Sometimes when the fighting is over,
the battle has just begun
All he could see were broken bodies around him, but his eyes searched for only one. To his left, the flaming Humvee was on its side, wheels still spinning. It was difficult to see through the cloud created by the smoke. He had to try.
Pushing his body up to a crouching position, his eyes scanned for any sign of enemy forces in the area. They weren’t always in military garb. Sometimes they were disguised as civilians, women, or children. Tentatively, he began to move, circling the soldiers who were already dead, but they weren’t who he was searching for.
He finally found her; body thrown just a few feet from the Humvee on the other side. She’d been riding shotgun on this routine expedition. Rushing to her side, he exhaled deeply when he saw she was still breathing. His voice was raspy as he smoothed some hair back from her face. “Hey.”
Her eyes fluttered open. She gasped. “I… I… didn’t see it. I swear…”
“Shhh.” He assured. “There’s no way you could have known.”
“The others… Fletch… Slider…”
“Don’t worry about them.” He looked around to see the best possible escape route. “I’m gonna get you out of here.”
Suddenly, everything went black as another explosion rocked the area.
“Ahhhhh!” He screamed, as he bolted upright. Around him, everything was still dark.
A gentle hand reached out to touch his shoulder, accompanied by a soft voice. “What is it, baby? Another nightmare?”
It only took a moment for his eyes to adjust and to realize he was home, stateside, in his own bedroom. The voice belonged to Jill, his wife. Quickly, he stood up, pulled on the fatigues that sat in a pile next to the bed. “I need some air.”
Jill sighed. “I just want to help.”
He turned to her and nodded. “I know.”
She knew it was useless to follow him and exactly what he would do.
Careful not to let the screen door slam, he stepped out onto the porch of the house they shared. Pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, he slid one out, placed it between his lips and lit it. Taking a deep draw, he held it out in front of his face and stared at it. He hadn’t been a smoker until well after he’d been deployed and wasn’t sure why he kept the habit; Jill hated it.
Taking another deep drag, he stared at the empty street before him as he took a seat on the front step.
The neighborhood was a quiet one; populated mostly by young couples just starting out like they were, apart from some retirees that hadn’t decided to sell and move on yet. He and Jill didn’t own their house; they had rented not long before he deployed, expecting to move when he returned, and they chose to start a family.
He stubbed the cigarette out in the tiny, metal ashtray he kept next to the front post just for these times and took a deep breath of real air. This wasn’t fair to Jill, and he knew it. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her and appreciate her support but there was no way he could make her understand so there was no way she could help him. Heck, he didn’t exactly understand it himself.
Sure, he’d seen things no one should ever have to experience while he was over there, but he was out now. Why couldn’t he just forget about it and move on? The guilt of Rachel’s death still haunted him but even Bobby didn’t blame him. There wasn’t anything he could have done; they’d both ended up in a hospital in Germany. He had survived; she hadn’t but he’d been home for six months now and he was still dealing with it.
Disoriented for a moment, he didn’t know where he was when he woke up. The room was still very dark; he needed it that way to sleep. He turned but the bed next to him was empty. It must be later than he thought, if Jill was already up. Without bothering to pull on his fatigues, he padded through the living room and into the kitchen.
At the table, nothing more than a breakfast nook really, Jill sat, a bible open in front of her and a notebook with some writing on it. There was a half empty cup of coffee but no plate.
Gage opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of orange juice. From a cupboard, he retrieved a glass and filled it. He took a long drink before he replaced the bottle, walked to the table and took the seat across from her.
“Want me to make you some breakfast?” She asked, placing the notebook in the bible and closing the cover over it.
“You don’t have to stop for me.” He assured.
“I was finished.” Her smile was sincere.
He shook his head as he took another long drink. “I can’t get over how good fresh orange juice tastes.”
She grinned. “You sure you don’t want something to eat?”
“Nah. I’ll get something later, when I’m hungry.”
“It’s no bother.” Her voice was soft and low.
“Really, babe. I’m just not hungry right now.” He placed a hand over hers.
Her voice still quiet, she replied. “Okay.”
“I’m sorry, Jill.”
“For what?” She frowned, uncertain.
“That I’m still… dealing with this.” He shook his head. “That I’m putting you through it too.”
“Gage,” she replied, turning her hand in his so she could squeeze it. “I know this is difficult. I’m here and I’m praying for you. We all are.”
“Who?” He asked with a scowl.
“Me. Your parents, my parents. Bobby.”
He nodded. At least he wasn’t some church project; he couldn’t be that pathetic.
“Have you tried… praying, I mean?”
“Jill, I prayed every day while I was there. I could never have made it without the hope of getting back home to you.” He drained his glass.
“And you did.” Jill nodded.
“I know and I’m grateful, sure.” He assured. “But what about the ones who didn’t? What about Rachel?”
