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Friday, March 13, 2009

The Dirt

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.

I am ashamed. I had to look up the exact wording of The Lord's Prayer. I haven't been in a church recently that has had us say it as a congregation and for some unknown reason I messed up a few words and couldn't remember the exact order of others. But it was all I could think of as I laid my face on a part of Troy's flying gear taken from his crash site. My tears mixing with the dirt still embedded in the fibers. The dirt is on my fingertips as I type this. The dirt from a farmer's field in a land faraway. The dirt that clings to pieces of Troy's crumpled and burned helmet visor cover, the empty face of his watch, his Leatherman, his kneeboard, his flying notes and his barely recognizable camera. None of it would ever come completely clean. Nor would I ever want it to. That dirt. That filthy dirt in that filthy country where hate grows from the ground more abundantly than crops. That dirt is part of the last things that he touched which were a part of the last day he lived. I can wish it away. I can wish it all away. But in reality, that soil will always be a part of our lives.

Jim so beautifully wrote in his post about my visit from our friends who recently delivered these precious things to me the box sits in front of me now. I hate these things because they truly mark the last second he was alive on this earth. I love these things because they mark the first second he was made whole and joyfully met his Savior.

I began this post a couple of weeks ago only to abandon it because of the difficult emotions that surrounded writing it and minimal time to devote to it due to preparations for the boys and my trip to France. Now I sit on the plane, returning from our special week in Paris contemplating how God would have me finish it. Or the life lesson I can take from the depths of feelings that overcame me from my weekend with the Chief and Baba (General Rand). The first thing that comes back to mind is thankfulness for the gift of their efforts in hand-carrying Troy’s final belongings to me. From their example, I hope I will choose to go the extra mile to do something for someone who needs that mile more than I selfishly need my own. I do not know what I will do with those dirt-covered things found at the crash site. I know his parents would like his camera back. I know I will hold especially dear to my heart the hand-written note from the pilot that searched for hours and found it all in the field next day. I will leave his name out and hope he doesn’t mind me sharing what he wrote to me. I hope to meet this man someday but his tenderness and kind words ministered to my aching heart. A stranger was there in that distant place lovingly and carefully taking care of the things for me, the one who loved Troy the most, when I was unable to.

Dear Ginger,
I was blessed to have known Troy and share his company at Balad before he was lost to us forever. I will always selfishly cherish the time I had with him. I was on the scene very early the morning after (the crash) spending several hours on site. My team and I found the special articles in this box and I will tell you finding each item was like discovering a treasure connecting us to Troy. Hundreds of soldiers and then Marines had spent the previous night searching for Troy and securing the location… The morning was bright and sunny and the gentle breeze floating across the quiet fields belied the true nature of the location. On that peaceful 28 November morning in 2006 I came across the exact spot where Troy died. I knelt and praved for him and for you and your beautiful children. I asked God to watch over Troy, to give you strength to deal with your enormous loss and to be able to endure the difficult days, months and years ahead. I think of Troy often and I periodically visit Section 60 (in Arlington National Cemetery) and have a word with Troy. I tell him that I hope he is well and how much we appreciate the sacrifice he made for us so we may live happy and free. Thank you for sharing him with us

I am not certain how or when to show our children what those sweet men brought us all the way from across the world. The kids only knew Dad’s friends from the war came for a visit. See, I have chosen to protect our children from much of what happened that fatal day their Daddy went home to be with Jesus. I believe, in time, they will ask more questions and I will give them more answers whenever it’s appropriate. I am not sure there is an appropriate time to explain to them that hateful men would appear at the crash site and remove their Daddy from his seat and carry him away before our troops could reach him. And that a small wooden box holds all that was found. I can hear the disbelief in my own voice as I again repeat the facts of that fateful day. Only my Father in heaven knows what happened right after Troy’s plane went down and his body taken probably rolled up in a carpet. The assumption is that he was buried within the first twenty-four hours, under Islam law, somewhere in a field. That stupid dirt, again, just as I said the other night when I held the things from inside the box. The enemy reached him first. No, they did not, I remind myself. God reached him first and took him home. Troy’s soul and spirit, what made him who he was, immediately left behind his shell. That shell was only his temporary home. I loved that home. I nestled in the arms of that home each night. Troy was handsome. Dashingly handsome. But what I loved most was what he was inside and the hate-mongers never laid hands on that part of him. And when I tell the children, one by one, when the time is right for very wrong news, that is what I will remind them of.

