On Easter morning, 2009, I was the chaplain in the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq when three patients were wheeled into our emergency room from a Black Hawk UH-60L helicopter.
The first patient had shrapnel in her right eye and a broken left hand, but seemed OK.
Suddenly she blurts, “I couldn’t save him! He’s dead, isn’t he?”
“Who?” someone asks.
“Our team leader,” she says.
In the next few moments, the 98-pound-soldier recalled riding as a medic in a vehicle hit by an EFP (Explosively Formed Projectile) designed to penetrate an armored vehicle. When the half-blinded medic found that her team leader lost a leg, she reached into his hip cavity to pinch the femoral artery closed.
“You did the right thing,” our trauma czar told her. “That’s what we would have done.”
“He kept talking about his wife and unborn child,” she added, “But I couldn’t maintain my hold.”
“Just relax, now. You’re safe,” said the anesthetist prepping her for surgery. “There’s no way to close a hemorrhage that close to the groin.”
Soon, after she’d been sedated, I made my way to another soldier with shrapnel injuries to his left leg. As quickly as I offered my help, he voiced a request.
“I want you to pray, chaplain.” But there was something in his voice that implied an incomplete sentence. It was as if he was saying, “It’s your turn to pray now.”
He’d been praying ever since the explosion and, now, with the spent fury of a relay runner he was stretching his prayer baton to me. “I want you to pray that the insurgents will understand that we are trying to make their country better.”
“I can do that,” I said, giving the naiveté of his battlefield spirituality an assenting nod. “The Bible does say pray for your enemies.”
“Yes,” he said, “but it says more.”
With that cryptic remark, I felt my eyebrows furrow and my neck stiffen as he offered further guidance. “I want you to pray that God will forgive the insurgents that killed my friend.”
“What would that kind of prayer sound like?” I asked, reversing our naive roles.
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“You know the prayer Jesus said on the cross?” he coaxed as if trying to remind me of a forgotten password, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Of course I knew it. It was the prayer Jesus prayed as he, too, bled to death.
The prayer wasn’t for himself; it was for the mob who unjustly crucified him.
Jesus had seen his killers not as evil people, but as ignorant ones ignorant of their complicity in their own downfall. In fact, his prayer echoes through the eons, for me, for the wounded squad, and for the insurgents and for you.
“I think that’s a great prayer, Private.” I said, still a little unsure of whether I was placating his battlefield shock or mine.
Then, after I said the prayer, but before I allowed my eyes to open, I saw something in the flash of a bloodied collage. I saw the insurgents planting the bomb, the explosion, the medic struggling to treat her squad, the team leader bleeding out, and the private praying for them all.
At that moment, I understood. Our world will remain an unending circle of revenge until we learn, as did this simple and wise soldier, to continually repeat Jesus’ prayer. And, as we pray it with all our hearts and souls, it will be answered. If not in this world, then in the next when we hear the promised words of Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”