ALPHARETTA, Ga. — For many Americans, Memorial Day is simply an extra day of rest. But for millions of others, it’s a day of memories and reflections on the friends and family who sacrificed everything in the defense of freedom. These are three stories of ordinary Christians — in their own words — who have faced extraordinary situations and still celebrate the hope that is found in Christ in times of crisis and loss.
Chaplain (Major General) Doug Carver
“For the most part, it’s been a quiet day in Baghdad. Units in other locations report an increase of suicide bombers, anti-Coalition sentiment, and discovery of mass graves. Spending most of the afternoon preparing for the Memorial Day service at 1800 hours.” — Journal Entry 1, May 26, 2003
It was Monday, May 26, 2003 (D+63 of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Memorial Day). I was at Victory Base Complex just on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq, with the U.S. Army’s V Corps. This Memorial Day would be especially meaningful to our troops as we remembered the 146 Americans killed in action in Iraq to date.
I planned on focusing the Protestant Memorial Day Service on a celebration of the lives of our fallen as we also used the time to celebrate the new life and freedom that God gave to us through Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. I used Proverbs 10:7 as my primary text (“The memory of the righteous is a blessing….” ESV). The Camp Victory Chapel was packed. Even the V Corps Commander and his staff took time out of their battle schedule to attend the service.
No sooner had I pronounced the benediction and walked out of the chapel with my commanding general than we received the bad news. Five soldiers were dead from various enemy attacks and accidents. All of them took place within the very hour of our Memorial Day Service.
One of those killed in action was a young 25-year-old from Missouri, PFC Jeremiah D. Smith. His vehicle had hit an improvised explosive device in Bagdad, marking the beginning of the enemy’s concerted effort to hit, maim and kill our troops with this new weapon that most of us had never heard of previously. I’ll never forget Memorial Day 2003. We had paused in a war zone to think about life, to thank the Lord for those who’d paid the full measure of devotion to duty to our country and to celebrate the Good News of Jesus Christ. And then, with a prayer and the “amen,” you’re brought right back to the fact that here we are in a combat zone where young men and women are standing in harm’s way, and the war continues.
“The commanding general was visibly shaken and upset from today’s casualties. Job 1:21, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.'” — Journal Entry 2, May 26, 2003
Chaplain Carver retired from his position as Chief of Chaplains of the United States Army in 2011 and now serves as the North American Mission Board’s executive director of chaplaincy.
Ernest DePaul Roy Jr.
I never knew my daddy. He only saw me one time when I was three days old. He was at Parris Island [Marine Corps Recruitment Depot] back in 1944, and I was born in Mobile, Ala. They weren’t going to give him a pass to come home because he was about ready to ship out. The Red Cross stepped in and got a three-day pass for him. That was it — a three-day pass. He came and stayed 21 hours, and he didn’t sleep at all. He slept on the train coming down, and he slept on the train going back. That was it. He shipped out and never come back home. He got killed in Okinawa when I was about five months old. He got there May the 5th, in 1945, and he was killed on May the 12th, which was my mom’s birthday. So we didn’t celebrate birthdays for her for a good while. She always thought of that as the day her husband got killed. We talked a lot about him, and I know a lot of stories that people told me about him and everything.
I [recently] went to Okinawa and saw where he got killed. My nephew took me, and we visited around all the camps and bases. We found a guy who was a historian over there and gave him my daddy’s name, so he looked him up on the registry. We got to see just about where he got killed. I’ve heard that, back in those days, Marines hung their hand-grenades on their vest, you know, and sometimes a bullet would hit one. That guy over in Okinawa said that’s the way my daddy died, too. A bullet hit the hand grenade. My mother never got personal stuff back.
Even though I never knew him, I do know my Daddy was adopted, and I have an adopted son, too. My grandmother adopted Daddy out of Wilmer Hall in Mobile when he was 9 years old. My wife and I had been married 19 years when the good Lord gave us our son.
Ernest “Sonny” Roy Jr. is a retiree and truck driver living in Mobile, Ala.
Gunnery Sergeant Leland Stephens
As Marines, we train the way we train because we never want to be the guy or the girl that has to put on a dress blue uniform and knock on a door to tell a family that they’ve lost a member. The value is placed on the Marine to your right and your left, knowing that you have to trust them to do their job and they have to trust you to do your job. As Christians, our actions, they don’t just cost a life. We’re talking about an eternal soul here. At the end of the day, when that life is lost, it can’t be re-won. As Marine Christians, it’s our job to try to be an influence to lead others to a relationship with Christ, so that regardless of what happens on a battlefield, the eternity is secured.
I think that one thing that I’ve noticed in coming out of the Marine Corps is that there’s less of a sense of urgency when it comes to sharing your faith outside of the military. In the military, we realize at any moment, at any time during any training exercise or during any wartime event, lives that never made a decision or never heard the name Jesus can be lost. As Christians outside of the military, I’ve noticed that, maybe, there’s less of a sense of urgency because the danger doesn’t seem as real within America as it does when you’re deployed overseas.
As a Marine, you’re constantly hearing stories of heroic actions — of people who endured just the worst possible conditions to give us the freedom that we have in America today. I think Memorial Day is of even greater importance to those of us who have served, because we’re constantly confronted with the mistreatment of it, of the freedom that people bled and died to give us. It’s a direct parallel to the gift that Christ gave us and talked about in John 15:13, and He’s not just talking about death. I think He’s talking about the choices we make as well. But there’s such parallelism in what we see in America today and what Jesus did because of the mistreatment of the gift that was offered. And I think that’s why I value Memorial Day so much, because it really has so many parallels into both sides of my life — my military life as well as my Christian life.
Gunnery Sgt. Leland Stephens recently retired from military service after over 17 years in the Marines. He’s currently studying at a Denver seminary to prepare himself for ministry to fellow service members.