I was feeling good and sorry for myself, lamenting all I had left behind me in "the world," when a soldier with shortly cropped hair crawled over the lip of the foxhole. He was tan and agile, blown-up muscles protruded like knotted ropes from an olive green tee shirt, and his green fatigues looked as if they had been starched and pressed -- even out here in the jungle, even after humping, and searching, and blowing things up.
I sat up a little straighter as I wondered how this man managed to look so clean, so well-groomed, so perfect in the middle of this little bivouac in the Le Hong Fong Forest. This man was obviously a professional soldier, what draftees call "a lifer," meaning he made the Army his job. I couldn’t help wondering why anyone would make this dirty and dangerous job a career. I guess some people just have the spirit that calls them to be there to clean up the messes, and right the wrongs bullies make. They have the mettle and backbone of ancient warriors to strive for the people's rights to freedom and liberty, and they stand up with all their might to defend justice.
It was funny, because I hadn't been thinking about that. I was thinking somewhere on a lower plane, but suddenly, when I saw that soldier come into my world, into my foxhole, I thought that. It was like a cold chill passing down my back...a spiritual moment, like he was expected, and I hadn't been having a lot of spiritual moments lately.
A soldier in the corner stirred at the noise, griping, "Jeez, can't a guy get some sleep? What is this," he said, sticking his head up and looking around, "Grand Central Station? Wake me when Charlie calls," he said, turning over and going back to sleep beside the hole. His feet were dangling in the hole as he slept, and I could tell he never really saw who had awakened him.
"Name's Wright,” said Mr. Clean, “Sergeant Jonathan Caulkins Wright...from the Weapons Platoon." The man smiled warmly, pumping my hand with an iron, vice-like grip, as if he were a politician making a social call pressing the flesh back on the block.
"What can I do for you, Sergeant Wright?"
"Jonathan," said the man, smiling again, "call me Jonathan." A kindly, compassionate light burned in large brown eyes, putting me instantly at ease, which seemed an oxymoron to our present situation. But that wasn't all. Something told me Sergeant Jonathan Caulkins Wright wasn’t your run-of-the-mill sergeant, and not what I expected to see out here in the boonies at all. I guess his spiritual compassion kind of took me off guard.
Jonathan glanced at the soldiers sleeping beside me, and couldn't suppress a smile. "They kind of remind you of Boy Scouts on a camping trip, don't they," he said, "so young, so innocent."
"Yeah, I guess they do," I replied, looking over those nestled in around me.
The sergeant looked out into the night, and his look was far away as the smile vanished. "Still, though these boys may look like Boy Scouts on a campout, any similarity stops there. This a hard life! It's a stark life! I know that. People aren't trying to kill Boy Scouts back home, and there usually aren't foxholes or attack weapons on a campout. Life here is jest a mite more complicated than that," he sighed.
"I've noticed that," I replied.
"This is a life way out on the edge of the existence most of these boys have grown up with all their lives. These boys are hard from war, and most all of them will find their whole beings rocked by it. They've seen too much -- done too much. Things have happened here that will forever change their lives. I'm afraid Vietnam will rob them of their very innocence."
"What do you want?" I felt weary, and just a little uncomfortable with the whole situation.
"Well son, you might say I'm your home teacher," he chuckled. "It's kind of a semi-official calling, but I'm LDS, you see..."
"Ottel told me there was another Mormon here. I guess you're him!"
"In a word, yes. And we Mormons have to stick together. The Church wants to keep a contact line of communication open with Church members visiting this fair Land of Nod." He waited for me to laugh, but I wasn't laughing. When I didn't, he continued. "We have to see if there's any way we can help answer any questions, or just be there..."
"Can you send me home?" I asked with a deadpan expression. "I don't think I want to be here anymore."
Sergeant Wright grinned. "Well sir, that's a mighty tall order.”
"Then you'll do it. You can help me out with that, can't you?"
"Jacob, sending you home would require either a letter from the President, or the quicker way, a bullet in the gullet."
"I didn’t think so."
"I can't get you one, and you wouldn't want the other, so the answer to your question is no, I can't send you home. No sir, I just can’t."
"Just thought I'd ask," I said. The thought struck me that I was talking a little jaded, a little on the disrespectful and glib side. I guess it was the strange circumstances, and my slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am indoctrination into the war these last few days. But it wasn't like me.
