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Live to Make Men Free

“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith.” (1 John 5:4)

This past week I was asked to give my story from long ago in Viet Nam. I suppose it is more of a testimony of the trial of serving my country in the big chess game of political prowess. At eighteen, I had a decision to make, and I made the choice I thought to be right. It was either going to school, as my dad advised, or find a job. It wasn’t like high school where I needed to make gas money and be able to go on a date for the weekend. I knew I needed a job that had a future. Those were hard to find with only a high school diploma in hand. That was the offer my dad had made, and he is always right, but I guess in a moment of machismo, I enlisted in the army. Dad didn’t like the idea, mom didn’t like the idea, and even my little brother didn’t like the idea. But I was a man now, and I had to do the manly thing. So all one-hundred-twenty-two pounds of me went to the recruiter’s office and told them I was ready to be the next General.

Now fifty-one years later, people want me to tell stories of something I have been trying to forget. I looked out across the crowd, noticing that most of them are younger than I, I realized, or thought they wanted to hear a war story. Many of the people my age have their own war stories, and they were probably much better than mine. The younger are very curious about these things, and some may think they are ready for the adventure. I don’t like telling war stories as there are always the selfish that have a better one to speak only to put a more significant measure of their sacrifice. I am not willing to entertain that, especially when it makes me uncomfortable. But I was called out, and I had to say something, so I decided to give an overview of my time.

In August of ’71, I landed at Cam Ranh Bay to be assigned to a unit. Soon I was assigned to the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion in Qui Nhon and later in Pleiku. I was in a recon platoon, and we kept a watch on the neighborhood. The authors of Hollywood’s fantasies give you enough to be sickened and afraid; there is no need for me to make any addition. If one foolishly wants to experience war, there are plenty enough around pick one. It does not matter the cause, whether it is noble, political, or patriotic, because it will soon be a delusion as fear will educate you to the real cause.

In my time of tour, I learned there is no time to be afraid and that your fear is a tool of wisdom from which survivability can result. In the exercises of my duty to cause I’ve seen the real purpose of the fight. I’ve seen the proud and brave stumble and fade, and I’ve seen the lowly coward turn to fight. I’ve seen those who stand for their hatred kneel and pray to a loving God, and I’ve seen those who preach peace rise to issue justice. The cause of the soldier becomes the life of the man beside you, for tomorrow, he may be the one who saves you. There is no delusion of that cause, as your fear teaches you to respect the value of your brother in arms.

My father was a Presbyterian Minister of the Gospel, and his marvelous philosophy gave me a troubled mind all through my tour there. My dad had bought me a new Bible before I left the world. He told me to read it as much as I could, and for a while, I did. My life became too full of the unanswerable questions of the environment I was in. I could not make reason form all the madness. I had a Bible but found no rock to hold my thoughts together. A fellow in the compound gave me a little stack of white power and said snort this, and you will find peace. I did, and I thought of home and wondered if I would ever get back there.

Days quickly past, and months slowly inched along. The exercise never rested, and there was always the need for a moment of peace. Then in almost a flash, I had only fourteen more days, and my tour of duty would be over. I was a blessed one, I was near going home, and then the orders came down. I expected to be going home, but I was going to An Kne Valley, the neighborhood there was not behaving. It was late ’71, and the President had the Army begin to stand down. Most of the equipment in Pleiku was being convoyed to An Kne Valley to be sent south and home. The enemy knew we were weakening and it was their day of revenge.

In An Kne, we were stationed at Camp Radcliff home of the 1st Cav division, and their airfield was a hot target. As a few days past by we found it to be a peaceful place and we became very relaxed. Our platoon wasn’t assigned to any other, and no one was giving orders. I bought one more, to be my last, package of white power, and then I would commit myself to the infirmary to break the need for heroin. To kill time, I found the Bible my dad had given me and started to read the gospel of Luke. In the ninth chapter Jesus said, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me." (Luke 9:23)

I was thinking about that and thought my country called, I answered, I was not looking to but was ready to die for others. Then I thought maybe my dad was right, and I should go to school. I was giving that some serious contemplation when Lieutenant Jacobs came in and told us all to gear up. Within an hour, we were in a skirmish line in front of the airfield about a hundred yards out. We dug holes for cover well-spaced apart and waited. After a few hours I began to think nothing was going to happen, and we would be relieved soon, but we weren’t relieved. The sun started to go down, and darkness drove the light away. We waited near all night, and nothing moved across the darkened field. When are we going to be relieved, it has to be soon as I was getting sick and in need of more heroin.

A fog rolled in during the early hours before sunrise, and the darkness became blackness. I couldn’t see anything and dare not make a sound for fear I would draw fire. My sickness had turned to agony, and every inch of my inside was screaming in pain. I couldn’t keep a focus on much thought. I remembered a verse I read in Luke, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind." I had been doing that for most of my time here in the Nam. Right now, it is all I can think about, my god, and in the hour of my greatest need my god has forsaken me. I need that white powered god, I’ve served you faithfully, and you have left me here to die.

I was a lowly coward who placed my finger on the trigger and looked up and said, Lord, I’m coming. I heard, “I have a purpose for you.” I’m done I’m coming. And again heard, “I have a purpose for you.” In the noise of the darkest night, I found peace.

However great or small, a purpose is in the eyes of man, it was the ordained purpose that I discovered in the far country of Nam. Whatever man may think of it, it’s pleasing to my Lord, and though I am never satisfied completely, I am at peace with Him. Today I am a soldier in the never-ending war that we all have been commissioned to fight in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not much different from that hole in An Kne Valley that I learned it in. It is the battle to love God with all our might, and sharing that blessing with your neighbors. The cause is the one next to you, the one across the hall, the market place, and everyone who has the heart to hear the truth of God’s love.

We are not working for ourselves, not seeking glory from the battlefield, as we are working to leave no one behind on that final day. We all will be held accountable for the opportunity of leading mankind to a saving knowledge of Jesus. We all will be held accountable for the causalities of this world He has placed in our path. We all will be beneficiaries of the riches of His glory, and that you can take to eternity and nothing else. Do not be as the proud brave and stumble and fail to finish the race. They will long for their reward. Be as the humble coward who in fear, turns to fight, and wins the prize.

Julia Ward Howe wrote in 1861 words which state correctly the cause that we are talking about for the higher purpose the Lord has for each one. “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.” I wear no medals of men on my chest, as they offer no value to my soul. The brave may see the streets of gold and toil along them because of their stumble. The humble coward who turned to fight too will see the streets of gold and receive that highest accommodation, “Well done thy good and faithful servant.” He will have many crowns to bear, but knowing he is not worthy will lay them at the feet of his Lord. Which one will you be? "If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him." (John 12:26)

Thomas N Kirkpatrick

First Baptist Church of Durant, November 11, 2019

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