She shook her head. “I don’t have all the answers, Gage. But I know the one who does… and so do you.”
“Like I said, Jill, I’m sorry you’re having to go through this with me. I didn’t expect this and definitely not for this long.” Shaking his head, he looked away. “I don’t know why I can’t seem to just get on with it. The images… the nightmares… I would have thought they’d be less intense by now.”
“I’m sorry, baby, really.” She squeezed his hand. “Maybe it would help if you shared it with me. At least I’d know how to pray.”
Gage’s face turned resolute; his tone matched it. “No. I don’t want you to know what I saw… what I did… I couldn’t bear for you to…”
“I love you, Gage. Nothing is going to change that.”
“You say that,” he insisted. “But you don’t know. And I won’t take that chance.” He got up, put his glass in the sink and turned to her. “I’m gonna take a shower.”
Gage sat on the front porch, smoking his third cigarette.
At least Jill wasn’t here to see him. She’d gone out to the store or somewhere. Of course, she’d never say anything, but try as she might, she got a look. Hard to tell if it was disapproval, disappointment or what, but it was there.
Stubbing out the butt in the little ash tray, he sighed deeply. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
Jill had been a bright, pretty freshman; the newest addition to the cheerleading squad when they met. She had agreed to go out with him, even though he wasn’t a star athlete nor one of the most popular guys in school.
Once he had asked her why she’d accepted and she’d answered that unlike most of the jocks and popular party boys who buzzed around her, she’d been attracted by his quiet intellect and how she’d known immediately that there was more to him than scoring with the newest cheerleader.
She said she liked his gentleness and the chivalrous way he treated her. It didn’t hurt that they went to the same church.
He’d fallen in love with her on their first date and asked her to marry him before they even graduated. They had married that summer but not without a plan.
While he couldn’t afford college right after high school, he would join the military and parlay that service into money for school. She’d done the collegiate program for her last two years and had a scholarship that would pay for most of the rest. Her parents had college savings for her that would cover the gap. She would get her degree while he served.
Two years into his first tour, they’d rented this house. It was a great starter place in a neighborhood popular with other young couples starting out. When he was deployed, they had agreed they would talk about school for him and the possibility of buying a bigger place where they could start a family when he got back.
How had it gone so horribly wrong? He wondered.
It wasn’t fair to put her through this. His head was a mess; he could hardly think straight half the time, between what he’d seen and the guilt. He didn’t know how long he could expect her to put up with it, but he knew he’d never make it without her. So how in the world could he ever consider bringing a child into his nightmare?
His pastor was going on about something. Gage had hardly been able to concentrate much less absorb what was being said. He glanced sideways, saw that Jill seemed focused on the message and he could almost feel the concerned observation of both their parents. He sighed, frustrated.
It wasn’t that he’d given up on his beliefs, just that he wasn’t sure how they fit with what he’d seen and where his life seemed right now. He had no idea where he was headed, even less how he would get there.
Lost in thought, he jumped when Jill’s hand reached over to touch his arm.
She smiled patiently.
He noticed then that the service had ended, and people were making their way to the exits. Embarrassed, he mumbled. “Oh, sorry.”
Her expression didn’t falter, she simply waited for him to rise and move into the aisle.
It had been like this for a while now. He knew she wouldn’t ask him about the service; she’d learned how awkward and tense that conversation could be. Politely standing back, he allowed her to step into the aisle and move ahead of him. Sensing an energy behind him, he tensed, ready for a confrontation.
Coming up next to him, a young man, though likely a few years older than Gage, spoke. “Hey.”
Gage frowned and spoke tentatively. “Hey.”
“Gage, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he tried to keep the apprehension off his face. “You are?”
“My friends call me Chap.”
The other man gave a half chuckle. “Yeah, I used to be a military chaplain.”
“Used to be?”
“Discharged.” He nodded reassuringly.
“Mm.” Gage acknowledged.
“Listen, have you got some time? I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee.”
Gage stopped and turned toward him. “Oh? Why? Did Pastor ask you to talk to me?”
“No.” Chap answered sincerely. “But I would like to talk to you about something.”
Jill had stopped to speak to her parents, a short distance up the aisle. She approached. “Baby, what’s up?”
“Hello,” Chap greeted. “I’m Chap. I was just asking your husband, right, he’s your husband, if I could buy him a cup of coffee. I wanted to talk with him about something.”
Her expression was uncertain. “Talk to him about what?”
Chap exhaled. “Well, it’s a support group for ex-military.”
“Whoa,” Gage put up a hand in protest. “I don’t want to hang out with a bunch of whiny vets swapping war stories.”
Patiently, Chap replied. “It’s not like that, Gage. These are guys like you, and me, I might add, who’ve been in the trenches. They’ve seen horrible things and have had some challenges adjusting back to civilian life stateside. No one is focused on the past. They share what they’re doing to acclimate; what works and frankly, what doesn’t.”