Of course I and his parents still ask for reaffirmation that the search for Troy continues. And each time we ask, the answer is the same. Always. Every lead is followed. No stone left unturned. No man left behind is their motto. I have had to surrender this to our military’s hands. I can’t physically go to Iraq and hunt for my husband’s body the rest of my life. But I can daily lay my requests to the Lord who knows right where it lays. Those are the loving Hands I actually surrender my desires to. Yes, my heart breaks over this. I never imagined having to sit my 5 children down and tell them their Daddy wasn’t returning from war. But, by God’s strength, I did. Therefore, I know that by that same strength, someday I will explain to them what DNA is and how, for now, that is all we have. I either trust God with everything or trust Him with nothing. I pray I will see a flag-draped coffin with Troy inside being escorted from across the world by another brother-in-arms , just like General Rand or Chief did with his belongings. I, like others from wars past, pray he will be returned home to this country’s soil. I can’t understand why God allowed this to ever happen. But I know He has a plan, even in this specific corner of my sorrow.

We all have corners of sorrows. Quadrants of unanswered questions. Sections of unexplained suffering. Maybe we get answers. Maybe we get healing. Maybe we get reconciliation. Maybe we get our loved ones home. But maybe we don’t. Then what will we do? Will the injustice of it eat away at our bones and darken our hearts? Will others see the peace of Christ in us or only the hollowed-out shadows of those without hope?

Will we only view death as "A moment of terror...then an instant later the eternal dark?" This is how Joan Didion describes it in her book The Year of Magical Thinking. It is her memoirs written the year after her husband suddenly died while her only daughter was deathly ill in the ICU. This book had been mentioned to me through different friends. I just finished reading it. It was an odd journey. At times, I could so relate to Joan's thoughts and feelings, it was as if we had the same blood coursing through our veins. Her opening lines are "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends." She notes how most of when describing the events just precluding "the moment" are usually described as ordinary and unremarkable. So true. One minute I am standing outside with my friend, Christy, drinking Starbucks coffee and watching our children jump on the trampoline and the next I am sitting in my daughter's pink bedroom hearing the unthinkable from strangers in blue uniforms. Joan was cooking dinner and chatting with her husband, only to have him not answer a question and find him slumped over the dinner table. One's mind cannot catch up that fast. It takes months for that to happen. She and I agree on that fact.

At other times, we parted ways as I felt I walked on through the grief and darkness with similiar despair but with echoes of light. The light of Christ's hope. God's promises etched on my the palms of my hands and enscribed on the tablet of my heart. Joan Didion and my stories were similiar; the sudden loss of a husband, the shocking disbelief, the desire to reverse the hands of time and go on as if one's new reality did not involve the death of your soulmate... etc.. She speaks of the leaden feeling one wakes with during those first few days. In that moment of foggy conciousness before you remember what really happened and you only have a sense of something not being right. How you lose all concentration and cognitive abilities to think clearly. How the waves of grief hit you and you forget to breathe. How you want to scream and how you just want them to come back. How life changes fast and in an ordinary instant. How grief makes you have temporary insanity. She states, "How grief passes but mourning, the act of dealing with the grief, recquires attention".

After Troy died, I remember feeling as if each day I must get up and go to my new job. That job involved not only the practical details of "taking care of things" but of studying, reading, weeping, working out my new reality and what truth meant now. Joan says she began to notice the common traits of those of us bereaved; fragile, unstable and raw. The struggle of self-pity and feeling sorry for oneself. And how to reconcile that with the desire of others to have you not dwell on it or the need to go on. Or in mine and Jim's case the delicate balance and anguishing confusion of not going forward quickly enough or going forward too soon, depending on who you were talking to. Joan describes how she didn't want to change her husband's voice on the answering machine because she would do so with a sense of betrayal. Joan eloquently describes how we not only mourn the one we lost but we mourn ourselves, who we were. How you wander through streets, your own home, your own life avoiding the painful reminders of walking those familiar paths alone. In the last chapter, she writes, "How there comes a point at which we must reliquinsh the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table." I felt the same things she so beautifully wrote about. The depths, the blackness, the swallowing up in the pain... all of it I could relate to all of it.

