“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” ~ Plato
Maybe it’s because I grew up in Silicon Valley surrounded by engineers. For whatever reason, I had never met a war veteran face to face. That is, until I met my future father-in-law, “Butch” James Gray.
I was nervous meeting him for the first time because I had only seen pictures of him in my boyfriend’s photo album. Butch proudly stood next to his pocket knife collection which was perfectly lined up in several glass displays. He wasn’t from Texas, but he didn’t seem like someone I wanted to mess with.
My bias proved unfounded. From the moment he greeted me with his big bear hug, I knew I had met one of the good guys. What got me curious were the words embroidered across his cap.
“4th INFANTRY DIVISION
Beyond Textbook & Hollywood
We had a few more family visits out from the Northwest before I got comfortable enough to ask about his thoughts on the war. I grew up in the 80’s which meant most of what I knew about Nam were textbook factoids memorized for my History AP Tests and scenes from Tom Cruise’s awfully depressing flick Born on the 4th of July.
Butch is a hard-working, self-made family man. When it comes to his personal stories from the battlefield, he is soft-spoken. I decided to call and find out more. As I peppered him with questions about his military service, I pieced together snippets of courage, sacrifice and honest reflection.
A Personal Battle
As Butch talked about the jungles, fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese without bravado, I couldn’t help but draw parallels into my own personal battle that I chronicled in my first book Finding Spiritual Whitespace — with hurtful words from my childhood, ministry hardships, and my family of origin.
I learned that war isn’t only waged on land where men fight with artillery and fly overhead with bombs. There is a battle in my soul over the words that have been spoken into my life.
God is fighting to free me from the words that harm me, so that I can embrace His words that bless me.
In honor of Veteran’s Day, I’m sharing excerpts from Butch’s story as an infantry soldier, after he was drafted in 1967 as a nineteen-year-old, at the time of the Tet Offensive, when our nation deployed the largest number of troops in the history of the Vietnam War.
Butch served as Army Sargent in the 4th Division, Rifle Company for two years in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
I’ll also share a commentary of my internal thoughts from my modern day battlefield throughout the interview (you’ll see my words shown in [ ] brackets).
As you listen in, I hope you’ll be inspired, as I was, to embrace your Abba-given identity as highly blessed and always beloved.
1. So Butch. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to hear more about your time in Vietnam.
Butch: Sure… Did you hear about the sea lions dying along the Oregon coast [last year]? Turns out they have the same disease (leptospirosis) that I got in the jungle over thirty years ago.
The doctors thought I had malaria, because it has the same symptoms. You get it from drinking bad water. You think it’s okay, but it’s infested. You get weak, sweat, perspire, chills. The worse is your whole body shakes.
I got so sick I didn’t care if I lived or died. Had to get blood tests every day and penicillin shots around the clock for two weeks, lying there in the military hospital in Pleiku.
2. Were you worried you’d die?
Butch: Oh yeah. The doctors said they would do their best but that’s all they could do.
Once I was healed up, they sent me back right away… forward… to the front.
[ It’s hard to become the person God wants me to be when I’m overwhelmed by critical voices. The battle is fierce. God sends me back into battle, to pick up the sword of His Spirit and His Words. The simple act of getting up everyday and starting new exercises my faith. When I pick up my pen (and keyboard) to share what God is saying, I’m fighting the good fight. ]
3. I can’t believe they did that!
Butch: Some guys got malaria. The incubation can be 8-10 years. Then you die.
[ I’ve willed away hurtful words like they don’t matter. But here I am, confronting negative words even though I’m a Christian connected to Jesus. I’ve felt embarrassed to still be struggling in my heart with truths I know in my head. When I’m not honest about my pain, I’m only incubating it’s poison. ]
4. Tell me one of your stories from the frontlines. I’m not familiar with military terms, so tell it to a civilian.
Butch: As the patrol leader, I’d take up 8 men to look for the enemy and gather intelligence.
I had the map, the compass and the codes to interpret coordinates, along with the radio frequencies to keep track of. One time, the company commanders gave me orders to go into A Shua Valley, one of the most deadly places in the country. I spent 2-3 days reporting observations and information. If needed, I would call in gun ships, jet strikes or artillery.