Jill appeared hopeful as she gazed up at her husband. “What do you think, babe?”
“I don’t know.” He hemmed.
“It’s a cup of coffee.” Chap assured. “An hour of your time maybe. What have you got to lose? If you decide not to come to the group, no harm, no foul but you might just find what you’re looking for.”
“It couldn’t hurt, could it?” Jill asked. “I can get Mom and Dad to take me home.”
Gage nodded. “Alli right.”
As they walked with their coffee in hand to a table out of the way, Chap turned to Gage and stuck out his hand. He said, “My name is Mike Stone. Chap’s a sort of a nickname, because of my service record.”
Gage nodded as he shook it before taking a seat. Looking directly at him, he asked. “So why aren’t you still in service?”
“Why aren’t you?” Chap replied meeting it.
He hadn’t expected that and for a moment just eyed his coffee.
“Didn’t expect that did you?” Chap challenged, though not unkindly.
Running his finger around the rim of his cup, he shook his head.
“Bet people have been walking on eggshells around you since you got home.”
With a brief nod, Gage lifted his head.
Chap’s smile was sincere. “I told you we’re different. The group is about confronting the issues we’re facing and supporting each other. We don’t mince words, tell it like it is and hold each other accountable for our effort and progressive.”
Gage nodded. He liked this guy’s straightforward, no-nonsense attitude.
“Now to answer your question.” Chap took a sip of his coffee and grinned. “When the end of my tour came, I sensed a leading to help the guys stateside, where I could really do some good.”
“What do you mean? I mean, the nightmare some of the soldiers are dealing with over there…”
“Is horrific. And I was able to support them and give some comfort, but I wanted to do more, really see a difference. Not just try to put a band aid on a gaping wound. I wasn’t very good at that, but I’ve seen a lot of success with the group. Guys learning to cope, getting on with their lives, marriages healed.”
“My marriage isn’t in trouble.”
Gage’s head snapped up.
Chap put a hand up in mock self-defense. “Hey, I’ve seen it. Guys keep it all inside for too long, start losing control of their temper, wallowing, until their wives just can’t take it anymore.”
“I love Jill.” Even as he said it, he felt a prickling inside.
“Gage, it isn’t about whether you love your wife or not. You’ve been through hell.” Chap sipped his coffee. “You’re probably feeling guilty because you made it home and some of your unit didn’t. Probably can’t escape some of the things you saw and what you had to do just to survive. She doesn’t know, and frankly, it wouldn’t do her any good to be burdened with it.”
Hanging his head, he admitted. “I know. This isn’t fair to her. It’s not what she signed up for; not what we planned.”
His tone softened. “I know. But let me ask you something.”
He lifted his head.
“You’re a believer, right? Not just a church-goer.”
“That’s right. Since I was a kid. Church camp.”
“Then there’s supernatural help and hope for you. We can help you.”
“Yeah. We meet in the church fellowship hall Saturday mornings. There’s men’s prayer at 8; they hang out and have coffee and donuts with the guys from the group and our meeting starts at 9:30. What do you think?”
Gage nodded. “I’ll think about it.”
“Ok. You can come and just listen. No one will push. Then decide if you think it will benefit you.”
“All right. Who could turn down donuts, right?” He grinned.
“Right.” Chap replied with a chuckle.
Sounds of mortar fire around him were deafening. Moving forward, his gun in front and ready, he was finding it difficult to see in the smoke, so he went slowly, carefully, one step at a time. Without looking around to see if he had back up close behind, he stepped over the threshold of a broken brick wall, eyes moving in every direction.
Inside, the air around him cleared and he noticed the ground littered with debris. Picking his way over the scattered pieces, he came to the body of a boy sprawled, eyes closed, a grenade clutched in his hand.
Gage immediately lifted his rifle into position.
The boy opened lifeless eyes and grinned. “It’s too late, remember?”
He did remember.
It was the same boy who’d stopped a patrol in their jeep, saying his mother was hurt and needed help. Before they could even leave the vehicle, he’d tossed a live grenade into it and it had exploded, killing everyone inside.
Gage had seen it from his position atop a nearby building. His buddy had told him to shoot, and he’d hesitated. How could he kill a young boy asking for help?
Then, in horror, he saw the mangled bodies of his fellow soldiers scattered about the boy.
Moving on, he heard the boy’s laughter and it chilled him to the bone.
Next, he came upon a young man, no more than sixteen, one entire side of his body gone, making visible the remnant of a bomb strapped to his back. His angry eyes opened, fixing upon Gage with hatred. He growled low in his throat.
Gage hadn’t been so hesitant that time, though he tasted bile as he squeezed the trigger of his gun and the explosion had sent the kid in two different directions.