Yet, as a Believer, those of us knowing God's Word stands as the ultimate truth and victory over death, my path and Joan's parted ways. She wonders if when her husband died he experienced "a moment of terror...then an instant later the eternal dark." She says she never believed the words she learned at church that the body would be resurrected. She views death as the end, bleak and void of meaning. She says "No eye was on the sparrow. No one was watching over me." That's not what Christ said.

Luke 12:6-7
"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed the very hairs on your head are numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."

I Thessalonians 4:13-18:

"And now, brothers and sisters, I want you to know what will happen to the Christians who have died so you will not be full of sorrow like people who have no hope.For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus comes, God will bring back with Jesus all the Christians who have died.I can tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not rise to meet him ahead of those who are in their graves. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the call of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, all the Christians who have died will rise from their graves.Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and remain with him forever.
So comfort and encourage each other with these words."

The world tells us it is never easier to forgive. It is easier to hate. But I disagree. There is a freedom in letting go and giving it back to to our God. When I said the Lord’s prayer and asked that He forgive my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me, I instantly think of those men that took Troy's body, filmed it and aired it on their Arab terrorist websites - their utterly heinous and despicable acts. Yet, I must remember, I too, have many sinful acts of my own which I do not deserve forgiveness for.

Matthew 6:14-15
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

My fingertips have long been washed of the dirt that was on them as I began typing this blog weeks ago. Yet, I can feel it still. Probably always will. Now that I have all of the material things recovered but still not his body, what do I do? As I have said before, what does not make us bitter will make us better. I want to be better. I need to be better. There is no bitterness in Troy today. I can choose to hate and think mankind to be more evil than good. Or I could open my eyes to see the goodness around me. It’s really up to me.
Matthew 7:16
You can detect them by the way they act, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit. You don't pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles. A healthy tree produces good fruit, and an unhealthy tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can't produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can't produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, the way to identify a tree or a person is by the kind of fruit that is produced. "Not all people who sound religious are really godly. They may refer to me as `Lord,' but they still won't enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The decisive issue is whether they obey my Father in heaven."

There are three black small children on this flight from Africa. I watched as three middle-aged white American women, perhaps nurses or social workers, cared for them. Everyone at the airport couldn’t help but notice these odd-looking travel companions. One little girl is obviously crippled with spina-bifida. One tiny baby with a cleft palate and severe mouth deformity. One small boy needing heart surgery and just crying. I spoke with a woman just now on the plane who explained these children are being transported, via volunteers called Airline Ambassadors, from Africa to America to receive surgery and health care and then returned back to their families. Doctors in America donate their medical care, hospital and surgical facilities. Host families house the children until they are well enough to return. France must have been only a stopping point on these travelers long journey. The small boy, maybe only 20 months old or so, will undergo heart surgery and will recooperate and rehabilitate for 6 months in America before returning to his home. I imagined his mother handing him over to strangers. Knowing she must trust her beloved in the hands of strangers. Knowing she won’t be able to touch him, hold him, help him in those moments he needs her. As a mother, she must be willing to do whatever it takes to help her precious son. Love tears your heart to pieces.

I have watched people on the airplane offer to help these women. The crying one must be constantly walked. Right now, an older gentleman is holding this little African baby and walking him up and down the aisle to calm him. He drops his pacifier and the young Indian woman in front of me picks it up and hands it back to him. There is mercy left in the world. There is unselfish beauty. I just can’t have my eyes so tightly closed with despair and anger that I miss these moments. He finally got him to sleep gently patting him on the back while lovingly looking at him. I see one of the social workers come by and thank him for giving them a much-needed break. Now the tiny boy is awake and I watch him smiling and touching the man’s face and the man kissing his little neck. Only hours ago this gentleman and this tiny African boy were strangers. There is still hope in this dark world.

