Wartime Reflections: Then and Now on a C-130
I’ll call it. I took my last C-130 flight in combat last night. They were moving men and equipment around the battlefield and I needed a ride. A handful of gruff operator-looking dudes—they weren’t—floor-loaded a handful of pelican cases. A few other cats and dogs sprawled across the stretched out red netting that served as seats. The loadmasters ran straps, buckled down the kit, and made sure the pallets were secure and we were off.
The pilots gunned the throttles and the aircraft jerked forward, broke contact with the ground, and screamed skyward. The dude next to me, middle-aged guy in civvies, never looked up from his Kindle. I took him for an intel dude, maybe an agency guy.
As I settled in for the two hour flight and the loadmaster dimmed the lights, my mind drifted to another C-130 flight, an eternity ago, but in some ways, like yesterday. Almost exactly 15 years ago, another C-130 carried a much younger version of me to what I could never anticipate. How things have changed.
Combat—Rock n’ Roll
“Excuse me.” I was so tired I hadn’t even woken when the C-130 touched down in Kandahar to upload some passengers. “Excuse me,” a little more forcefully this time. I looked up to see a skinny, scraggly looking chick trying to step over my outstretched legs. I moved out of the way and looked over to see a handful of even more scraggly looking dudes. “Some of the boys,” I thought to myself. This was a pretty frowzy looking bunch, even by their standards.
My first flight into combat, fall of 2002. At Masirah, our folks lined me up a C-130 flight direct to Bagram via Kandahar. This was it, what I had been yearning for since that fateful day a year ago, when a millennia old struggle came to the forefront as a handful of zealots shocked a nation.
I looked over again at my fellow passengers wondering who they were. Only later did I find out who it was…Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on a whirlwind USO tour—my illustrious first ride into combat.
On a Changing World
I had a Joan Jett record once, maybe early 80’s. My Aunt Shirley unwittingly bought it for me. As the C130 droned on, my mind drifted to how the world had changed in the 15 years since that first flight.
Afghanistan persists, the war that won’t end. How do you conclude a venture such as this? The Taliban seem poised to reassert themselves the moment we step away for good. The President just authorized a troop increase. My sons are becoming old enough to fight there.
In these last 15 years, our country has been through three Presidents and experienced a foundational shift. Things that would’ve seemed unthinkable have become mainstream and ideas that were considered noble are now deemed wicked. At times it seems our country has turned upside down…until I turn off the 24 hour news cycle and walk outside and talk with my neighbor.
Back then, only a year into the current fray, our nation still bristled with a collective patriotic fervor that has long since waned, leaving men to fill the void. And who would’ve thought Donald Trump would ever be President?
On a Changing Body
I am dying. Daily my body reminds of its inevitable march to the grave. Yearly I become fatter and slower—my hair gave up the ghost years ago—despite my best attempts at halting the process. I told my strength and conditioning coach that my goal was to maintain physical dominance of my sons for as long as possible, or the appearance thereof. Nothing more. Knee surgeries, arthritis, headaches, the persistent soreness—getting out of bed in the morning becomes more interesting every year.
Original Sin guarantees the decay of my body. All of creation, including my body, groans under the weight of sin, the corruption of the flesh. So many people place all their stock into something as fleeting as the body.
James’ admonishes, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes,” (James 4:14) or the words of the psalmist, “As for man, his days are like grass… for the wind passes over it [his days], and it is gone.” (Psalm 103:15-16)
Life is fleeting. You are here today, gone tomorrow and the second you are in the ground the world will begin the process of forgetting all about you. Tell me who the most popular man in your town was 20 years ago. Ten?
At some point, you make peace with this truth, even become comfortable with it. There are days where the brokenness of this world including the brokenness of my body yields within me a deep yearning for the Lord to call me home.
On a Changing Mind
Fifteen years, a decade and a half—has war changed me?
Of that time, I’ve spent between three and half to four years in combat by my best estimates. Is that a lot? I’d known plenty of men who spent more.
Over the persistent hum of the propellers, my thoughts ranged across the plains of bellicosity: good-byes said, engagements conducted, missions executed, the mundane and humorously trite, friends lost, the bright desert heat, choking sandstorms, the pungent smell of a detainee’s vomit.
In some ways, we are the summation of our experiences. All things impact us in some way. Why would war be any different? It would be impossible to experience war in any capacity without it affecting some form of change, even if minor. The question becomes one of response and reconciliation. I’ve known men who’ve failed to reconcile, perhaps they’ve received a moral injury, and the response becomes disordered, often exacerbated by substance abuse as they seek relief with self-medication.
What of me? I feel about the same, but you’ll probably get a better answer from my wife or maybe my girls.
On a Changing Heart
My mind drifted deeper, to another change, one far more profound.
In March of 2005, I met the Lord Jesus. To be clear, I never sought Him, not once. My wife and I were looking for religion and we found a Savior. The Holy Spirit regenerated my heart that I might believe, and believe I did. Aware of my sin and helplessness for the very first time, I repented of my sin and believed upon Jesus and was saved.
Jesus dragged me from the mire, a life serving sin and self. There is a phrase I’ve come to loathe, “Jesus is a gentleman. He knocks but you have to open the door.” It’s based upon faulty exegesis of Revelation 3:10. I’m here to declare that Jesus kicked in the door of my heart with all authority of the LORD God on high.
Jesus is no gentleman. He is a mighty warrior, the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords.
Paul confirms, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The change was nearly immediate in some ways. Christ called not only me, but my wife, and those of my household, my children. Gradually, steadily, His purview overtook the entirety of my life.
As a new creation, my appetites changed, my desire for the things of this world. God gave me the desires of my heart, that is, He placed His desires into my heart. (Psalm 37:4) His desires became my desires. My pursuits became holiness and the knowledge of the Holy. Though I wrestle with the flesh, as the Bible says we will, it has indeed passed away, replaced by the new.
This process of sanctification, of being set apart, will continue until the Lord calls me home to glory.
I had occupied a place on the floor with my head on my backpack and as we began our descent, I decided to experiment. I would remain in place on the floor, as several others were, until we landed or the loadmaster made us get up and get in a seat for landing. I looked back, he was sleeping too. The next thing I know the pilot was extending the flaps and lowering the landing gear and with a bump, we touched down…with four or five of us just laying around the floor. The loadmaster got up, stretched, looked around at the bodies still prone and kind of shrugged.
My last C-130 flight, not that it mattered but these two flights book-ended my life at war and in many ways delineate the old and the new. As I look back at myself, I see a stranger, a brash young man with slicked-back hair and dreams of glory. I see myself for what I was, and I’m so thankful for a God who makes all things new? I struggle to remember my life before Him.
Author - Founder
Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).
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