[ It’s hard to imagine someone willingly going into enemy territory, knowing they could be killed. I’m free in Christ, with an amazing variety of choices. What am I choosing to spend my energies on? Am I using up valuable time focusing on what the enemy is saying through my circumstances? ]
5. You were deep in enemy territory!
Butch: Oh yeah. One time, we traveled on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We were sent in to disrupt the enemies by planting explosives in trees, so to stop their progress. But the North Vietnamese would only return to clear and open up the trail right away. Felt like a waste of time.
[ The enemy of our soul likes to throw words of accusation, threat and intimidation. But I need to stay faithful, even on days I feel my efforts are futile. ]
6. You were honored with a Purple Heart. What happened?
Butch: We were searching for the enemy, going up a mountain, when we were ambushed.
[The enemy] attacked the point guy, so the rest of the patrol ducked for cover. When you don’t know where the fire’s coming from, you just try to find cover.
There was a lot of elephant grass. We ran straight into a booby trap — pungy sticks — bamboo knives. Rows and rows of it. You can’t walk around it. Camouflaged.
26 guys got wounded in 10 seconds. Just like that.
I got a wound in my leg, got some medication for the infection. The next day, they sent me back forward.
That’s the way [the enemy] wanted it. They’d rather wound us, than kill us. They figured the wounded would hurt us more.
[ When we try to scale upwards in our personal growth, words wound, more deadly than we give them credit for. It’s important to get them treated. God does not want my today and my tomorrow live wounded by yesterday’s words. ]
7. You once mentioned it was tough to watch a chopper take off when you were in battle. Talk about courage. What were the conditions like?
Butch: One time, we had to get transported. They were trying to evacuate us from a hill. We were out there for two weeks.
There was a big insurgence. We were outnumbered. I saw people die, had to care for people who couldn’t get medical attention. The choppers can only take a certain number of people. So when you see it take off, you get a sinking feeling.
[ I got emotional at this point. Unbelievable. Can you imagine being left on a hill in enemy territory for two weeks? ]
8. You returned to civilian life without resentment or bitterness about the war, when some did. Why is that?
Butch: When you’ve been some place where people don’t have rights, you know how well off you are, because people are willing to sacrifice.
The rights of freedom come at a cost. It ain’t something someone says is in our constitution. Freedom is something we defend, that citizens sacrifice for.
[ Rather than focusing on what I can’t change, I’m better off enjoying the freedom I can exercise today. I need to defend it because Jesus paid a high price for it — a life that ended in suffering, cruelty and unmentionable emotional and physical torture. ]
9. How did you survive countless dangers — ambushes, watching people die, snakes, leeches, illness — for so long?
Butch: The way my family raised me, they killed my emotions.
I had a high tolerance for pain. I don’t say anything when I hurt. Sometimes, that’s not good. It’s a survival technique, I guess (laughs). Way my folks were, we didn’t get to express ourselves when something upset us.
[ What once may have been a survival technique, I need to practice unlearning now. Even if it comes at a cost because I am safe and secure in God’s unconditional love. ]
10. What is one thing you’re most proud about your service?
Butch: I did what I asked to do and I’m not ashamed of it.
In the end, I was struck by the confidence that spoke through in Butch’s ending words. I felt inspired to stand shameless, because no matter what anyone says about me, I know I’m beloved and unashamed in God’s eyes.
He knows my heart and I’ve been faithful to do what He’s asked me to do.
I am free.
“Christ has freed us
so that we may enjoy the benefits of freedom.
Therefore, be firm [in this freedom],
and don’t become slaves again.”
Galations 5:1 (God’s Word Translation)
“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world…
They have divine power to demolish strongholds.
We demolish arguments and every pretension
that sets itself up against the knowledge of God,
and we take captive every thought
to make it obedient to Christ.”
~ 2 Corinthians 10:4-5
What are you battling today?
How is God setting you free?
Pull up a chair. Grab a cup of coffee. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Click to share a comment.
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Happy Veteran’s Day!
A special remembrance goes out to the men, women, and families who have faithfully served our country — including those who are serving today — at home and abroad. We remember the sacrifice of freedom, as we each soldier on, to live out our faith in everyday life.
