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“Soldier's Sacrifice Can't Be Ignored"

Derek Maul
Award of Outstanding Merit - $1,000

Tampa Tribune columnist Derek Maul became a freelance writer after an 18-year career working in exceptional education.  His work has been featured in Newsweek, USA Today, Guideposts, Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Christian Science Monitor, as well as several devotional publications.  In 2007 Upper Room Books published, “GET REAL: a Spiritual Journey for Men”, followed by “In My Heart I Carry A Star” (2008).  His latest book, “The Unmaking of a Part Time Christian” will be released in September 2009.  He has been married to Rebekah for almost 30 years and they are the proud parents of Andrew and Naomi.


This is a column about uncertainty. However, rather than taking a stand against waffling, my intention here is to promote doubt, indecision, hesitation, wavering and opinion shifts over time.


There is too much of prosaic certainty in today's public discourse, and it always leads to trouble down the road. That's why so many leaders try hard to head off dialog with dogma, label honest inquiry as disruption and demonize those who fail to toe the line because the last thing their world view can tolerate is a new idea.

Every time I manage to think things through and consider all the options and finally arrive at some kind of a position I can live with, that's when I run into actual people and the trouble begins. Human beings with stories, flesh-and-blood reality that will tear your heart out and leave you reexamining everything you thought you knew for sure.


That's what's happening with my thoughts and feelings regarding the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.


I've found myself very close to pacifism all my life. Ever since I was old enough to think clearly about the relationship between my faith and the world I live in, I've leaned toward nonviolence on principle.


But practice has a way of messing with principle. I remember the night someone tried to break into our infant son's bedroom window and I chased him through the backyard and down the street. I remember the day the twin towers came down. I remember how I wanted to act when my daughter was threatened.


Stories; real people; flesh-and-blood reality.


Recently I have moved away from supporting our actions in the Middle-East. The purpose of military intervention is to kill people and break things. The harder I look and the more I think, the murkier our justifications have become.


But then I listen to the stories and I talk with real people; people like my friend Lee. We teach a class at church called "Practical Christianity." What does it mean, we ask, to live lives of faith in the reality of day to day?


Lee has been in Afghanistan since Christmas, a 20-week rotation with his contracting agency. Recently, he sent an e-mail that rocked my foundation yet again. You know; people, real life, heart-wrenching stories.


"This week I had the terrible honor," Lee wrote, "of standing with the members of the 3rd Special Forces Group as they paid a final tribute to one of their own killed in action in Nangahar Province ...


"All work at Bagram Air Field stopped as the flag-draped casket was driven in. Soldiers from all the coalition nations lined the road ...   All work at the airfield stopped. Planes that been warming their engines shut down. Quiet had descended as the wind blew and the sun shined impossibly bright. ... Eight pallbearers took the casket from the back of the truck and moved slowly toward the aircraft...


"There were no benedictions, no eulogies, no speeches, no prayers. We did not even know the name of the soldier and that made the events even more powerful. We stood to honor and salute this soldier because it was the only meaningful gesture we could make."  Later, after more details emerged, a memorial service was organized.


The soldier was Army Staff Sgt. Robert Miller, 25, from Harrisburg, Penn. Miller and his detachment were ambushed, the fight lasted several hours, and his actions saved the lives of his team. Lee picks up the narrative:

"As the formation was dismissed I saw for the first time the empty boots, and the rifle driven into the ground by its bayonet, with a green beret resting atop it. Soldiers formed up in front of the memorial; they approached in twos, slowly saluted and then knelt in prayer. Some crossed themselves. Many reached out and rested a hand on the toe of one of the boots, their heads bowed. They stood, saluted again and made way for the next two soldiers. This was repeated again and again and again.


"I have been thinking about a Bible passage (Romans 5:7). 'Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.'


"While standing on that windswept runway as a young man's body was taken from us, I did not feel like a righteous man or a good man. I felt both humbled and honored that for a few moments I was allowed to stand with these young men and women from several nations who have dedicated their lives to the cause of liberty and freedom.


"The motto of the Special Forces is De Oppresso Liber; 'To Liberate the Oppressed.' Freedom and liberty are gifts to man from God. Staff Sgt. Robert Miller died bringing God's gift of liberty to an oppressed land. May the Lord bless him and all those like him ..."


All I can say is, "Thanks, Lee." Thanks for muddying my thinking once again; thanks for making it that much more difficult to believe I have found easy answers to huge problems. Thanks for continuing to make me think.


And, from the bottom of my confused heart, thanks to Staff Sgt. Robert Miller, too.

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