Prayers in the Desert

By Courtney Birdsey as told to Julie E. Luekenga, Copyright Christianity Today International

Nowhere I lived before had prepared me for the litter-strewn, ugly, intensely hot landscape of Kuwait. Dusty, gritty sand blows everywhere—so different from the majestic mountains of Colorado, where I grew up.

It's hard to believe that only four years ago I graduated from high school. Like most of my friends, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew I wasn't ready for college.

I have always believed in God. I grew up going to church. But God was a distant figure—someone I knew was there but took for granted. My belief went as far as my need, which I guess in high school wasn't very far.

When a friend suggested a trip to Europe the fall after graduation, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to travel while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do next in life. While I was in Europe and even after I returned home, a conversation I'd had with an Army recruiter in high school kept nagging me. The more I thought about enlisting, the better the idea seemed. I felt almost called to enlist.

In Saddam's neighborhood

By February 2001, I was in basic training at Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood. I've always been athletic. The tests of endurance, thankfully, came easily for me. I was proud and grateful when I received a promotion to Squad Leader and completed my training as a civil engineer. So far this didn't seem like a bad alternative for a recent graduate seeking direction.

When my unit came under attack in Iraq, I suddenly understood the reality of God's protection.

When the 9/11 attacks struck our nation, I stared at the TV, stunned, watching the smoke-filled skies of New York City. I received my deployment orders not long after the tragedy, and by February 2003 I was heading to a part of the world I had barely studied in school.

Once there I lay in a stifling hot tent, wiping sand and sweat off my face and looking at this ugly landscape and wondering how long I'd be here doing busy work before our unit was given more orders. Finally, on July 1, we received the order to pack up and head out. Two days later we arrived in Iraq. The heat there was less intense; the landscape was still sandy but at least broken up with green shrubs. My new home was an abandoned, bombed-out Air Force base just north of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

I soon adapted to my new routine of traveling with my unit to various villages and towns. My job was to survey the area and provide information that would help in the design of base camps.

It was during these trips that I began to have a recurring conversation with God. As the violence escalated, reports would reach us of other convoys meeting opposition. As we traveled back and forth between towns, I kept my New Testament tucked in my pocket and prayers for safety constantly on my lips.

Drive-by terror

On one of these missions, my unit made a return trip to Samarra, north of Baghdad, to gather data. As we were leaving the town, the Humvee I was riding in approached a tank from behind. A soldier riding on the tank gave us an urgent "turn around" signal. We didn't hesitate to follow orders. We doubled back to Samarra, only to find ourselves surrounded by gunshots.

All of us jumped out of our vehicle and took cover—some of us running ahead and some of us staying with the Humvee. I readied my weapon and hunkered down against the back corner of the Humvee. Amid the gunfire, a black BMW sped through the street at 70 miles per hour—the Iraqi passengers inside, pointing their guns through open windows, opened fire at any American soldier within range.

"I felt the hand of God as we returned to our base. Praying without ceasing became, for me, as natural as breathing."

We exchanged shots, and suddenly the BMW careened, out of control, toward the Humvee where I was crouched. I could see the driver slumped over the steering wheel and knew I had only seconds to make a decision. With my heart pounding and unformed prayers racing in my mind, I ran to the front of the vehicle just before the car slammed into the very place I had been just seconds before.

We were told we would have to transfer the wounded in our own vehicle. In the background, completely incongruent to the battle I was facing, I could hear the droning of Muslim prayer chants over loudspeakers.

p>My convoy was commanded to drive to an American safe house on the outskirts of town. The chanted prayers and the lamb-like groans of a dying man behind me echoed in my head. Finally we arrived at the safety of the compound. I looked down at my uniform, dirty and speckled with the blood of the wounded. I stepped out of the truck and dropped, shaking, to my knees, thanking God for our safety.

I'm not the same

After this encounter, my faith took on a deeper and more personal perspective. I had felt the protective hand of God as we returned to our base physically unscathed. For my remaining time in Iraq, I began to rely heavily on my constant communication with God. Praying without ceasing became, for me, as natural as breathing.

Finally, in April 2004, my unit returned home to Colorado Springs. As the National Anthem played over the loudspeaker celebrating our arrival, I felt the tears I had been unable to cry for months stinging my eyes. I thought of my love for this country, the safety of my military family still in Iraq, the loss of those I had known, and of my family waiting in the stands to greet me.

Now back home, I strive to readjust to my life. The pace seems so hurried now. No more endless waiting under the unbearable heat of the sun that rises at 4 A.M. I coach a girls' high school softball team and encourage them in the sport I used to play. I try to capture a vision of my future by taking classes at a local college and working toward a degree. But it's not easy to move forward with five more years of my reserve duty still to go. There's always the underlying fear that I may be called back.

The visions and sounds of Iraq are never far from my thoughts. In many ways the experience there grew me up. I'm not the same person, spiritually or emotionally, that I was before I left. I still suffer from nightmares—images that come alive in my sleep, especially after a stressful day. But each time I see or hear of events in Iraq, I am reminded of how God faithfully protected me. I know now, no matter what the future brings, I'm never alone.

Julie E. Luekenga is a writer in Gunnison, Colorado.Praying for the Soldiers

Courtney's experience is a strong reminder of our need to surround our military and government in the power of prayer. Specifically, Courtney suggests we pray for:

Safety. Pray constantly for the safety—both physically and mentally—of the soldiers still in Iraq.
Marriages. Pray for those separated by the war and for their strength to resist adulterous temptations.
The Iraqis. Pray for their safety and recovery in a country that is war-torn and in constant danger.
Respect. Pray that soldiers will show respect for the Iraqi people. Pray for their insight and understanding into a culture and life that is unfamiliar.
Our government. Pray for the President and those making decisions for our country.
Returned soldiers. Pray for those who have returned to their homes and are striving to readjust.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.
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