"No harm in asking," Jonathan smiled. "No harm at all. But what I can do, is see that you're doing all right, physically, and soul wise."
"Yes, the Church wants us to make sure your spirit is healthy. The Church has a long arm, and we don’t want you thinking it’s abandoned you."
"I guess I'm all right, but still a little slow on the uptake."
"That's to be expected, what with this kind of life being so new to you and all. I don't care how much you've trained, a man is never really ready for it till he's been here awhile. We just want you to know that you still have someone to turn to. I'm as close as the next, well, foxhole. Actually, I'm a couple of foxholes down around the perimeter line, but the door is always open,” he said, grinning again.
“No offense Sergeant, but who’s we? You got a mouse in your pocket?”
“No,” Jonathan chuckled, “I was speaking of the word 'we' like 'the royal we,' as a representative of the worldwide Church body of many souls. But I promise you, I personally will do what I can to insure your spiritual needs don't get trampled and take too bad a beating from this crazy war. I can pray for you, or with you. I can try to answer any sticky questions you might have, or just talk to you when you’re lonely or need a friend. I won’t promise to know the answer to your questions, or that you will like the explanations that do come, but they come free," he said, grinning even broader.
"Well, questions are buzzing around inside me, like when a boy back home named Bobby Jone's firecracker blew up a hornets' nest, Sergeant Wright.”
“Call me Jonathan.”
“All right...Jonathan, I suppose I'm just confused and befuddled by it all."
"Well of course you are. That's natural. You wouldn’t be normal if you weren’t. The best thing I can say is, you know your job, Jacob; now do it. Just do it. Don't try to be a hero. Don't buy the farm. Just survive! Get back to your parents! Get back to your church! Get back to your life!"
"More than anything, I guess, I'm just afraid of dying."
"Well Jacob, we all are. We all face the fear of death every day we wake up in Vietnam. Death is a reality, son. Everybody does die sooner or later, but the Church is our might. The Lord is our strength! All you’ve got to do is call on Him."
"I'm doing that," I smiled. "I've been feeling the need to call on God really hard lately."
"Good! God is our succor in these trying times. He gives us guidance and spiritual comfort when times are bad."
"But even more than dying...I'm afraid of killing. I never hated anyone before...surely not enough to even come close to killing, anyway."
"Killing is hard! It's maybe the hardest thing a good man can do. It effects some more than others, but it's something a soldier has to confront in war, because there are men out here that if you don't kill them, without hesitation, they sure as shooting will kill you. And they'll do it without thinking a thing about it."
"I haven't even drawn a bead on a man I hated enough to kill."
"God promises us he will not give us any task that is too hard for us to do. You'll be called to do so many tasteless things, Jacob, that remembering that may just be the hardest thing you'll have to do, but take it to heart, Jacob. You might die physically...but son, don't let this war make you die spiritually."
“That’s what I’ve always believed, but this seems hard...too hard! I don't know if I...”
“Jacob, hear me out. A lot of Christians say they are ready to die for the Church and its beliefs, but that's too easy. Just living through this hell on earth, doing what soldiers are called to do, is harder than dying. It really is! I know it, and the Church knows it. People don't realize, it's a whole lot harder to live for the gospel, than to die for it."
"Yeah, I hear that, Sergeant.”
In the distance we could hear sporadic gunfire and explosions. We both cocked an ear that way, as angry men shouted curses, carried on the same hot breezes that cooled the sweat from our brows.
A member of my squad named Riley moaned, without moving a muscle. "Fuckin' Charlie don't have no respect for a man just hankerin' to get a little sleep."
"There's one good thing about hearing it though," Jonathan said as he peered toward the pop-pop-popping of an AK-47's automatic rifle fire in the distance.
"Yeah," Riley said, leaning up on one elbow, "what's that?"
"If you can still hear it...you're still alive, my good man."
"Yeah, but you don't want to live forever, do ya," someone else cracked, "especially with that racket goin' on."
Then as if right on cue, I saw a shadow dart from right to left not twenty feet in front of our foxhole. It was like ice water had suddenly been poured down my back. "Gooks in the wire," I whispered, and suddenly everyone was ready for action.
Then I saw them. There were two of them, somehow between us and the trip-wires and claymores. One was an older man with a white goatee, and long, black pantaloons, with a young boy sixteen or seventeen years old at his elbow, wearing black shorts tied up tight around his upper legs. They were walking, crouching low in the middle of the village, sneaking up on an old burnt-out bunker. They struck me as harmless, until I saw the glint of their AK-47's in the pale moonlight.
