Nearly three years after the Bataan Death March a mission was embarked upon on January 30, 1945 to liberate more than 500 POWs that remained in the prison camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines. At its peak more than 8,000 American POWs had been held there. With the enemy realizing defeat was near, there was fear that these POWs would soon be executed just as hundreds had been in December at Palawan.
LTC Henry Mucci, Commander of the 6th Ranger Battalion was tasked to lead 121 Rangers in the liberation. In advancing to the camp the Rangers evaded more than 1000 enemy troops just across the river. They also knew that there was an entire division of more than 7,000 enemy troops just a few miles down the road in Cabantuan City. That mission is known today as the Great Raid. It stands as one of the most successful extractions of all time. Because of that raid 500 warriors lived to return home to their families; their bodies broken and diseased, their minds shattered by the atrocities they endured; nevertheless, alive. It’s also an incredible story of love. The mission was clear. We must save these men. Against great odds 121 brave Rangers did what they had to do to save the lives of their brothers in arms. They are a shining example of selfless service and ultimate love, because the Bible says, “greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for a friend.”
One of the interesting points of this story is the reality that many of those POWs no doubt felt forsaken. Their hearts filled with fear and hopelessness; their bodies emaciated to half the weight they had been when they donned the uniform. Many had to be carried out; their bodies so light that one soldier could carry two men on his shoulders. When the raid began and they heard the barrage of fire many who heard the Rangers calling them to come out refused to come. They thought it was a trick of the enemy preparing to execute them. They didn’t recognize the new uniform of the Rangers which had changed since they were captured. The liberator had come but they were hard pressed to believe. And so it is today. I have done more than 500 suicide interventions in the past five years. All that we have worked with are still alive and moving toward renewed hope, but many continue to struggle with the war within their mind. Many have a hard time believing that they can be liberated from that battlefield of hopelessness and in despair many end their lives. Since September I have received word of 11 suicides of individuals that were at risk and I didn’t know it. The Warrior died on the battlefield of personal despair.
But death is not the focus of my message today it’s life. I have people all the time that come up to me and say, “Hey aren’t you the suicide guy?” Lately I have learned to respond by saying “NO I AM THE HOPE GUY”. The other is a burden too heavy to carry. We can overcome suicide, but without hope we perish, and the best place to find hope is in the Word of God. Matthew 17 is the story of the transfiguration of Jesus and it reads:
“Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; 2 and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. 4 Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” 6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. 7 But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” 8 When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
I work with individuals every day that struggle to find hope and confidence or they wonder what the purpose is anymore. Just this week I sat down with a friend struggling with his identity and another with thoughts of suicide. Another friend, a decorated warrior, posted that he had lost that sense of pride that he had known all his life. He had spent over half his life fighting or training to fight but is now questioning if it was really worth it. He said, “I don’t like this feeling.” I see this all around me. Since 911 more than 120,000 veterans have died by suicide and even more just like those POWs at Cabanatuan are afraid that they can’t speak up. I have learned from my own experience that it was only when I faced my fear that I couldn’t go on that I found the strength to declare the WARRIOR LIVES and I did that because of the love of my Air Force son who came calling my name, just like those Army Rangers did with the POWs.
Many of the veterans I work with from the Vietnam era remember well the way they were treated. I have found that many of them struggle more than our more recent warriors when it comes to asking for help. The number of Vietnam vets who have died from suicide is twice as high as the number that were killed by the enemy – over 100,000. If that is where you are today whether you are veteran or civilian, a woman or a man, young or old, I remind you of the truth of the ancient text – WHEN I AM WEAK THEN I AM STRONG. I have learned in my own life that it is my weakness that compels me to press on toward the City of Hope and to carry as many as I can with me. Each one of us will travel down many painful roads. In those times press on and keep in the forefront of your mind the truth that the Warrior lives and like the old hymn says, “Because he lives I can face tomorrow. Because he lives all fear is gone and yes I know he holds the future and life is worth the living because he lives.” The warrior lives!
Get a battle buddy in your life and hold each other accountable to the truth of God’s Word like iron sharpening iron. I have Warriors in my life that spur me on and together in our sufferings we’re blazing a trail along the way. We’re marking the path before us, so that others too may know the Warrior lives! AND we learn this truth when we allow the grace of God to work in our life through all the hurt and the pain. Not long ago I got an Iraq War veteran out of jail for the second time. The judge said, “Chaplain I can’t keep showing him grace.” I used the judge’s words as an opportunity to share with the veteran about the grace of God. His first response was I don’t deserve grace. That’s actually a good response by the way, because that is the whole point of grace. But he felt that way about all of life. I don’t deserve to be happy. I don’t deserve to be blessed, I don’t even deserve to be alive. I praise God to share with you that in that prison parking lot the veteran prayed to receive the grace of God. My friend the WARRIOR LIVES!
I have had more than a few veterans ask me the question in one way or another, “What does God think of me?” I think the Bible makes it clear. God loves warriors. Many of the stories in the Bible are stories of warriors. Joshua is best known for the siege of Jericho, David for defeating Goliath, Gideon along with an elite force of 300 Warriors overcame overwhelming odds and defeated their enemy. In the New Testament Jesus commended the incredible faith of the Centurion saying that he had never seen such faith in all of Israel.
Then you have the passage from Matthew 17. Jesus is soon to face the greatest battle of his life. In his human flesh, he even prayed, “Father let this cup pass from me.” That’s what any good warrior would do. My son much to my chagrin got a tattoo after his first deployment. But I must admit I do like it – “Pray for Peace -Prepare for War” That’s what warriors do. In their right state of mind, they do not relish the idea of war, but they do prepare for it.
To prepare Jesus for this battle God sends two battle buddies, Moses and Elijah. Moses the great liberator of a nation fought many battles on the way to the Promised Land. Elijah the Warrior-Prophet defeated 450 servants of Bail. Matthew doesn’t give us the details of what they talked about, but Luke tells us, “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” They were War gaming, encouraging Jesus who in his human flesh did not want to face the battle. They were assuring him of victory and reminding him of who he is. God says in Isaiah 43, “Put Me in remembrance, let us argue our case together; State your cause, that you may be proved right.” That’s what Commanders do in preparation for battle they look at the courses of action and they choose the one that leads to victory.
So, God sends his top Generals to his warrior son to remind him that in the end the WARRIOR LIVES! Perhaps they reminded him of what he had said in the temple only days before. "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”
I can’t help but think that Moses may have even sang a war song to Jesus just as Exodus 15:3 tells us, “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea. “The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.”
Did you catch that last verse? THE LORD IS A WARRIOR! So, I have a sneaking suspicion that God looks with great favor upon those who are warriors, because He is a Warrior.
To our nation’s sons and daughters who have sacrificed so much in service to our nation I salute you. The Warrior Lives!
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Kenneth Koon, on a mission to build resilience in self and others.