Troy and Andrea are singing and dancing and rejoicing in their new-found wholeness. No sickness, sadness, sorrow or incompleteness where they are. Just perfectly joyful eternal life. Life abundantly. I can’t wait to join them! However, when Jesus came to earth and died He was temporarily separated from God for the first time in eternity and then took our black sin upon His pure as snow shoulders, I believe He did it so we could have a taste of that life here on earth, as well.

John 10:10:

"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have {it} abundantly."

Hebrews 10:12-14
"But our High Priest (Jesus) offered himself to God as one sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down at the place of highest honor at God's right hand.
There he waits until his enemies are humbled as a footstool under his feet.
For by that one offering he perfected forever all those whom he is making holy."
Hebrews 10:19
"And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven's Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus."

As I look out the window of this airplane and see us soaring high above the clouds I wonder if we are any nearer to Troy or Andrea than we are on the ground? Wouldn’t it be amazing if the closer we got to heaven we began to hear the faint echoes of angels singing? This past Sunday, we went to the American Church in Paris with our friends. The architecture of the old cathedral was breathtaking. The ornate stone carvings and the towering arch windows of brilliant stained glass were magnificent. The high flying buttresses towered above our smallness. The massive polished organ pipes housed within masterfully-carved dark wooden framework evoked immediate images of fairytales and castles. As we entered, all of my visual senses were overwhelmed . But then I stopped looking around and started listening to probably the most beautiful singing I have ever heard. An American woman with just a hint of Irish-folksiness in the way she lead worship wearing a flowing lavender dress stood in front of this magnificent church and sang praise songs like Jesus was the only one in the audience. Her melodic soliloquies and trills ministered to my heart. She sang Grace Like Rain by Todd Agnew. It’s basically Amazing Grace with some awesome contemporary twists and turns. I joined her in singing and for a moment thought I sounded like her J. If all wishes are granted in heaven then I wish for that angelic voice to sing praises to my King! Tears spilled from my eyes as we sang….

When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing Your praise, than when we first begun.”

I fully expect the moment I meet my Savior and see Troy again, timelessness will begin. Troy will have been singing for years and I will join him as if no time has past since that fatally sad day separated us in the fields of Iraq. The old dirt of this life will be long forgotten.

Psalm 30:11

“You turned my wailing into dancing; You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to You and not be silent. Oh Lord, my God, my heart will give you thanks forever.”

The older gentleman cradled and walk the small boy the entire flight across the Atlantic. I told his wife that she had a special husband to do that. And how I knew the baby’s mother would be so thankful if she knew what strong arms had taken care of her son on this part of the journey. I know this with all my heart. Because a stranger walked through a field in the middle of a war to care find Troy’s things for me. My precious cargo, as well. Love may tear your heart to pieces. But love also puts the pieces back together again.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


It’s the kids’ Spring Break and I am currently sitting on an airplane with Boston and Greyson and we are headed to Paris. Not Paris, TX the REAL Paris! Even with all of the traveling we have done visiting friends since Troy died, this trip by far gets the prize for being the biggest. We are going to visit the Woodcock Family, dear friends we were stationed with in Italy.

Troy, the kids and I arrived in Aviano, Italy just a month or so before they did. We knew we would be in the same squadron and so invited them over for dinner right away. And the rest is history. I don’t remember what we cooked that night but I remember the fellowship being delicious. We spent quite a bit of time with their family. And the kids and I have seen them twice since Troy died. We all still talk of cherished memories of the fun and food we shared during our one tour together. Now, the boys are older and I hope they can enjoy and appreciate the specialness of this grand vacation, good friends and hopefully even another culture’s food.

