Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Same River Twice




For the last ten weeks I have been back in Iraq at the same emergency field hospital I worked at earlier this year. The bombs were not so close this time, the acuity rate not so high, but the scars of evil were just as ugly and ever present. 

I am changed forever. We all are. We have seen things that cannot be unseen. Our heart's have been crushed, ground to dust, blown to bits, over and over again. And the thing is, what each of us will confess, is that it was a sacred honor, one we wouldn't trade for all the glittering things. And that for most of us this was the first time in our lives where all of our passions were engaged; personal, professional, and spiritual, in a community of our peers doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons. And that's what we all long for isn't it? Isn't that what it means to be fully alive? And maybe that's strange, to feel so alive under the shadow of death. To travel to a war-zone to find family. But maybe what is more strange is we weep when we have to leave, and many of us dread the coming home. 

And so I write this for my field hospital family, I write this for those that love them. They are not who they once were, they are stronger and yet more fragile. The have gone to a place of bombs and terror and seen what those evil forces do to the bodies of children. They have sat countless hours with the dying, held out hope with trembling hands to the living. They have stifled the urge to scream too many times to count. They have fought back tears daily so the floodgates wouldn't open forever. They are not who they were when they left you, they are better than before, but they are more broken. Over them hangs an invisible shroud of grief, they must mourn for what's been lost, for what they've left behind on the war ravaged plains of Nineveh.

So please be careful with them, let them tell you their story in their own time, even if it's a long time. It's a story that costs them in heart-break. The words conjure images that will haunt them forever. Let them have their silence and space, to process, to heal. Be patient with them, small talk may be unbearable after a season so intense, so pregnant with purpose. A trip to the mall or Walmart might be unhinging for them when they've seen those fleeing war in tattered rags and matted filth, gaunt with emaciation. They see with new eyes now, hear with new ears. There has been a deep shift in their sense of justice, a widening of their worldview. You will alienate them quickly if you politicize refugees, or paint Muslims or Middle Easterners with a broad blunt brush. These are no longer abstract terms to them, no longer strangers from news footage. They have done life with these precious people, they've listened to stories of horror so unimaginable that it left them reeling and speechless. The throats of babies slit in mother's arms, whole families mowed down by ISIS snipers as they ran to freedom. Daughters hiding in the piles of the dead, sons surviving on cardboard and blades of grass. Your churches may seem more shallow to them, words like suffering and persecution now have faces and stories, have a new infinitely higher ceiling of meaning. They have seen the cost of faith. But they love you, they still need you, maybe more now than ever. Brokenness isn't a switch that can be flipped on and off, a setting to be dialed down. So be gentle. Please.

And now to my EFH peeps. I love you and miss you. More than words can say. I want to honor you, you crazy ragamuffin crew. You are my family. You are my heroes. I have tasted heaven behind those blast walls in our little community, I have seen the image of God in each of you.

In the OR doctors and nurses who had to amputate the limbs of babies through the tears in their own eyes I have seen the image of God. You put back together bodies without enough pieces to put together.

In my ICU nurses I saw God's heart everyday. I love you so much it hurts. I cannot say your name or conjure your faces without tears. You lovers, you fighters, you wonder workers, you solvers of the riddles of the body. 

To my charge nurses, you bosses, you beasts, you rock solid sisters. You led like lions with the hearts of lambs. I saw the Lion of Judah in you, the Lamb that was slain. 

To my ward nurses, nothing is beneath you. You feet washers and bum washers and all the parts washers. You emptiers of endless bedpans. You radiate the humility of the Light of the world. The One who was equal with God but came to wash our feet. To die for us.


For the keeper of sacred stats, the lighter of candles. For the master of all the moving parts. I love you two, you Sriracha sisters, you dumpster fire choir. I saw the humanity of Christ in you, the toll it took on your hearts.

In the anesthesiologists and CRNAs, you givers of sleep and wakers from slumber, I saw the Breath of Life in you.


In those that came with blow up dinosaurs and bags of toys because laughter heals and a child's playthings shouldn't be bullet casings, you are a flood of joy, I have seen Him in you.

For the Marine making balloon animals and keeping us safe (sometimes from ourselves). For the makers of big decisions who fight the war of head verses heart every single day. I see the Father in you. 