"Christ," O'Neal sighted down on them, but Jonathan's hand on his barrel kept him from firing right then.
"Don't," he said. "They don't know where we are yet, and if we fire it will show our location to the others waiting out there in the shadows. Shooting and revealing ourselves is just what they want us to do."
"Well then, they'll know," O'Neal said, as he fired a burst that cut the younger of the two down. The older man whirled like a cat, but he got only one shot off before Jonathan cut him in two.
In the distance erupted a steady stream of automatic gunfire and explosions, bearing down on us closer this time. But after a few minutes it played itself out. "The VC are listening again," Jonathan whispered. "Maybe we lucked out. Maybe they're still not quite sure of where we are. We'll see, but maybe they needed more direct contact to tell them exactly where we were."
"Thanks to you, O'Neal, they probably have a better idea now," someone said in the dark.
"Yeah, well next time I might just let Charlie come in an cut your fuckin' throat before I take 'im out," O'Neal growled.
"What is it? You guys see something?" came from the foxhole on the right. "What are you firing at?" came from the left.
"Probably didn't even see the Charlies," O'Neal snickered. "I'll crawl over and give them sleepy bastards the scoop."
As things got quiet again, Riley could be heard softly sawing logs. He snored much louder and I knew we'd have to wake him, but still, I wondered how he could sleep through all this.
Jonathan resumed talking where he'd left off. “What is most important here, Jacob, is that we live our lives so that we are not afraid of death. What just happened here is a good example. Death is right next to us...it could have come a couple of minutes ago...it still might come later tonight, but if you get yourself right with the Lord, and fully understand the plan of salvation, death has no victory. Being right with God takes it away. You’re ready for it. You can take anything Vietnam throws your way because death has no sting when you’re trading up for Celestial glory. That’s the key, and no man can take that from you, not Charlie, not the spirit of the Evil One using the similarity to Boy Scouts here in the Nam to tempt you into doubting your faith.”
“Oh, they don’t bother me,” I said, looking down on my peacefully sleeping comrades.
"That so...O'Neal can be a real pissant..."
"I've had it worse."
"Yes, well, I read your records, Jacob, and with your permission I’d like to write your parents and your bishop. I want to let them know you’re OK, and tell them how important their support is. I want to tell them I'm here. Colonel Blaidin Sanderson is our chaplain. He's a Methodist, and a good man. He really cares about the boys. Captain Patrick Reardon is the LDS chaplain over near Pleiku. He wrote me about reaching out to the LDS faithful...especially those in the field of combat. He said something about my being charged by the First Presidency of the Church to watch out for the Lord’s flock in this part of the Lord’s vineyard. He knows how hard it is to keep the faith when times are hard. Just remember, when you're fighting evil, temptations can come fast and plentiful.”
“I wouldn’t know," I snickered, "haven’t had a chance to be tempted that much yet.”
Jonathan laughed. “Well you will, young son, you surely will. That’s a sure-fire guarantee. Now, I love this man's Army, but it’s stock full of seductive enticements for naïve young Mormon boys so far from home and family for the first time.”
“And you’re going to keep me from getting exposed?”
“Well sir, I sure can’t keep you from getting exposed to temptations. No sir, snares and enticement to stray from the right path will surely come by the basket full. With me on your side, and with the Lord's help, you can keep a solid shield of faith that will protect you from the powers of darkness running rampant in Nam.”
“You sound like my bishop,” Jacob said, thinking of the paper his bishop had given him.
“I was a bishop at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, but that was back in ‘the world;’ seems like another world, a million miles away. Captain Reardon said he wants me to keep the fire of testimonies from getting snuffed out by this war's deluge of Satanic power. The Church is very concerned about you, Jacob...about all of you boys. The Church is a community, and you are forever a part of The Church of Jesus Christ. Believe me when I say, you are a vital link that if broken would diminish the whole."
"You better believe it! I hope you always remember that, Jacob. Whatever happens, I'm here for you. I'm not sure I can always help, but I'll do what I can. You have to depend on the Lord. He will take care of you if you let Him. I don't know if you are much on prayer, but I suggest you come to the Lord often in prayer.”
“I’ve been taught to rely on the Lord," I nodded. "Something tells me I’ll be calling on Him a lot.”
