(I tried to upload pictures, but the connection is really slow here. I'll keep trying.)
I received an interesting welcome to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan when I woke up a few days after my arrival to the sound of choppers and machine guns right outside my barracks. I looked down the hall to see people rushing to get their weapons and put on their bullet proof vests and Kevlar helmets. My heart began beating rapidly and I began to panic a bit as I donned my vest and helmet and grabbed my weapon. I later learned that suicide bombers had stormed the fenceline and had attempted to get on base. The experience was all very surreal. I felt like I was in an action movie and it would have been kind of exciting if I didn’t know it was actually playing out in real life. The airman next to me was in denial. He was convinced that this was just an exercise. Over the next several hours, I did a lot of praying for my family and friends and for the personnel who were defending the base. Never have I been more grateful for the army as they represent the bulk of those defending us at the gate.
Since the attack a couple of weeks ago, I have been able to get into a better routine. However, I go to bed every night not knowing whether the base will be attacked again. I am reminded daily that I am living in a war zone and that means that there is a chance I could be shot at and even killed. The other day, we downloaded a pallet from a plane that contained the personal items of soldiers who were killed in a roadside bomb recently in Kabul. Their items were being sent back to their families in the states. Even at church on Sunday, we were informed that members of our district (similar to a diocese in the catholic church) had been killed in the recent attacks. I’ve found that it’s easy to focus on the negative or to be overcome by fear, but I’m choosing to press forward in faith and live life. I have found that when I pray often and study the scriptures I am able to face each day with courage. When I am proactive in my duties on the flight line, I feel that I am part of a greater cause and the fear dissipates.
It is amazing the things you learn to appreciate in a war zone. On the afternoon of the attack, I was doing guard duty on the flight line. As I looked at the sun setting over the Hindu Kush, the western continuation of the Himalayas, I was amazed by the contrast of emotions I had felt throughout the day. Just that morning, I felt intense fear, anxiety and darkness, but as I looked at the beautiful sunset, I felt peace, hope and a sense of wonder. This was a reminder to me that God is still there, and that He is ultimately in charge of everything. A few days after the attack a rainbow appeared in the sky after a rainstorm. This is something that most of us would take for granted at home, but in a war zone, everyone cherished the moment.
On a lighter note, Bagram Air Base is a very busy place. The base is extremely crowded and we are only half way through the surge (30,000 additional troops deployed to Afghanistan ordered by President Obama). The living conditions are extremely tight. Let me just say I get to know my three roommates a little too well. When I first arrived to the base and walked out of the passenger terminal onto the base I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie. The streets were crowded with people of Arabic, Indian, and Afghan descent. Of course there were also hoards of military personnel, mostly army since Bagram is an army base. Never have I seen so many armored vehicles. I have even been able to drive several of these armored vehicles since my job entails downloading them from aircraft. Many locals have been given jobs on the base to help them feel a sense of ownership in this whole operation and to help the Afghan people to take control when the military presence finally leaves here. I have tried to speak with some of the Afghan people if they speak English. One thing they just can't comprehend about me is how I could be 31 and not married. They seem to think this is a very bad thing. I’m guessing that it is uncommon for men to not be married at my age. Overall, the Afghans seem like a very accepting and humble people. This week the President of Aghanistan (Hamid Karzai) will hold a Peace Jirga (conference) with the intent to bring together tribal elders, officials and local power brokers from around the country, to discuss peace and the end of the Taliban insurgency. Please pray for this process that the Afghan people might be able to establish peace and stability in their country.
Besides working, sleeping, and eating, I have also been able to attend church on Sundays. I don’t know that I have ever appreciated attending church as much as I did the Sunday after the attack. I felt an amazing peace and comfort as we sang the words to the hymn “How Firm a Foundation”. It was as if the Lord was there speaking the words to us as we sang:
Fear not, I am with thee oh be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid
I’ll strengthen thee help thee and cause thee to stand
Upheld by my righteous, upheld by my righteous, upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand
It was especially humbling to hear the voices of the service men and women in our congregation sing these words. There was a humility and purity in their voices that I have rarely experienced.
We had an LDS chaplain speak of his experiences visiting wounded soldiers and those who were on there way out of this life. He said that every time he enters the hosptal room of such a soldier he feels he is walking on hallowed ground. He said that when he visits these soldiers he nevers knows much about the acclamations, degrees, or material possessions of each soldier. However, he said he always knows something about the person's faith, family, and friends. I hope that this Memorial Day we can all remember that this is what really matters in the end, faith, family and friends.
For the closing hymn of our meeting on Sunday we sang the hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints” The last verse stood out to me in particular:
And should we die before our journey's through, happy day, all is well
We then are free from toil and sorrow too, with the just we shall dwell
Although I have sung these words countless times before, they seemed so much more pertinent to my situation and especially to those who are out fighting on the front lines. How greatful I am to have a knowledge through the gospel of Jesus Christ that this life is not the end. How greatful I am to know that death is but a transition from this life to the next. Given the nature of my duties here, I don't believe I am at as high a risk to die as those fighting on the frontlines. However, I was reminded by the attack the other day, that we can never be sure when will leave this life. I just pray that I might live and appreciate life each day, each minute that I have it.
The last few words of the hymn “Come Come Ye Saints" also gave me great hope:
But if our lives are spared again to see the saints there rest obtain.
Oh how we'll make this chorus swell, all is well, all is well!
I pray that I might return home with honor so I can sing these words once again with family and friends.
Happy Memorial Day!