Today’s interview posted the same time last year, but it was selected as a featured story on Crosswalk.com.
What a great story. Thanks to your FIL and you for sharing. Battling depression, hopelessness and weak faith in this season. Hard to imagine any better. Thank you for this blog.
CD, thank you for stepping out to take time and share your heart here today. Blessings to you!
thank you for this blog. i normally love getting the faith barista blog. this one is
one of the best blogs i have every read and on behalf of all the men i knew
in vietnam i want to thank you. people like you were worth every hardship,
every drop of blood and every ensuing nightmare after i got home.
Thank you, Sir, for all you’ve sacrificed, how fighting physically for freedom is now part of your story. We are proud. We may not have been there, but God saw it all. May His deep love and grace continue to speak deep into all the dark places you had to go — and may He heal and create new memories of joy to fill your heart today.
Thanks for your insight, Bonnie. This post is a great tribute to all service members! Blessings on your day!
Thanks, Julie! Blessings right back!
I am truly in awe of this brave, humble man. His straight forward, self-less story is reminder of the many people who fought and continue to fightfor our freedom while we enjoy this wonderful nation. They receive little recognition for giving so very much. The words that you wrote in reflection during the interview were a blessing. Thank you for sharing this on Veteran’s day 2011.
We are so proud to remember the countless many. God sees them all. Thank you for taking time to stop by Celia!
He stated, “That’s the way [the enemy] wanted it. They’d rather wound us, than kill us. They figured the wounded would hurt us more.”
That is so like our enemy, the devil. He would rather wound us because that’s when he truly wins the fight since we so often let our wounds overtake us.
I know, April. That TOTALLY stuck out for me as well. 🙂
“God is fighting to free me from the words that harm me, so that I can embrace His words that bless me.” Beautiful, inspiring Faith B. thank you! We wrestle not against flesh and blood…but greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world. God bless you my friend and God bless service men and women.
Greater is He. So perfect. Thanks for sharing that, Doug!
I am so impressed with your father-in-law (and anyone who is willing to fight so my kids can sleep peacefully). What a great man. I love your perspective, and I love the thought that we can share in the brave spirit of these patriots by just DARING Satan to mess with the peace and love our Lord fought so hard to provide for us, DARING to live in the freedom we have in Him, DARING to fight instead of just accepting the wounds. Way to hoist your shield and inspire all of us today!
Daring! 🙂 Thanks, Jennifer!
Bonnie, what a fantastic post and so timely!! Many a time I have described myself as a soldier of Christ, laying face down in the dirt with my armor all dented after round after round of salvos from the enemy. The interview with your father-in-law was great and I particularly identified with the parts where he said he was patched up after being wounded and sent to the front line again!! I can’t even begin to tell you how many times God has done the same to me. Patched me up, banged the dents out of my armor, dusted me off and sent me back to the front line again when I was begging for a break from the endless onslaught of trials and battles. “Can I just coast for awhile?” I would plead. Yes, I do get breaks and those are only a day at a time. Never longer than a day, though, when something completely out of left field and totally unexpected would ambush me. It’s all part of preparing me for that something that I don’t know about yet. =:-O
Christine, there are seasons that just don’t seem to give us a breather. Those one or two days are a welcome reprieve. May you find moments throughout the day to release your soul from the burden with Jesus. Remember you’re not alone, friend. Thnx for sharing your heart.
Thank you, Bonnie!
This is so powerful Bonnie. Thank you for adding even more relevance to his honest story and example so it isn’t just an insightful history report but impacts our lives in real time. The battle is on.
Thanks for this interview with your FIL and for honoring Veterans Day, Bonnie. My BIL (Chris’ brother) is in the army and has served for 20 years.
Beautiful way you put that together. I can relate.
What a wonderful post, Bonnie! Butch’s story is filled with courage and practicality of “his calling” while in Vietnam. I loved how you worked it out to our daily walk in Christ.
I’m just catching up on my blogs since I’ve been down from surgery on the 11th. This post is wonderful. I love the analogy you used about your own wounds to your soul as you spoke with your FIL. I can relate to this so much. I can’t even begin to comment on specifics here because there are just too many!
One day I would love to sit and chat with you Bonnie, If you are ever in proximity to Cincinnati Ohio.