“That’s a good start. I usually make LDS house...er foxhole calls with Private Jeffrey Hunter, in my platoon from Bountiful, Utah...but I'm afraid that’s a no-can-do this time. Seems Private Hunter developed a staph infection from a misfortunate misunderstanding with a Vietcong punji stake that bit him in the rear when he tried to cross a log on the trail into the village a couple of weeks ago. He cleaned it out with water, but it kept getting worse, till he coudn't even set down without a lot of pain, and he figured he better have it looked at.”
“Probably placed there by the Vietcong un-welcoming committee,” I snickered.
“And you know what the VC paint the end of their punji stakes with...?"
“Human excrement!” he said, and we both laughed. “Anyway, that got him sent back to the rear echelon aid station earlier today, but he won’t be there long. We can laugh about it now, but Private Hunter wasn't laughing when the dustoff choppers took him out."
I said seriously, "Guess we shouldn't either."
"No, no, Jeff wouldn't mind. He wouldn't mind at all. If we don't laugh at ourselves, this will be a pretty dull war."
I sneered, “I'll take dull any day. That reminds me of one thing I still don’t understand. Why does the Lord want me here? Vietnam doesn’t seem to jive with His plan of salvation.”
“Are you kidding? Vietnam is potentially the best thing that can come into your life in this earthbound existence.”
"Vietnam gives us tests and choices and multiple pathways. It is by making the hard, right choices that we earn the highest rewards. You’re not perfect, you know.”
“And you see that as a good thing?”
“Jacob, it’s facing and overcoming our imperfections and mistakes that give us the greatest growth. Vietnam is but a phase in the spiritual journey we are on. Nam gives us new purpose, exciting new paths we face daily. We are presented with a whole batch of new problems to test our Christianity, but we are not victims here, nor are we being punished...but here in Nam, so far away from family and Church, you alone must solve your problems. Nobody else is going to do it for you...not your parents, not your bishop, not your teachers, not even me...nobody! You have been given much in your life Jacob, and to him whom much is given, much is expected. The Savior has high expectations for you, my boy.”
“Maybe that’s what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid I won’t live up to the expectations.”
“I think you’ll do just fine,” Jonathan smiled, "with the support of family and friends...but none of us can solve your problems here. Remember the words of truth and wisdom contained in the gospel, and don’t let those words fly in one ear and out the other. The Lord has given us words to live by, but you are the one with the loaded gun. You are the one with the choices that make your eternity. I read a poem somewhere, ‘You are the one who has to decide, whether to do it, or cast it aside.’”
“Whew, for a minute there, I thought you were going to put pressure on me,” I chided sarcastically.
Jonathan didn’t laugh, but looked me solidly in the eyes. “You have a great calling here, Jacob. Don’t blow this chance, because there's a lot riding on it. Remember the gospel teachings of your youth; remember the counsel of your parents, your Sunday School teachers, your bishop. Use their words of wisdom. Use the words that have truly become your own to control the moment...to control your destiny. You were a child, now you are a man. Put away the frivolous things of childhood, and embark on the straight and narrow pathways of light and righteousness of the Lord. Let the words of the elders guide you into right choices. Let the priesthood be your pathfinder. Face your problems with the power of the Almighty as your shield. Do what you have to do, protect whatever you have to protect, but do it with the power of love, not with vengeance or despair.”
“Love makes the world go round, they say,” I quipped.
“Then 'they' would be right,” Jonathan smiled. “Love is the essence of Christianity, the sounding brass and the tinkling of cymbals, the gift of prophecy and the key to understanding all mysteries. Love is the fruit of all knowledge. Remember the scripture in Matthew 22: 37-40, where Jesus said, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ "
Jonathan paused to look away into the heavens. “This faith in life’s purpose is as necessary to me as breath itself. Without Christ to guide me, I would surely wither and perish. Without the gospel I would truly curse God and die, and that brings us to Nam's greatest purpose. It's a watermark that..."
"A watermark...We don't appreciate America fully, until we see what life would be like without the things we take so much for granted back in 'the world.' Your very life is on the line here...people are trying to kill you here..."
"Don't remind me."
"Everything in Nam is screwed around different than it was back home. Your freedom is very limited here. You can't even see a pretty rose bush without considering the possibility that someone is in hiding behind it, waiting to kill you. When you get back home you will appreciate simple things like you never did before, like life, freedom, roses, every breath you take. Now, since this is your official home teaching visit for the day, let’s end it like we would at home…let’s have a word of prayer, then I've really got to get back. Would you like to pray, or would you like me to do it?"