As he moved on, he found body after body of those he’d killed during his tour. He put his hands to his ears as the screams grew intense around him. Shaking his head violently, he just wanted it to stop.
Jerking upright, it took a moment to recognize where he was. His breath came rapid and short as he swung his legs over the side of the bed.
Jill rolled over but remained silent.
He didn’t expect her to say anything; there was nothing she could do and nothing she could say to help him. Without a word, he got up and started for the porch. Up until now, he hadn’t been sure that he’d attend the group meeting in a couple of days but now he decided. Something had to give, and he didn’t want it to be his marriage to Jill.
It had been another restless night. Thankfully, there had been no nightmares, but he’d had difficulty sleeping and when he woke to the faint glow of sunrise seeping through a crack in the blinds, he was restless and edgy.
Today was the day. Nervous and unsure, he only knew that something had to change and at this point, he would practically try anything.
Instead of going to the porch for a smoke, he decided to clear his head with a run. In the dresser drawer, he found some old training sweats, took his sneakers from the closet and decided to change in the living room to keep from waking Jill.
The run felt good but to his shock and dismay, he began to get winded after a couple of miles and decided to cut it short. He would have to give up those cigarettes, he thought. Up until his deployment, he’d always taken good care of himself; time to get back to it.
After a shower, he dressed calmly, finger styling the buzz cut he still wore and before thinking, plopped down on the bed to put on his shoes and tie them.
Jill turned toward him and opened sleepy eyes. When she saw him dressed, hair still wet, she rose on her elbow and groggily asked. “What are you doing? Where are you going?”
Turning to face her, he put a hand on her arm and smiled wanly. “Chap’s meeting is this morning. I thought I’d check it out.”
“Really? This early? Did you want something to eat before you go?”
Shaking his head, his smile grew warmer. “The meeting’s at church. Right after men’s prayer. They have coffee and donuts. They kind of hang out together before the group starts.”
Jill nodded, only half-heartedly suppressing a hopeful smile. “Okay.”
“Go back to sleep.” Gage urged, leaning over to kiss her. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Okay.” She replied, turning over to satisfy him as he left but knowing she wouldn’t go back to sleep now.
When Gage entered the fellowship hall, he quickly surveyed the room — a habit left over from his deployment days — and nearly turned around to leave.
There were less than a dozen men in the room, several he recognized from church and one of whom was his father-in-law. The idea of facing him in this setting made him nervous and unsure.
Before he could flee, a man he didn’t know, who must have been close to forty or maybe older, approached him. Sticking out his hand, he smiled. “I’m Nick. I don’t think I’ve seen you before. First time?”
Gage nodded, took his hand and shook it. “I’m Gage.”
“Welcome, Gage. Want some coffee? Donut maybe?”
Nick turned toward the table where coffee machines, the kind that have a lever and nozzle stood at each end with boxes of donuts from a local shop between.
“Hey,” Gage said, putting a hand on his arm to stop him.
“Don’t be nervous. It’s cool. All the guys were new once.”
“Nah, it’s not that.” He replied.
“Well… do the church people hang around?”
“Some of them, sometimes. Why, does that bother you?”
“Gage!” Came the familiar voice. His father-in-law grinned, lifting a hand in greeting as he approached.
“Crandall,” he returned his greeting, the hair on the back of his neck rising and his stomach dropping. Then he half-turned. “Do you know Nick?”
“I think we’ve met.” The older man’s smile was genuine. “Gage is married to my daughter.”
“Ah,” Nick answered, giving Gage a knowing look.
Crandall leaned in conspiratorially toward his son-in-law. “I like the donuts. Don’t tell Marge you caught me. She’s determined to cut down our sugar intake.”
Nodding blankly, Gage stayed quiet.
“Well, I think I’ve had my share today.” He offered. “Sometimes I like to talk with the guys in the group, hang around for support, but she’s got errands to run so I guess I’ll be getting on.”
Gage tried to conceal his relief.
“Nice to meet you… again, Nick.” He said and then inclined his head toward his son-in-law. “Gage.”
“They don’t really stay for the meeting, unless they’re connected to one of the guys.” Nick said when he’d gone.
“Connected?” His spine tingled.
“Occasionally, especially with some of the younger guys, maybe new to faith, some of the men from church take on kind of a mentoring role. They hang out for support.”
“You a believer?” Nick asked.
“Yeah. Since I was a kid.”
Nick sighed as he led the way to the refreshment table. “I wasn’t when I first started coming.”
“Really? How’d you end up here then?”
“I met Chap out at the base when I got back. He invited me.” He grinned. “Ended up leading me to the Lord early on. Changed my life.”
Filling a Styrofoam cup with coffee, Gage turned back toward him. “How long have you been coming?”
“Couple of years.”
His expression must have betrayed his question.
