During my deployment as an Army chaplain to Kuwait/Iraq in 2007-2008, I found myself alone in the base chow hall one evening...tray in hand...with no prospect of a dining partner. As I was trying to find a table, though, I observed a young, Army staff sergeant sitting alone at a lonely table. Noticing that his shoulders were somewhat hunched over, his countenance downcast, and his movements slow and deliberate, I decided that this might be a good opportunity to exercise my role as minister and come alongside this young man in his obvious moment of need. But, I'll be honest with you, I didn't want to sit with him.
My reasons were quite selfish. At that time in our deployment, I was counseling an average of 60 troops per month and working 16 hour days, seven days a week. I was tired, and my compassion quotient was starting to max out. I loved all my Soldiers, Marines, and Airmen, but there were some days when I just didn't want to be around them. This was one of those days.
However, as I started to pass by his table, the Holy Spirit convicted me of my selfishness and encouraged me in my calling, so I exited the low road of emotional/spiritual apathy and took the high road of service. I sat down with this staff sergeant, introduced myself, and started a conversation.
In the minutes that followed, I was presented with one of the most beautiful stories of selfless service and bravery that I've ever heard personally. Sometime during the previous year, this staff sergeant had been riding with his men in Iraq when an enemy soldier threw a grenade in the back of his humvee (technically HMMWV). The grenade killed the other three people in the vehicle and severely wounded my new friend. He was immediately sent to Germany for treatment and recovery, at the end of which he was offered a rotation home. However, this staff sergeant declined, indicating that he wanted to return to his unit and support his men. He was subsequently sent back to combat.
Then, in the days prior to our chance meeting, this staff sergeant had been riding shotgun (quite literally) when his humvee was attacked by a sniper, who shot his driver in the head, killing him instantly. Blood and brain matter had been blown onto my dining companion, and, of course, he then had to dodge the sniper himself. Obviously, he made it, and when I met him, he was redeploying with his unit back to the United States. The unit's combat tour was over, but I could tell this staff sergeant would be fighting a new battle for a long time to come.
During our time together, I noticed my friend perk up a bit, smile once in a while, and generally loosen his hardened exterior. As we conversed about the most significant things in life (e.g., life itself, compassion/love, service, and God), I couldn't help but think about how much personal courage it takes to throw oneself in harm's way over and over again, and what selflessness is involved in putting the needs of others above your own. In truth, I looked across that table and saw, not an Army staff sergeant, but a man whose life I should be emulating more...a man from whom I could learn (and was learning) a great deal. How I paled in comparison...a man who almost didn't demonstrate even the little courage and selflessness it takes to sit down and engage with a lonely soul.
Today--two days after Memorial Day--I am reminded of that staff sergeant because...well...I think about him most days. And though I don't remember his name, I definitely remember his story, his love, his bravery, and his being used by the Holy Spirit to show me the chinks in my personal armor. I have no clue if I had a lasting impact on his life, but I know he has had an enduring one on mine, and I'll never forget him. And I thank God every day that he used a simple sergeant, a dusty chow hall, and the conviction of the Holy Spirit to set me straight.