euphrates River. As we walked backed to the helicopter, Chaplain Miller gave me a set of Dog tags. One he said to wear, the other to give to another. It read " I will be strong and courageous, I will not be terrified, or discouraged, for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go. Joshua 1:9 (I carry it around my neck). Indeed, I gave the other away.
As we walked back to the Black-Hawk, Chaplain Miller told me that within 10 minutes in the helicopter, my clothes would be completely dry. He was right. We boarded the Black-Hawks and lifted up. As Colonel Palumbo left he gave a fly over of where we were baptized giving us all a birds eye view. That's when I saw the waters. Where we were baptized there was a perfect triangle in the water. From the point where we walked from shore to the chaplain, and then, with the chaplain back to shore. I saw what the chaplain had done when he asked our group to walk a little further up from where we entered thesebwaters. His directions created a perfect triangle in the water. One that now could be viewed on High!!! Where we had walked was clearly seen from above. It could be seen from the heavens too.
I write this as testimony to our great God. Even as I write this, I can hear mortars close by us. But I also hear this voice, "With God as my helper, I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"
The three pictures attached show before, during and after. I hope this account will show that God is always at work. War is Hell but God blesses us with peace in the midst of it.
Whether at home or thousands of miles away, whether in peace or in war. Our Lord God is One, our Lord God is Sovereign, Our God is with us. I turn to him my redeemer.
This story has only begun, I still have a new uniform waiting for me to wear. I will wear it in celebration.