“No, it doesn’t usually take that long to see a breakthrough. I just keep coming ‘cause, you know, I don’t really have any family and I think I might like to start my own group. Chap’s kind of taken me under his wing.”
“We should probably take our seats. Looks like Chap’s about ready to get started.”
Gage followed him to the circle of chairs assembled and took a seat next to him.
Chap smiled at him and inclined his chin in greeting. “Good morning, everybody. Looks like we have a couple of first timers today. Don’t feel pressured to share or even speak but we do want to welcome you.” He pointed to a man probably a few years older than Gage and seated to his right. “This is Trey.”
Murmurs of greeting from the group as Trey lifted a hand to acknowledge.
“And over there, next to Nick is Gage.”
He felt relief as they greeted him that at least he wasn’t the only new guy.
Sitting patiently, he listened while several men around the circle shared from their week. He appreciated the guy who said he’d found the courage to share some of his experience overseas with his wife and that she’d handled it far better than he thought she would.
Gage knew he would never want to share with Jill all that he’d seen much less what he’d done. Why should she carry that burden? It was bad enough that he had it.
“I know I’m new,” Trey began, when there was a lull. “But Chap and I talked for a while over some coffee the day he invited me to join the group.”
Murmured acknowledgment indicated most of the men present had done so as well.
“I’d been having some trouble sleeping.” He went on, sheepishly. “Chap shared that the bible says, ‘He gives His beloved sweet sleep and that He’ll keep in perfect peace those who focus their attention on Him.” Then he gave me a list of peace verses. I made a recording of myself speaking them out loud, since I knew it would take a while to memorize them all and started playing the recording continuously when I went to bed.” Grinning, he added. “I’m single so I can do that.”
A few of the guys chuckled.
“I’m getting to sleep faster, and I don’t have as many nightmares as I did. I believe as I memorize the verses, and keep them playing, I’ll eventually get rid of them completely.”
There were sounds of support and appreciation.
Gage pondered. Perhaps that was something he could do. He knew Jill would be all for it, so he made a mental note to ask for that list when the group finished.
“Hey,” a guy who’d introduced himself as Mac started. “Remember last time, when the guy — what was his name, Chad? Anyway, how he’d been thinking about all the times he knew he’d been protected supernaturally — there was no other explanation for it — and how it had changed his perspective about his time on maneuvers?”
“Yeah.” Chap answered with a nod. “That was Chad. He had to work and couldn’t be here today.”
“It got me thinking. You know, there were sometimes I know I should have been somewhere I wasn’t, or when I got distracted and stopped short of an IED. It’s helping me come to terms with having been there. If God protected me, He wasn’t mad about it, me being there I mean, right?”
“You know,” Nick spoke up. “Psalm 91 is called the soldiers’ psalm. It’s all about protection.”
“That’s right.” Another guy, whose name Gage couldn’t remember, added. “We talked about it one group. I don’t think you were here, Mac, about how David, the man after God’s own heart was a man of war, how God sent him into battle and protected him. I read somewhere that David never used a shield when he went to war and that’s where the Star of David came from — his protection from the front, the back, side to side, above and beneath.”
“Didn’t David write the psalm that says God trains our hands for war?” Another guy asked.
“I think he did.” The first guy affirmed.
Before he could stop himself, Gage blurted. “But what about the killing?”
“What do you mean, Gage?” Chap encouraged.
“Well, the commandment of course. Thou shalt not kill. What about that?”
Chap smiled. “Well now, that’s really the bottom line, isn’t it?”
“When God sent David to war, it was against His enemies and those who attacked Israel.” Nick said. “And also, as a king, he came to the aid of his allies.”
“Well, you know, I’ve always told myself that since Jesus came to set men free, we were acting on his behalf to help free other people who were under evil rulers and oppressed, or worse.” Mac added.
Gage had never really thought about it like that, but it made sense.
“I don’t claim to be a Hebrew scholar.” He replied humbly. “But I can use a concordance and a bible dictionary. What that verse actually says, in the original text is ‘thou shalt not murder or shed innocent blood.’”
He wasn’t sure what he thought about that. There were women, children…
”You know, you have to understand. We think differently in this country than they do in others.” Nick soothed. “We’ve always protected women and especially children here. In some countries, they force children to become soldiers and use the women like chattel for their own ends.”
“Yeah,” Mac agreed. “I had a hard time until I lost buddies to women who lured them into a trap, or kids blew up a jeep with a grenade.” He shook his head.
“Self-defense, or protecting people in harm’s way isn’t murder, or shedding innocent blood.” Chap assured.
Gage sat pondering through the rest of the group, though it wasn’t that long. He was glad he had come. There had been a lot shared that he needed to wrap his head around. Before he could approach Chap for the scripture list, Trey had engaged him in conversation.
“Glad you came?” Nick asked, as he stood.
