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By Norris Burkes July 11, 2021
I once pastored a church where our music minister, Don Smith, often greeted our congregation with a harmonious, “Good morning!”
Sadly, our sleepy parishioners often failed to reciprocate his enthusiasm. On those occasions, Smith fired a question to resuscitate the elderly congregants – “How many of you would rather be here than the best prison in Turkey?”
A few hands rose in cautious favor of their current accommodations, but most offered only a groan.
As kooky as Smith’s choice may be, he was trying to give our parishioners some perspective. Ten years later, in 1998, I gained firsthand appreciation of his viewpoint by visiting a Turkish prison.
At the time, I was serving as an Air Force chaplain at the Izmir Air Station, when I answered a phone call from our deputy commander, Lt. Col. Horace J. Phillips.
“Chaplain, how would you like to go to prison today?” he asked.
“Pardon me, Sir?”
Phillips laughed the same “gotcha laugh” he’d often used when certifying me for scuba.
Then, as if clearing his diving mask of seawater, he expelled his bubbly mirth to explain that one of our Security Force members (military policeman) had been detained in the infamous Bucca Prison.
“I need you to accompany the lawyer and myself to the prison to check on the sergeant’s welfare.”
I drew a troubled breath and asked, “What’s the charge?”
“The Turkish Insult Law,” answered the base lawyer on speakerphone with Phillips.
The law, still in use today, makes it illegal for anyone to say or do something the government deems offensive. If convicted, our airman was facing a one-to-three-year prison sentence.
Phillips explained that the drunk sergeant “insulted” the Turks by emptying his bladder on a statue of Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.
“Sounds quite insulting, indeed” I said.
During our one-hour car ride to the prison, the lawyer reminded us that Turkey did not subscribe to the typical get-out-of-jail-free agreement the US military enjoys with most countries. She informed us that normally low-level offences by US servicemembers are addressed by an American military court.
“Unless we can work some magic,” she added, “our boy is there to stay.”
Just after noon, we presented identification to the guards who then passed us through gates.
Hearing Turkish prison doors close behind you isn’t an experience for the faint of heart. The smell suddenly became indescribable. Rats passed us going the opposite direction. It seemed even rodents were plotting their escape.
Every bit of it recalled for me the 1978 film “Midnight Express.” The movie follows American college student Billy Hayes, who served four years in a Turkish prison for drug-smuggling before he finally boated across the Maritsa River to freedom.
Soon we found our sergeant pacing his cell, a contrite cop who remembered very little of his escapades. He seemed in no condition to swim for freedom.
I’m not sure how someone detained in a Turkish prison feels when seeing a chaplain enter his cell. But his pale expression suggested he may have been expecting his last rites.
Our lawyer removed her best shot from her briefcase, a typed apology. She advised him to sign, saying, “If you apologize, we might get you released with your promise to reappear for trial.”
By the next day, the Turks welcomed the signed apology and, with a wink to Phillips, allowed the sergeant to board a flight home.
The sergeant’s story often lends perspective when I hear folks endlessly complain about restrictions of their personal freedoms, such as taxes, masks, or speed limits on an empty stretch of desert highway.
If Smith and I were leading worship again today, we’d probably ask those complainers to join us in Keith Greenwood’s song:
I’m proud to be an American,
Where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me.
And I’d gladly stand up
Next to you and defend her still today;
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land.
God bless the USA!
Then, if I thought I heard a lack of enthusiasm, I’d ask them all, “How many of you would rather be here today than the finest prison in Turkey?”
Norris’ books are available at www.thechaplain.net. Contact him at email@example.com or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715. Twitter @chaplain.