Jim comes from a cooking family. He often makes his Italian grandfather’s pasta sauce and it is yummy! Jim grew up with seven brothers and sisters and his dad was in the military so you know his mom cooked A LOT! I, on the other hand, grew up with one brother and a mother who prefers to wash and wax her car over preparing an evening meal. My mom, affectionately known as Juju, is such an amazing mother with all kinds of gifts and talents. Cooking, bless her heart (Southerners understand that phrase), is just not one of them. She hung a sign in her kitchen that read, “If it ain’t burned, momma didn’t cook it”. She wasn’t kidding. That’s the gospel right there. I couldn’t count the number of times my mom burned toast, rolls or even dinner itself. She loathes going to the grocery store and meal planning and rarely ever had half the ingredients she needed to make anything. I would ask for something like chicken and rice and she would say okay only to realize she had no chicken or rice, only the Cream of Mushroom soup. (That is a staple, you know). I remember her starting a grease fire that burned the ceiling of our kitchen black. Once, when I was about 7 or 8 I awoke on a Saturday morning to a smell that literally made me nauseated and burned the inside of nostrils to the point I wondered if a doctor’s visit would be necessary. The really funny part was the night before I had sneaked into the living room to watch the television show, “Bewitched”, which was 100% banned in my home due to my Southern Baptist roots and the program’s glorification of witchcraft. In retrospect it actually seemed like Samatha’s space-cadet husband and overbearing mother were more of the issue but I do respect my folk’s intentions. Anyway, when I awoke the following morning to that powerful pungent aroma of unidentifiable burned meat I thought I was being punished by God for the sin of forbidden tv watching. Hmmm… Maybe I was? Well, I asked God for forgiveness and my mom never made that dish again. Maybe she was cleaning the oven? Sometimes it was hard to tell. Okay, enough of my mom’s cooking stories. You KNOW I love you Mom!

My mom’s mother was a fantastic cook and gardener. She made everything from scratch with fresh ingredients. I still can taste her black-eyed peas and okra, potato rolls and homemade peach ice-cream. I think she inspired in me the desire to cook and to understand food. Marrying Troy, who had already lived around the world, helped me to appreciate different foods. I was always fascinated by foreign foods. I grew up in a small town in New Mexico and though I still think I ate some of the best Mexican food on the planet, I had never even heard of sushi or schnitzel. While I am telling all of my childhood secrets I might as well go ahead and confess that I had a slight obsession with Princess Diana and therefore all things Anglophile. My fascination and relationship with her (okay it’s only an imagined one) would be the topic of an entirely another blog so I will leave it with that. One quirky thing I remember doing, however, was I would beg my mom to buy me these chocolate-covered thin mints called “After Eight Mints”. They were made in England and at the age of 12 I considered them to be a delicacy from a far-off land, even though I am pretty sure she bought them at Walgreens. I would hide them under my bed so no one else would eat them and only pull them out for the moments I would savor the pages of my Princess Diana picture books. Okay, it’s strange, I confess. But it was my escape and way to explore culinary culture.

After I married Troy, I realized he not only appreciated all the Tex-Mex I had grown up eating but also had eaten a myriad of other mysterious and fun foods. Which brings me back to the schnitzel. Troy’s family was stationed in Germany and this was their favorite dish. It greatly resembles chicken-fried steak, which is why I think they all liked it so much. But it was smothered in this yummy brown mushroom gravy and he got me hooked onto it as well. If there was a German restaurant anywhere near, it was what he ordered. Eventually he perfected cooking it AND chicken fried steak, too. Troy didn’t do a lot of the cooking but like most everything else in his life, if he attempted it he was successful.

Moving around in the Air Force and being exposed to many different types of cooking. If we ate out or at someone’s house I always asked questions and was interested in how their dishes were made. I won’t say I am a great cook but I continue to learn and experiment and will enjoy my children being done with their picky-eater phases so I can get back to cooking something gourmet-ish again.