Still seated, Gage nodded, and a thought occurred to him. “Hey, you seem to know a lot about the bible.”
“I’ve studied along these lines, anyway.” He replied with a grin.
“Let me ask you something.”
“Today there was a lot of talk about God’s protection and everything, but it was all from the Old Testament. Did the resurrection change that? I mean, is there anything in the New Testament about it?”
“There is.” Nick replied. “It’s all over Paul’s writings. He tells us to fight the good fight of faith and in Ephesians shares about the full armor of protection provided by God for the believer.”
“But isn’t that a spiritual battle?”
“Sure, but not entirely.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re the Body of Christ — His hands and feet to the world. While he could wipe out an evil dictator like Hitler or Stalin, with the thousands employed by them, that isn’t usually how He does things. It’s up to us to stop it.” He smiled. “But the armor, and our protection keeps us safe in every area.”
“Hunh.” Gage admitted. “I never thought about it like that.”
Nick picked up his chair and folded it closed. “We always put the chairs back. Want me to take yours?”
“I’ll get it.” He replied. “I want to get that list of scriptures from Chap.”
He nodded as he rose, picked up his own chair and followed Nick to where the others were stacked.
“I can help you with that.” Nick offered. “I have it.”
“That’d be awesome.”
“I think Chap might be engaged for a while.”
Gage followed him out of the fellowship hall and down to the foyer.
From a pile of papers on a table there, he took one and offered it to him. With a grin, he explained. “Vets aren’t the only ones who need peace.”
“Listen,” Nick began, with just a slight hesitation as he took a card out of his pocket. “Here’s my number. Chap gets bombarded, especially with new guys coming all the time. If you ever need or want to talk… Or even just hang out with someone who understands…”
Taking it, he nodded gratefully. “I appreciate that. And I might just take you up on it.”
“Good.” He exhaled.
“But I’ll be back. To the group, I mean.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“How was it?” Jill asked, as he walked in. “You hungry?”
“I am, yeah, but I’ll make a sandwich.” He grinned as he started for the kitchen.
“Are you sure? There’s some pasta left from last night.” Following him, she hoped it hadn’t gone badly and he wouldn’t tell her.
As he opened the refrigerator and began pulling things out, he said. “I want to run something by you.”
“Okay.” She answered hesitantly, getting a plate out of the cupboard.
“Oh,” he said, as if he’d just remembered her question. “The group was great. I’ll definitely go back.”
Jill exhaled, relieved. “So, what did you want to talk about?”
He set down the bread and removed his wallet from a back pocket. From inside, he pulled a piece of folded paper. “One of the guys shared about having nightmares.”
She kept her face neutral as she took the paper when he offered it. When she opened it, she recognized that it was a list of scriptures.
Turning away to the counter, he began assembling his sandwich. “He said he made a recording of those verses and played it at night. Said it helped him get to sleep and that his nightmares were going away.”
“Hey, that’s great.”
“I thought I might try that, if you don’t mind.”
“Why would I mind?”
“Well, I didn’t figure you would, but you know, he plays it all night.” Gage looked at her now, with a grin. “You have to sleep there too.”
“Baby,” she said, touching his arm. “If you sleep better, I’ll sleep better.”
He nodded. “All right then.”
The cigarettes went immediately, and it felt good to start running and weight training again. More physical activity helped him get to sleep faster and easier, but it took nearly a week to see a change in the frequency of the nightmares and even then, they hadn’t disappeared completely.
He kept the list written out in his wallet and any time the panic or temptation began to work on his mind, he took it out and read it aloud until he managed to regain his calm. After a few days of that, he realized something: if he could do that with peace, why couldn’t he do it with other things too? He began to make lists of verses about what Jesus had done for him and who he was as a follower of Christ.
Jill watched as he pored over his bible, came across something in it and paused to ponder. She didn’t begrudge the time he was spending but she still felt as if she was on the outside, looking in. From the time they’d begun dating until his deployment, she’d been privy to all his hopes, dreams and plans. Now it seemed as if there was a part of him that was closed to her. Would they ever recover?
Gage hadn’t observed her coming in. He noticed her expression. “Hey, something on your mind?”
“Not really.” She took a breath. “I’m thankful that the group is helping and that things are changing for you.”
He frowned. “But?”
Adamantly shaking her head, she insisted. “No buts.”
“Jill, I’ve known you long enough to know when something’s bothering you. I may be damaged, but you can still tell me anything. You know that, right?”
It was her turn to frown. “You’re not damaged. This is just a bump in the road, and you’re doing what it takes to get past it.”
At one time, he might have disagreed with her, but she was right. Things were getting better. “So, what’s bothering you?”
“Not bothering me, exactly.” She replied wistfully, taking a seat across from him. “But you know, you used to tell me everything too. Now it’s like, I don’t know, there a part of you that’s hidden and…”
Gage set his bible and notebook aside, rose and came to kneel in front of her. Taking both her hands in his, he looked directly into her eyes. “I won’t burden you with the horror of my experiences over there.”
