It’s difficult for civilians to put themselves in the army boots of soldiers and try to understand their motives, their feelings and how they are affected by combat. Their lives are constantly in danger and their mission can seem interminable. How do they deal with that?
That’s exactly the question that St. Albert author Sharon Ryan posed to several dozen American soldiers at two military training bases in California’s Mojave Desert. For two weeks, she was given unprecedented carte blanche access to the camps and the personnel so she could find out the answer. What she learned from the ones who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan was somewhat surprising and prompted even deeper, more philosophical questions. They were questions of faith.
She discovered that war and other armed conflicts can make people religious but in a more profound way than merely turning to God as a last resort when all hope seems lost. Some of them tore pages out of the Bible and stuffed them into their boots. If there was ever a question about how strongly some people put faith into religion, then that is a telling example, especially when you realize that outside of army life these people are otherwise unreligious.
“My project was one that said that these U.S. warriors really have a heart for this mission,” explained Ryan. “The leaders at the highest level believe that that is true. They wanted me to capture their stories from a spiritual side — spiritually what is making these men and women tick — because they believe so strongly that a good warrior can be spiritually connected like that and that can sustain them.”
The genesis of the project began in 2001 as she was watching television footage of American troops arriving in the Middle East. She had to wonder what was going through their minds then and what affect the prospect of unexpected and imminent death would have on them. When she was able to meet some of them at Twentynine Palms and Fort Irwin, some very captivating stories came out, like the one about the luckiest and unluckiest Marine in the platoon.
Lance Cpl. Sal Laraorozio survived three near misses in combat, the first and closest of which was literally a hair’s breadth in distance. While engaged in return fire with a sniper, he took a bullet through his helmet, parting his hair along the way. Other experiences with a booby trap that same month and then a suicide bomber a few months later gave him much cause for reflection. Raised a Catholic he figured it could only mean one thing. In the book he is quoted as saying, “I realized that I had three close calls with death and that made me realize that God had been there the whole way.”
Even some otherwise non-religious soldiers would recite a specific psalm about being protected from arrows and pestilence, or keeping copies of it with them however they could, like in their boots. The book is full of stories like this, soldiers who believe that the word of God is their armour.
“My angle was that I wanted to understand how they morally reason through their mission and how they find meaning in the mission, if they do at all,” Ryan said, talking about how she came to decide on this project. “I’ve always admired the military personnel. I’ve always really appreciated the sacrifices they make. I’ve always thought deeply about it. ‘Why would they do that? There is a story here that is not being told’.”
It does raise a troublesome notion that if combat experience can instil spirituality, then does the religious conflict between Christian soldiers and those of other faiths make peaceful resolution easier or more difficult to achieve? It’s a nagging question that isn’t tackled here, nor could it likely ever be answered.
For now, Ryan is pleased with the result, a compilation of ‘chicken soup for the soldier’ type anecdotes. She mentioned that she hopes to continue on putting together anthologies of this nature, including one from the perspective of Canadian soldiers.
Finding God in War
Written by Sharon Ryan and Paul Jeffrey Prinster, Lt. Col. USMC (Retired)
Priced from $9.95 US (paperback) to $14.95 US (hardcover) available from Amazon.ca or AuthorHouse.com
Ryan will be on hand at Chapters (St. Albert) for a book signing on Fri., Apr. 16 from 7 to 9 p.m.
The store is located at #30, 445 St. Albert Trail next to Staples.