Jim and Andrea liked to cook together. With only two kids they had a little more time to devote to the art of it. And I know Andrea was a very good cook. Last week was Anthony’s birthday so we began pouring over Andrea’s recipe books to find the one of the cake that she made for him every year. As we all sat at our dining room table and began thumbing through her life’s recipes, I felt as if I was catching a glimpse of her private life. All women know their recipe file truly represents who they are, who they know, where they’ve been and what they likes. It made me feel as if I spent a little time with Andrea in her kitchen, maybe sharing a cup of tea and swapping recipes. Many were handed down from her mother or her Air Force friends. Many more were penned in her own hand and lovingly worn thin. I know it was a tender and sad moment for Jim and Anthony. And then Jim found a neatly folded email he had written to her on their 20th wedding anniversary. He was TDY and it was all they had that special day. He read it and I know it brought back memories of that time of their life. Bittersweet chocolate of moments these are.

Oddly enough, right after Jim and I got married and I was unpacking boxes full of my cookbooks and recipe files, I found a card Troy had sent to me from Iraq just a month before he died, in between the pages. I wondered how it ended up there because I don’t think I cooked real homemade food one time after he died. Like Jim’s to Andrea, it was penned with love and encouragement during a military separation. Like Jim’s, it was written for my eyes and my heart alone. Yet, there they both ended up in the privately public forum of each other’s recipe books.

I think I could eventually master an Iron Chef America recipe given a couple of tries, the correct ingredients and the right cooking equipment. But life, this messy life that boils over the pot, burns to the bottom of the pan and often is so bitter to swallow… is much more difficult to master. When my personal life turned into a disaster I remember crying out “What do I do now?! Will someone just tell me what on the earth do I do now?! How can I remedy this? Can life ever possibly taste good again?!” No one could give me the answer. Because the answer can come from no man. Only God has the perfect recipe for life.

You know when you eat something really delicious and then you find out what’s in it and you know you never would have even tried it much less liked it had you known what went into it? Or you wouldn’t possibly have attempted this or that recipe if you had been thumbing through the cookbook because the ingredients sounded too strange or untasty or just too darn complicated? Well, that’s life. One part joy. Two parts pain. Three parts fulfillment. Four parts suffering.

If you wrote out my life, all that’s gone into it these past two and a half years, I never would have signed up to attempt THAT recipe. It would’ve been just too daunting and too unimaginabley awful-tasting to even think about. Waking up one day with my five little bitty children at my feet to find out from a knock on the door that I was a 36 year old widow? No thank you, I won’t be having any of that. Not to mention, once all those ingredients; grief, anger, loneliness, cups of tears, etc…were mixed in then it would all have to go through the fire, the burning hot fire, to eventually come out being good or at best, palatable.

Many of our lives end up that way. Andrea and Jim’s with the monstrosity of a long-term battle with cancer. Mine with the aftermath of a fatal 2- second plane crash. None of the four of us ever feeling our feet to the fire or our faith put to the test like we had planned when we wrote our own recipes of life as right-of-college-happy-in-love-newlyweds. And to the unbelieving man without God’s hope of giving a purpose to the bitter ingredients and seemingly spoiled dish, it seems impossible. It WAS impossible. The only way it HAS been possible was with God being the head chef. We can dabble in the control of the input of materials we put into our lives, attempting to create some sort of masterpiece of our own. The Ravellas and the Gilberts were right there doing just that. Happy, Christian, military families, raising kids, serving God and country, yet, about to be blindsided by an unexpected ingredient that would spoil the whole dish - death. And I can tell you, even with Jim and I having one another and a complete family again, without the Lord, the dish would still be spoiled. Because the grave would have been the end for us.

Jim and I daily stand in the middle of a miracle of love and hope and healing. But we can both honestly admit that without God’s help DAILY with the pain and with the struggles, we would be consumed. There would be no victory only momentary flickers of relief. Without the promise that even through the worst heartache imaginable and the most desperate of times there is a reason and there will be good. Or that even the best this life has to offer, it is still a only mere shadow of the greatness that is to come when we are finally Home. There is a song echoing in my head right now… the lyrics going something like this:

“There will come a day, with no more tears, no more pain and no more fears. There will come a day when the burdens of this place will forever be erased, when we see Jesus face to face.”

We won’t find the perfect recipe for life on this earth. Even with healthy wives or husbands at home. Nothing will ever taste the way it should, until we meet Jesus, THE secret ingredient – THE one part joy. The rest of the ingredients just won’t matter after that, will they?