I was filled with the spirit because of Jonathan’s strange words, but I said, "You do it. I need to hear you."
Jonathan bowed his head. "Our Father in Heaven, we thank Thee for the gospel, and the bounteous blessings it gives us by Thine hand. Bless us now, in this our hour of our greatest need, that we may always be aware of our covenants and abide strong by them. Bless us both, that we might have Thy spirit to be with us in all things we say and do in this terrible war, that we will do naught that is not in accordance with Thine divine will. Bless us and keep us. Stand with us, Oh Lord. Listen to the prayer on our lips, that we may live with the armor of Thy righteousness around us, that we may honor our priesthood, that we may be protected from the slings and arrows of the enemy, that we may stand blameless before Thee in the last day. Bless us that if we should die before our journey's through, we may die with Thine spirit burning strong within our hearts, having been true to Thy good and glorious counsel. We pray that we may live to cause Thee to say in that fateful day, 'Well done, my good and faithful servants, enter now into My house of power and glory.' We say these things in the name of Thy most holy son, Jesus Christ, Amen."
We were both quiet in our thoughts for a moment before I spoke. "With that kind of prayer, I ought to be good for another week or so," I laughed. "Hey, I'm glad you dropped in."
"No problem," Sergeant Wright said, laughing. "You need to offer up a strong prayer like that several times a day, at least...maybe more when the going gets rough. You know, keep a prayer constnatly on your lips. Well, I'd better get back to my squad, so keep the faith, Jacob," he said, shaking my hand. "Good luck, and God be with you to help you make right decisions."
"Don't goof off now, Jacob...but don't get too tight either. Act like this is just a drill."
"Yeah sure, it’s nothing but a drill," I muttered jokingly, as Sergeant Wright edged into the darkness, swallowed up by the night and the Le Hong Fong Forest.
Again I was alone, but this time something had changed. I was calmer now. My thoughts drifted to my belief in Christ, my testimony that was so much of my life, my very cornerstone of being. I thought how Christ's teachings and commandments had been compared in scripture to an “Iron Rod,” a straight and narrow way containing the principles and ordinances which the faithful must cling to, and live by, to make their way to Celestial exaltation in the presence of our Father in Heaven.
My belief comforted me, for I knew God cared for me. My prayers were answered by a burning in my breast, a gift from the Holy Ghost, and I had sealed the covenant to live the gospel with baptism of the water and spirit, as commanded. Now I lived in accordance with the good news of the kingdom, the dispensation of the fullness of times prophesied in scripture, where all things will be gathered together in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth; even in Him (Eph. 1:10).
Still, for the life of me, I could not reconcile what was taking place in Vietnam with anything Godly. The Vietnam War and God still do not seem to belong in the same sentence.
As I popped a heat tab out of my pocket and lit it to heat my C-canned turkey loaf for a midnight dinner, I smiled as I remembered the blessings promised those who kept eternal laws and commandments. Mother always said, "Just live the eternal laws of God wherever you are, and whatever you do, and the blessings will fall down on you so rich you won't be able to hold them all." Maybe she was right. If I would but keep my faith when all about me were losing theirs, God was bound to reward me. So I made a commitment to God that night. I promised to go through the valley of the shadow of Vietnam with humility in my heart and a prayer on my lips, and to keep the faith of my fathers. I didn’t know how I could keep my faith in a world gone mad -- so far from home. But I was bound to do it, though I had the feeling all life could die tonight with no more pause than a breeze passing through a bamboo thicket -- or it won't. It was all in the hands of the Lord. For a moment anyway, I feared no evil.
I asked Christ for humility, that I might not seem pretentious to my comrades in arms, "holier than thou" like, but that they might see my sincerity, and witness my faith in action. I thought of Helaman’s two thousand stripling warriors in the Book of Mormon. They had fought valiantly for freedom and God. When their fathers couldn't bear arms because of a covenant made with God not to take up arms again, they took up the good fight, and were rewarded without a single one of their number falling to the earth. I prayed to the Lord that I, too, would be allowed to return home safely to my family’s loving arms, if it was God’s will. I longed to again feel the righteous spirit of my church family enfolding me, and helping me cleave to the iron rod of the gospel.
As I crouched on my poncho liner against the dirt corner, eating my turkey loaf in the dark, I had such a longing in me, it hurt.