For the set up crew and construction teams. You turned an empty muddy field into a full blown trauma hospital all the while war raged around you. You imaged the Risen One.

For the maintenance men who battle nature and entropy and never sleep too deep. Who fight fires figurative and literal. Who make medical devices from spare parts and hold the whole thing together with zip-ties and duct tape and bailing wire. You look like your Creator to me.

For the Triage nurses who conducted the whole chaos like a symphony. For the trauma nurses who work magic on the hairbreadth edge of a razor. You look like your Abba. 

For staff care who tried to lighten our loads, who sat with the dying, who kept us in chocolate, and led us in communion. I have seen the High Priest in you.

For the ER docs steady, ready, wise and gentle.The pharmacists, phlebotomists, sterilizers, med supply, bio-med and lab techs your skill and ceaseless hard work was never sexy but was the science in saving lives. I saw my Savior in you all.

You are all the broken-hearted healers. You cups for Living Water in the desert. You are the pierced hands and feet. I have such a clearer picture of God because of you, I have such a deeper understanding. There is an old proverb that says, "no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man". You will never be the same, but the fire and the hand of Grace have made you like glowing gold, even when you feel like you'll never shine again. The grief will lessen, the sorrow too, but it will never leave you. That's the price of loving, it always has been, from long before time began when the Lamb was slain.

And finally for my Iraqi, and Kurdish, and Yazidi brothers and sisters. You are so brave. You have lived in the shadow of war and terrorism all your days. Tragedy has been your food and sorrow your drink. And yet you hold onto life in spite of what has been stolen from you. You have opened your hearts as wide as the horizon and embraced a ragamuffin band of westerners with so many misconceptions. You have taught us about love and humanity, honor and sacrifice. You have shared your food and your tears, your stories and laughter. We miss you, we love you. You are in our hearts forever, precious habibis.

29 comments:

  1. I read this in tears and type this in tears. Tears of grief for those precious people we worked on, tears for the ongoing situation, tears of love for our Iraqi, Kurdish, Yazidi brothers and sisters. I cry tears of joy for the family and friendship made there and for the privilege of serving. Your words mean so much as you fully understand and know all that we went through. Love and prayers to you, friend. Life can be disheartening on this side of the wall. I am here if you need a listening ear.

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    1. Thank you Brenda, for your service to the precious people of Iraq and for allowing your heart to be broken by the suffering. I know you have and will continue to experience the power of His Resurrection there.

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  2. Eye opening. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Amazing words and so true! Thank you Guys for serving!

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    1. Thank you! And it was such an honor for us!

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  4. My buddy, Mark- I couldn't read this for a few days, after you posted it. After a bit of time, I realize my heart is still not mended. I don't think it ever will be. But today I was ready. And you took me back there, but in a way that was okay for my heart. In a way that helped me see the bigger picture, and the teamwork, and the family we are forever. Those of us who served there, will always be joined together in sorrow and a broken heart. Parts of our soul will always have the scars from there, and I don't ever want them to heal, because I don't want to be the way I was before Iraq. I want to remember, and carry that with me forever. I love you, brother. Thank you for serving and also for being the voice of all of use, who can't say it the way you do.

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    1. It's so hard to not have the floodgates stay open. You served so well and with a huge heart. That's the collateral damage of suffering, to truly serve with grace you have to be affected by it, have to bear it too. I'm so proud to have worked with you! I love you!!

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  5. What a joy it was to serve with you. One of my Iraqi coworkers here in Buffalo came to me excited to let me know that she heard "it's over. ISIS is pushed out." But it's far from over. Thankfully, His mercy is new every morning!!

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    1. What a joy! May the God of all peace end this conflict and heal and save and restore.

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  6. Well said, sister! I couldn't agree more! -ShelKel

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  7. Mark, Thank you for writing what our hearts long to share! Grace, mercy & peace,
    Harry Mathis

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    1. Thank you for loving on us so good Harry! Hope you get to go back!

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  8. Thank you for this. It was so moving, and so reflective of our Father's heart of sorrows and His capability to profoundly heal. You have brought me and others to this side of the world where we have yet to physically travel.

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    1. So welcome. Thank you for your encouragement!