Friday, March 6, 2009

I Witnessed...

This is a picture Troy took on 20 Nov 2006. I hope you can read the words on this sign.
It says:
"Memorial Lane
Dedicated to those in the American military who have made the
ultimate sacrifice for the cause of freedom in Iraq"

One of the many things I love about serving in the Air Force is the amazing people I get to work with. I have heard it said from many people who have retired they miss the people more than anything. I think that will be true of me. This past weekend I was reminded of this. Ginger and I had two very special guests who delivered a very special item to Ginger. Those men were Brigadier Gen Rand, and Chief Dearduff. Both of these men worked closely with Troy. Troy was Gen Rand’s flying executive officer and Chief Dearduff was Gen Rand’s Command Chief at Luke and in Balad. I served as a Wing exec as Troy did and I can tell you there can be a special relationship with the leadership. Both Gen Rand and Chief Dearduff have gone separate ways and since serving together at Luke and Balad but their friendship never waned.

I had met Gen Rand and his wife Kim at our wedding in July but this weekend was the first time I had met the Chief. Ginger had told me what a great man he was and how Troy respected him. Having known the caliber of people who achieve the rank of Chief in the Air Force I had an idea of the type of man he would be. But even so I underestimated him.

Gen Rand and Chief came to visit us to deliver Troy’s belongings that were recovered from the crash site. Chief hand carried the items from Iraq, and they hand carried them to our house never wanting to trust these items to the US Postal Service. Their visit started off with dinner at our house and afterwards we looked at pictures of Gen Rand, Chief and Troy from Iraq. Bella sat in my lap and in her way tried understand what she was seeing. Pictures of “Daddy in Heaven.” She probably did not comprehend it fully or maybe she did, but we were looking at pictures of three men, two of which stood in our living room, the third was her dad and he was not there. Why? Why was I holding her as she realized the other men in the photos were standing behind her? Those questions will never be answered in this life.

The next evening we went out to dinner and then came back to our house were Gen Rand and Chief present a beautiful hand carved box containing Troy’s belongings. I sat by Ginger as for the first time she held items that were with Troy that day. All the items were in plastic bags, tagged and numbered as they were found by the first team of crash investigators. It was solemn as Ginger opened each of the bags and ran her hands across the items, feeling the dirt from the field where he had crashed. In the box was Troy’s visor cover, his knee boards with part of his checklist, his Leatherman, a pocket from his survivor vest, his watch which Ginger had given him, and finally his camera. The camera his mom and dad gave him when he deployed. I will tell you if you have never lost a loved one there is something special about holding something that you know your loved one held. There is a closeness to touch what you know they touched. Like Andrea’s journals, I would trace the words with my fingers and feel the pen in her hand and hear her thoughts as she penned the words. To hold something of theirs is as close as you can be to someone who is no longer here. I know for Ginger she was experiencing the same as she ran her hands across the kneeboard and held Troy’s watch.

I learned a lot about being a human, a Christian and an Officer that weekend because I witnessed the greatest example of servant leadership I had ever seen. I witnessed two men who serve in very busy jobs whose families have endured countless late nights at the office, missed anniversaries, birthday and holidays voluntarily take time to spend the weekend with Ginger and the kids. I watched the Chief play catch with Bella. Not just for a minute but for as long as Bella wanted. I watched them both talk to the boys not just “How are you?” but talk to them to find out what they like, what they do. I watched Boston display his soccer uniforms to Gen Rand who took the time and made Boston feel he was the most important person in the room. I watched the Chief do the same with Greyson and his basketball shoes. I never felt they were rushed, never trying to get this over with; they were here for us, totally. I watched this knowing for them to do this their families were somewhere sitting alone. A son missing his dad or a Grandson missing his grandfather.

I witnessed Sacrifice.

I witnessed two men tell stories of Troy. I realized both men saw in Troy that special quality of a future leader. I understood they both wanted to pass on their experiences to a younger officer, not to advance their career but to rise up the next generation of leaders. I know Troy was going to be a better leader having served with these two men.