She started to protest.
“No.” He shook his head. “Let me finish. It was unfathomable and it would do neither of us any good for you to know it. I’m trying to forget it too. Let me.”
“Okay.” She answered.
“There is one thing, though, I haven’t been letting you in on.” He grinned. “We should be praying together.”
Jill smiled, genuinely pleased. It wasn’t something they had ever done.
“How about now?”
Her eyes filled with misty gratitude as she bowed her head and let him lead.
Some weeks had passed. Gage had attended the group regularly and had forged a friendship with Nick. They met for coffee at least once a week.
“So, how’s it going?” Nick asked, as he added some sugar to the steaming mug in front of him.
“Actually, really good.” Gage nodded, taking a sip from his own cup. “Jill and I are studying the bible and praying together a lot. We’ve never done that before.”
“That’s great.” Nick looked at him pointedly. “So, what is it that’s still bothering you?”
Gage looked up suddenly. “What do you mean?”
Nick grinned. “I’ve been around a lot of guys readjusting. I can tell when there’s something they aren’t dealing with.”
“Well,” Gage knew he could trust him; it wasn’t that. He just didn’t know if he was ready to share the last hurdle or even to cross it himself yet.
“Hey, look, if you’re not ready, it’s cool.” His friend assured.
Shaking his head, he made a decision. It was time. His voice low, he began. “There was a girl… well, a woman really. In my unit.”
“Oh no, nothing like that.” He smiled wanly, more confident now. “My best friend’s wife.”
“I promised Bobby I’d look out for her. And I did, as much as I could but that last day…” He shook his head. “She was riding shotgun in the Humvee. We ran into an IED. I guess she didn’t see it.”
“She was hurting but I wasn’t, so I ran over to her. I promised to get her out… to safety… but… we were ambushed.”
“I woke up in a hospital in Germany. We were both there but… she didn’t make it.”
“That’s rough.” Nick admitted. “How did your friend take it?”
“He says he doesn’t blame me.”
“You don’t believe him?”
“It’s not that so much. It’s the guilt. And the wondering.”
“Well, Rachel was a believer too. Why was I spared, and she wasn’t? I know people here were praying.”
“I can’t answer that for you, Gage. I don’t know if anyone can.” Nick took a sip of his coffee. “But I’ll pray for you to find closure.”
Gage nodded. He’d been praying about it for weeks.
After he’d said goodbye to Nick, he started for home, thinking about their conversation and how far he’d come since he started his journey to healing, thanks to Chap. Then he had another thought: maybe he should talk to Bobby. He’d been half avoiding him since right after he’d come home and even though his best friend never acted strangely toward him when they met, his own guilt had kept him at a distance.
He pulled over into a parking lot and lifted his phone from the center cup holder. Opening his contacts, he found Bobby’s number. Hesitating only a moment, he began to type. Hey. What’s up?
Hey, man! Good to hear from you. Not much. You?
What are you doing right now? Are you home?
Nothing, really. Watching the game. Yeah, I’m home.
Mind if I come by?
Sure. Something up?
Nah. I just want to talk to you about something.
Gage pulled his truck out into traffic and back the way he’d come. His friend’s place was on the other side of town.
“Hey,” Bobby greeted when he opened the door. He stepped aside to allow his friend to enter.
Gage moved past him. He hadn’t been here since before his deployment. The place looked much the same but without the feminine touches Rachel had provided. A faint twinge of guilt assaulted him.
“You want something to drink?” Bobby offered. “The coffee’s not fresh but I’ve got water and pop if you want one.”
“Cool.” Gage replied with a grateful nod as he took a seat on the couch. “Water would be great.”
His friend disappeared into the kitchen.
Absently, he stared at the ball game on the TV screen and took a minute to gather his nerve. It bothered him that it felt awkward and strained to be here. He’d been friends with Bobby since junior high.
“Still like it with ice, right?” Bobby asked tentatively, offering a glass empty except for the ice and a bottle.
“Yeah.” Gage replied, taking it. “Thanks.”
Bobby took a seat across from him. Clearly uncomfortable, he went with the only obvious option. “So, you wanted to talk about something?”
Taking a minute to pour his drink, he pondered how to start this. “I’m sorry about how things have been… you know, since I got back.”
“It’s cool.” Bobby assured. He hated the strain between them, but it wasn’t on his side. He’d repeatedly tried to reconnect and set his friend at ease but hadn’t succeeded. “I can’t imagine…”
“I know. And I know you’ve tried, seriously.” Not knowing what else to do, he took a sip of his drink. “But I’ve just… it’s been…”
With nothing to add, he waited.
“So, I’ve started going to a support group… at the church. It’s helped a lot.”
