‘‘Hi, Aunt Brenda! Thanks for the care package. Those brownies were delicious.” My nephew John was calling from Iraq, where he’d been deployed with the Army for the last five months as a military police officer.
I loved hearing his voice, even when the reception was poor. John only got access to the shared satellite phone once or twice a month. Those calls were the only times I knew he was okay. The only times I took a break from worrying about him.
“I’m glad you liked the brownies,” I said. “I…” BOOM! Pop-pop-poppop. BOOM! The sounds of explosives and machine-gun fire rang in my ear with crystal clarity. “John, what was that? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “That is nowhere near where I am. But yeah, that’s pretty much what it sounds like over here all the time. Someone’s always shooting at us. But I have a job to do. I can’t let it get to me.”
It certainly got to me. All I could think about was the danger around him. I had a job to do too. “I’m praying for you,” I said. “And so are a lot of other people. I have called most of the churches in Clay County about getting your name put on their prayer lists.”
Day and night I asked God to watch over John, but that didn’t stop me from worrying. It was 2004. Soldiers were dying every day in Iraq. “It means a lot just knowing that you and everyone back there is thinking of me,” John said. “And sending brownies, of course.”
I laughed and we said our goodbyes. But even as I hung up the phone I wished there was something more I could do. Time for another care package, I thought. I filled a box with more brownies, packages of Kool- Aid, wet wipes, a long letter and some inspirational books. At the post office I asked God to ensure it reached its destination.
“Were you praying?” a woman behind me in line asked.
I explained about John. “He’s going to be fine,” she said. But how could she be so sure?
Back at home I stared out the window at the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. I never had any children of my own, so all the love I would have given them went to John. When he had visited me in the summer, the two of us rode horses all over the mountain trails. Deep in the forest, surrounded by the beauty of nature, that’s where I felt closest to God—and to John too.
We talked about his dreams for the future, how he wanted to be a lawyer. But when he told me he was thinking of enlisting in the Army after graduating from college, that he hoped to one day be a JAG officer, I was terrified. “What do you think?” he’d asked me.
I took a deep breath. “I think you should pray about it and go where you feel led,” I said, hoping that God and I were on the same wavelength.
But it hadn’t turned out that way. Since the day John left for boot camp I’d never really stopped worrying. It only got worse when he deployed to Iraq. His quarters, he’d told me, a squalid former Iraqi jail, were infested with rats. Nothing like the beautiful mountains we loved.
So much of what he was doing he wasn’t even allowed to tell me. He felt unreachable. Even my prayers seemed somehow to fall short, as garbled as the reception on John’s monthly phone calls.
That night in my bedroom I read the Bible and prayed for God to shelter John from harm. Like I always did. But in my mind I could still hear the sound of the mortars from that morning’s phone call. My hands trembled as I closed the Bible and got into bed.
I tossed and turned for what seemed like forever when…suddenly I was in the desert, nothing but sand for miles around. In the distance I saw a group of men. I walked toward them. They were soldiers, kneeling in a circle. One of them was John. He was holding another soldier in his arms. John was crying. Why am I seeing this?
Overhead I heard a sound, like a whisper on the wind. I looked up. A band of angels hovered above. Female angels with wings, in flowing white robes. They encircled the men and danced, their faces joyous, carefree, as if there was no place in the universe they’d rather be.
One of the angels reached out to me. I hesitated, not sure if I should take her hand, but she beckoned me. There was a warmth to her, an incredible feeling of reassurance that put me at ease.
I floated up with her, and we danced. Time stood still. I could feel the tension leaving me. In its place there was only love, unconditional love. Our bond had a strength to it that even an army couldn’t break through.
I lifted my head and…I was back in bed. My eyes wide open. I cried tears of joy, and I thanked God for being ever faithful, for watching over all our soldiers, and especially John—the connection between us stronger than ever.
A couple weeks later I answered the phone. John’s voice sounded strained. “We got ambushed the other day,” he said. “Someone shot three rocket-propelled grenades at us. But no one got hit. No one. The grenades just flew by us.”
In the months that followed there were more calls like that. Mortars and mines that exploded near John but didn’t harm him. The danger was still ever present.
Of course I worried, but not like before. It wasn’t that I thought he could never be hurt. But I knew with absolute certainty that he wasn’t alone, that the angels would always be with him.
John served two tours of duty and finally came home for good in 2006. He never got that law degree. Today he’s in seminary, but that doesn’t mean I pray for him any less.