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  9. And I still weep inside remembering the small limbs that we HAD to amputate to save life. The young teenager so frightened she held o to me so tightly....the ones who didn't make it.....and I can't make any sense of it. More than once I told God it wasn't fair, that the little ones didn' t deserve this. And each day He gave me the strength to carry on, to serve Him, to be His hands and feet. What a huge privilege to be able to simply wash someone's feet. To be compassionate. To love as Christ would love.

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    1. Thank you so much for your honesty and vulnerability. So many times I found myself angry and spitting out those words "It's not fair!" But as you said, God meets us in those moments and gives His perfect peace. Even still we ache and grieve and that's ok. That's the compassion that sends us and sends us again. That's where are heart intersects His and we're changed forever.

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  10. And I still weep inside remembering the small limbs that we HAD to amputate to save life. The young teenager so frightened she held on to me so tightly....the ones who didn't make it.....and I can't make any sense of it. More than once I told God it wasn't fair, that the little ones didn' t deserve this. And each day He gave me the strength to carry on, to serve Him, to be His hands and feet. What a huge privilege to be able to simply wash someone's feet. To be compassionate. To love as Christ would love.

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  11. Thank you, Mark, and all the others, for going and being God's hands and feet and heart. For we who couldn't go - because we don't have the skills, maybe - you were OUR hands and feet and hearts, too.

    With the Lord's help, we will try to play our part in caring for you all as you come back.

    Moray (a friend of Kate Allen)

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  12. Thank you Moray for reading and for caring and for loving those that went and served. Kate as you know is amazing. She was such an integral part of the team. Thank you for your continued prayers for those returning and the ones left behind.

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  13. Thank you Mark for sharing your writing. I read, reread and read again your post on the 9th and a few times since. I wonder if I can just add my journal entry from the 9th after having read your post?

    "He writes to the families of those who worked with him in Iraq telling us to be careful with what we say, where we go with them and to be gentle with them. All of this I understand and agree that there will always be a part of them that will be forever changed because of their time in Iraq.

    He then goes on to thank and acknowledge those he served alongside which is wonderfully written, - personal and poetic.

    What I would like to add to his writing is a Thank You to the families who said their good-byes to their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, knowing they were willingly stepping into a war zone. Moms and dads wringing their hands in fear never knowing what the news of the day would bring. Listening intently to the news for word of them coming home because ISIS is defeated or listening to hear word that the Field Hospital was bombed because of a drone attack. Waiting and praying for our children to return home but with an element of fear and dread not knowing how they will come home whether broken emotionally, maimed physically, in a coffin or maybe never because the pieces of their bodies were scattered throughout the rubble. Moms and dads when finally having a few minutes to talk are afraid to say something to cause their son or daughter to worry about what's going on at home and not be able to be careful with the job they are doing. For the Moms and Dads when their child, albeit adult child, comes home and in their excitement to see them safe and sound say or do something to cause their loved one to pull back or pull away. To the Moms and Dads who lay awake at night, hearts heavy, tears flowing knowing the child they loved would see things and do things they could never imagine. To the Moms and Dads who spent countless hours in prayer for their child's safety and protection. I thank you. I thank God for you. Maybe we continued to go through each day in comfort and freedom with all that glitters around us but we too have been in our own private war zone fighting the Prince of the air and the principalities unseen for our children. I thank you!"

    Mark, it is my prayer that I have not offended you in any way. I just wanted to share what I believe to be the heart of the families that were left behind. We love you all and will never know exactly what you have all experienced. Please be careful with us as well. Take a few moments to thank the families, letting them know how much they are loved, cared for and appreciated too.

    Lucy Galgano

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    1. Thanks so much for this. You are absolutely right. As a dad I can only imagine what you felt. Always wondering, always fearing.

      It's so easy for me to forget all of that because of the intensity of the deployment and the never really catching your breath. I'm so thankful for your side. You're so very right. Thank you thank you. And your Anne is out of this world amazing. Words aren't enough to describe her skill and heart and fight.

      All my love Lucy. God bless.

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  14. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.

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  15. Thank you, Mark. Your beautiful words took me right back to Iraq. What a privilege our Father allowed us to serve Him in this way. This experience will stay with me forever. I am so thankful that we don't have to have the answers and that we can fully trust in Him. Here I am Lord, send me.

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    1. So welcome. And thank you for serving too. What an amazing privilege, what a sacred trust. We have. Even given such a gift. And even without all the answers we get closeness to Jesus. And He is enough. Amen.

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