“That’s great, Gage, really.”
“There’s one thing, though, that’s still bugging me.”
Oh, boy, Bobby thought. This is where it gets serious; though he was pretty sure he knew what was coming. “Okay.”
“Rachel…” Gage choked a little to say her name. “I…”
“Hey, man, you’ve got to quit carrying that. It’s not your fault.”
“But… I promised, and I failed. And…” Now he looked directly at his friend. “I mean, we were both believers. People were praying for both of us.”
“Why am I here, and she’s not?”
Sitting forward, Bobby’s expression grew somber. “Look, I asked the same question.”
Gage’s eyes widened slightly.
“Not about you.” He added quickly. “Gage, I never blamed you.”
“I prayed about it for weeks before I finally got an answer.”
“You got an answer? About why Rachel…?”
“Not specifically, exactly. I guess that’s not for me to know.” He took a breath. “But what I did get was that I couldn’t possibly know what was in her heart. I couldn’t know what she truly believed and what she was trusting God for… or not.”
“But you believe she’s in heaven, right?”
“Yes, I do. I also believe that God was watching over her, but I don’t know if she was listening. If she obeyed when He told her something or… if she was really counting on Him to protect her.”
Gage stared. He suddenly realized that just as some of the guys had said, he had done and not done things that had kept him out of harm’s way. That day, she had admitted to him that she’d been distracted. It’s entirely possible that it had cost her life and nearly those who were with her.
“I’m sorry, man.” Bobby offered. “I probably should have told you sooner.”
“I don’t know if I was ready then.” Gage admitted. “But I’m glad you told me now.”
He nodded. “I hope it helps you get past it.”
“It does.” Gage replied and realized, it had. He could put down the grief, the guilt and the shame. While he’d done his best, ultimately he wasn’t Rachel’s protector.
Much had changed since his conversation with Bobby. With the guilt gone, they were hanging out again and things were slowly returning to normal between them. His friend’s continued support had been a much-needed boost in helping him remember who he’d been prior to his deployment. He still had to stay focused on his recovery and knew he had ground yet to regain but with how far he’d come, he was confident he’d get the rest of the way back.
As he returned from his run, he took a seat on the front porch. The metal ash tray was long gone, but he had an insulated bottle of cold water in its place. Popping the top, he took a long draught and just observed the quiet street.
He knew it was time to move on, get his life going forward. Although he’d been praying about it for weeks, he still didn’t have a definite direction. Suddenly, an idea occurred to him and inside, he just knew it was right. Launching himself off the porch, he made quickly for the shower, grinning at Jill’s still sleeping figure as he passed. He had somewhere to go and someone to see.
When he returned, Jill was cleaning up her breakfast dishes. Turning to him with a smile, she asked, “How’s Nick?”
Her brow wrinkled with curiosity. “It’s not group day. I just assumed you were having coffee with Nick.”
“Nah.” He smiled. “I went to see my dad.”
“Really? Something going on?” She grabbed a towel to dry her hands.
“Yeah.” He replied, taking her hands in his. “Our lives.”
“Hunh? What do you mean?”
“I think it’s time to move on.”
She felt a twinge of apprehension mixed with hope. “Move on how?”
“Well, I’ve got my GI money for school. I want to go next semester.”
“Really?” An exhaled relief. “To study what?”
“Let me get some coffee and I’ll tell you what I want to do.”
“All right.” Taking a seat at the table, she waited anxiously.
His excitement nearly tangible, he took a seat across from her. “Ultimately, I’d like to get a business management degree.”
“I think I have the plan God wants for me.”
“Well, you know, Chap is limited in what he can do at the church and Nick would like to have his own group but neither of them has been able to yet.”
“I’d like for the three of us to establish a place where guys can come and stay, temporarily you know, complete support until they’re ready. Maybe have some support for the wives too. Even some treatment for addictions and stuff down the road.”
“Wow, Gage. That’s a big dream.”
“That’s why I believe it’s from God.” He admitted. “I haven’t talked to Chap and Nick yet, but my dad’s willing to let me work for him while I go to school. I figure I’ll at least get all the core classes done and take it from there. Then if Chap and Nick agree, we can go ahead. I’ll handle the administration and they can do the ministry.”
“That sounds great, babe.” She agreed. “Is there any kind of model for it?”
“Nick has mentioned a ministry called Mighty Oaks that does something like it, but as far as I know, it’s the only faith-based program and not everyone can get there.” In his enthusiasm, he hadn’t touched his coffee. Taking a drink, he asked. “So, what do you think?”
“I think it sounds like a solid plan. You should go for it.”
“Cool.” He finished his drink. “You know, when I was discharged, I thought I’d left military service behind.”
He got up, put his cup in the sink and walked over to her. With a peck on the cheek, he declared. “But I’m a soldier in God’s army now.”