FROM A MACHINE GUNNER TO A MINISTER
I remember the day, at age 18, I walked into my local draft board and volunteered for the draft. I had just finished High School and was looking for a change of pace and excitement. I got both. Little did I realize that my life would soon be changed forever. My new walk into the world would lead me through war, hatred, bitterness and being bound by alcohol. It is so strange because as a child I avoided conflict like the plague. As a child growing up I would feel guilty as I ate the ears off my chocolate Easter bunny, but in a very short time I would go from being soft-hearted to being cold and hard-hearted.
Between Basic and Infantry training I married Nolia, the love of my life. We have been married since 1966. Soon I received orders to the First Infantry Division (Red One) in Vietnam. I had only been 19 years old for six weeks when I experienced combat for the first time. The tough training was no comparison to the harsh realities of war. It was not long before hatred and bitterness for the "enemy" became a driving force in my life.
There were many dark and dangerous nights in the jungle when my own heart beat sounded like a drum. The intense physical struggle of chopping through jungle, coupled with the despair of seeing friends maimed and killed, caused me to become very callused. The jungle was a hot and horrible place filled with huge red ants, leeches and booby traps.
When we did return to our base camp, we would clean our weapons, take a much needed shower (pontoon filled with water) and start drinking. Drinking quickly became a crutch in my life to help me hide from the reality of who I had become. While fighting in the jungles hate and adrenaline seemed to suffice, but once I returned to the calm of base camp I found myself drinking to drown the anguish deep within me.
Many times I faced the cold eyes of death. One time I tripped a booby trapped hand grenade two feet from my leg and it never exploded. A mortar round once landed a few yards from me and did not detonate. Another time on a "clover leaf" patrol we walked in to what appeared to be an abandoned enemy base camp. I took the trail to the right and my two friends went another direction with the plan of meeting up in a few minutes. Soon I realized that this was a fresh base camp. I approached a large kitchen bunker with seven chickens walking in front of it. I continued until I was 15 feet from the bunker.
All of a sudden five men stood up (one of them grinned at me). They thought they had me. I dove behind a termite hill (which is hard like cement) and began firing as they opened fire on me. My M-16 kept jamming and I began to throw grenades. Soon my two buddies got close enough behind me to throw me their grenades, and then I pulled the pins and threw them at the bunker. Needless to say I survived what should have been sure death or capture. It turned out that there were seven men in the bunker that day. We captured two of them. The other five did not survive.
Later I became a machine gunner (very dependable), then a grenadier, before becoming a Sergeant and squad leader. In one major battle the enemy had set up a horseshoe ambush with two regiments and a battalion. We did not have fox holes and were being hit so hard we had to call in air strikes right in front of our position. In a lull in the gunfire I stood up to tell one of my men to get down and my helmet was torn off my head with a large piece of shrapnel. An inch lower and I would have been dead. During this battle there were seven purple hearts (for being wounded in action) awarded to men in my squad of 14. In all this it would be many years before I realized that God had supernaturally intervened to save my life.
When I returned to the United States I understood the old saying "the soldier can never go home again." Physically I had returned home but, as I looked out the window of my life, I realized my inner man was a stranger to my surroundings. I had left the battlefield, but it had not left me. There were still tombstones in my eyes. I had heard that a war dog would be detrained before being returned home, but we were on our old streets usually within 24-48 hours of leaving the hard killing grounds.
My increased drinking was a futile attempt to find peace in the midst of my troubling memories. I even struggled with a desire to return to Vietnam and continue fighting. The only thing that kept me from returning was my determination not to put my dear wife through the turmoil of having a husband in combat again.
There were periods when I grew listless and despondent. I began taking prescription tranquilizers with alcohol and this only drove me deeper into despair. I began "bar hopping" on my chopped Harley with a friend who belonged to the Bandito motorcycle gang. I never joined them but often rode with them. This lifestyle went on for a while, however, gradually I began to "mellow out."
I joined the Beaumont (Texas) Police Department. During these years my three wonderful children were born. Law enforcement was a respectable job and I enjoyed the action. Once I suffered a concussion after being beaten in the head with a night stick that had been taken away from another policemen in a major fight. Twice I was nearly shot in the line of duty. I loved to fight so much that I would get physically ill if I missed a big fight.
During these years I did not know what it was like to go to bed one night without drinking, except for three nights I spent in the hospital with pneumonia. I quit smoking during this time.
When I was 30 years old I felt the Lord dealing with my heart. I had been born again as a young child but had never really been grounded in the Word of God. I knew I needed help to change my life. Deep down inside I was full of pain from the horrors of war. As an old song says, "I had seen war's thousand faces," and they were all bad. I knew God was the answer, but I struggled for days between alcohol and God. I even visited some church services with beer iced down in a cooler in the back of my jeep (I had been deer hunting).
One day on a deer stand I really told God I was sorry for my sins. That night I went to church without the booze. My whole life changed. The weight that lifted off of me that night was unbelievable. Sometimes we do not realize how much we are carrying until it is removed. Jesus says to cast all our cares upon Him.
My wife made Jesus Lord of her life when I did. My three children also came to God and I had the privilege of baptizing all three of them. Shortly after being saved God showed me in an open vision that I would return to Asia one day. He also called me to preach.
I spent three years in my home church before going to Bible college in Houston. After graduation I went to Kingston, New York and started a church that is now known as River of Life International.
I have returned to Asia 25 times since the War. We started four churches in Cambodia, and I have also visited Vietnam 20 times since the war and traveled to many old sites. I have met people who fought against me on the battlefield and they are my friends today. I have no unforgiveness. I am free from my past.
I want the veterans out there who are still hurting to know I understand. You may have fought in other wars, but there are some experiences we all share. We have experienced a part of life that few understand. My first few trips to Vietnam after the war were very painful as I faced my past, yet I would strongly recommend it to veterans. When I saw a person without an arm or leg I wondered whether I fired the shot or threw the grenade that maimed them. I had to forgive my former enemy and forgive myself. I found the people of Vietnam to be a very friendly. Their veterans, for the most part, had moved on in life. I did not find the bitterness that many U.S. veterans suffer from.
It was only the power of Jesus that allowed me to go free. I had to make the transition from the shedding of blood to the shed blood of Jesus. Only the Lord can change a person from a machine gunner to a minister. Let me hear from you.
Check out my interview with Sid Roth here!