I witnessed Mentorship.

I witnessed two men who had been profoundly changed by Troy. Both men are very successful in their careers, yet both men were willing to allow a young Major to impact them. Gen Rand told a story of when the three took a trip together to visit Al Asad. On the way back Troy leaned over to Gen Rand and said “I haven’t seen you in church lately. I’m Just checking to make sure you are okay and you have your priorities straight.” I learned a lot about what made Troy such a great man, and how he was able to impact so many people in such a short life. Troy loved his job, he loved being a fighter pilot, he loved being a dad, he loved being a husband. But most of all he loved being a believer and he loved the Lord. And this love was evident in how he lived his life. He loved Gen Rand enough to ask that question. Most people would have never asked such a question for fear of what our boss might think, or how it may impact our career. Fewer things I have heard of Troy speak to his character more than this story and this question he asked Gen Rand. Troy loved Gen Rand enough to ask that question. He worked with him closely enough to know the duties of a Wing Commander; especially a Wing Commander in War can easily distract someone from what really matters. I think Chief and Gen Rand knew they had met someone special in Troy and it forever changed them. But many of us have had a similar experience, whether it is Troy, Andrea or someone else and sadly sometimes we allow that person’s memory to fade only temporarily impacting our life. We talked a lot about how Troy impacted Gen Rand and Chief this weekend. But there are those of us who never had the blessing of meeting Troy, or those who never meet Andrea and it is up to those who did know them to tell their story. For it is a story many need to hear for their stories bring purpose to this life. I left feeling convicted to live a changed life. I left knowing nothing honors Troy and Andrea’s sacrifice more than that.

I witnessed Humility.

Finally I witnessed Gen Rand giving Ginger the box, wrapped in a handmade cloth his wife Kim sewed to protect the beautiful hand carved cross. The box itself donated to Ginger. I saw what must be a commander’s most difficult task, returning belongings to a wife. I witnessed firsthand the cost of war. I learned what it means when people say freedom is not free. I have written before about my experiences watching Andrea endure chemo and the suffering of cancer. And about the first day I realized I could only go so far in that experience with Andrea. She faced the fear during a CT scan as they took her away. She faced the fear of surgery as they wheeled her from me and only she sat in the chemo chair. (See my blog View From the Lazy Boy). As I watched Ginger open that box I realized only she fully understood the pain of holding her husband’s belongings. I know we all feel Troy’s loss in some way, at different levels but as I witnessed her hold his watch, a gift she had given him, I realized she was alone in her grief. I mean alone in the sense that she was experiencing a deeper grief than any of us. I understand and I can empathize in her grief but in that moment her grief was hers alone. I may be wrong but other than the spouse, I would say no one goes to that depth of grief except a Mother. As I saw the camera Ron and Kaye gave Troy I felt for Kaye who lost her only son. It breaks my heart to know she has suffered and still does every day. It breaks my heart to hear the kids call me dad in front of her and Ron. I know how bad it hurts to lose someone and I’m sorry they have had to pay such a high price. I understand that the depth of pain felt is only born from the height of love lived. I witnessed four people all hurting all feeling the vacuum created by the loss of Troy for the world lost a great man on Nov 27 2006. But in the midst of that moment I saw the greatest quality of all, whether you are a leader a follower.

I witnessed Love.

In the end I hope I am a better husband, father, and leader for what I witnessed this weekend.

These pictures were downloaded from Troy’s camera which was found at the crash site. The camera was barely recognizable yet the memory card looked as if it was brand new.

Troy at Al Asad

The last picture on Troy's camera
Note the date

Ginger had never seen this picture until now

Gen Rand, Troy, Chief Dearduff

Gen Rand and Troy
Troy had insisted they get the perfect picture that day.

Chief Dearduff and Troy

Gen Rand and Chief served in Iraq with Troy. he pictures below were taken on the day of Troy’s first flight. It was the Chief who set up the photographer that day forever giving Ginger and the kids this priceless gift.

Troy getting his vest fitted before his first flight

Gen Rand and Troy getting ready to fly.

Troy fitting his helmet and Night Vision Goggles