War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

more soldiers words sent to me

I like hearing from the soldiers. today I had a phone call from Cpl. D, my “first” soldier contact. interestingly, I was literally just writing a line about him as he called for the first time in months. yesterday, another well-timed call from another young Cpl., someone I hope to encourage to follow his art and his amazing ability in Pashto.

below is the text from my friend Padre Sandy Scott. I met Padre at Suffield and we hit it off. I witnessed Padre the morning the soldier died. Padre’s sermon on how one reacts to the terrible news of a beloved’s death was sent to me a few weeks ago. I’m not a bible reader, but I pulled out the book and read the lines the Padre refers to, 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27, which reads as: the 2nd book of Samuel, chapter 1, section 1 (I think), the lines 17 to 27. the story the Padre refers to is about King David’s reaction to the death of two warriors, Saul and Jonathon. Padre Scott writes about my poem Death on Ex, and includes it in his sermon. I am humbled by this.

by Padre Sandy Scott, Capt., 1MP Coy./OMLT
2 SAMUEL 1:1, 17-27

When you have to tell someone, a person they love has died you cannot predict their reaction. The news of the death of Saul and Jonathan was a shocking blow for David. David loved Jonathan as a brother, a fellow warrior and as someone, who like him was willing to serve a cause greater than himself. Saul on other hand had a more complicated relationship with David. Saul had valued David’s skills as a warrior and leader, but as David’s renown grew among the Israelites Saul felt his position as king was diminished. Saul tried to assassinate David because he did not want him to inherit the throne of Israel. Jonathan on the other hand, the heir to the throne, saw greatness in David. In an act of self-sacrifice he made a covenant with David, not just a covenant of love between friends and brothers in arms, but a promise to relinquish his claim to the throne of Israel for the good of the nation and because it was God’s will.

Imagine willingly giving up your claim on power for the good of others and the will of God. Jonathan and David loved each other as brothers on the battlefield and off of it. Only those who have soldiered together, those whose relationships have been forged in the crucible of conflict understand the bond warriors share. Some soldiers do say the bond they share with comrades they served with is stronger than the love they share with others. With their comrades in arms they have literally seen and experienced another person lay down his or her life for the sake of a friend. Trying to interpret the depths of David’s lament some Biblical interpreters sexualize the relationship between Jonathan and David because of the love they share. I think that the more logical and likely explanation for David and Jonathan’s love is not sexual. They loved each as friends who had served together in a cause greater than them. Their bond was forged in conflict.

David was ancient Israel’s greatest warrior, king and poet. The shocking news of the death of Saul and Jonathan leads to more violence, but then ends with the poem and lament we heard this morning from 2 Samuel 1. The poem is one of the oldest passages in Hebrew scripture, probably coming from the hand of David himself. Three times the poet declares: the mighty have fallen. The mighty have fallen and the weapons of war perished! The king and his heir died on the battlefield and their death is known in Israel’s highest spots. Their sacrifice is not to be mentioned to the Philistines for they will only rejoice at the news. Saul brought security and luxury to the land, and Jonathan was willing to give his life for the sake of a friend: no love is greater than this. These deaths grieve David and Israel. David’s sorrow is expressed in his lament and the nation’s pain is given voice in the poem he writes.

You never know how a person will react to the news that someone has died. At the end of April I was on the receiving end. The deceased was not a family member or a close friend, but a young soldier, a combat engineer or sapper who had come to me for help. I had spent a few hours with the young man, listening, talking and ruminating over his pain. His young marriage was coming to an end. His wife who was also a soldier had moved on, and had broken the bonds of marriage. I counselled and supported him and we came up with a plan – he and his estranged partner would see a marriage counsellor to help them find a way to end the marriage with dignity. The two went and saw a therapist and from all reports were working on a way to break their bond without breaking each other.

It was a warm sunny morning when I got the news of the young man’s death. It came to me as a request for help – he had taken his own life, death by hanging. I went to the place where the dead soldier was and I worked with two other chaplains to minister to his estranged wife, break the news to his friends and comrades and minister to the military police and others who had to attend the scene for hours. Days after his body had been cut down I felt angry, confused and betrayed. It’s all too complicated to try to explain in this sermon. My first real sense of relief came from the words of a poet, who gave voice to the beauty of that morning, the crushing irony of the suicide and the grace that was offered but turned down. This is the poem Suzanne Steele wrote about that morning. Suzanne is an artist who will go to Afghanistan with Task Force 3-09.

  • Death on Ex.*

He staked May Day forever as his last
prairie turned half-mast. Where winter’s grass rolled
green, promising, his road to war dead-ended.
Distant, frost-bitten, the edge of camp,
where canvas flapped at spring, green tents a ring—
his leaguer separate from the rest of us—
gusted dust, gusted blast, gusted wilderness.
Sapper couldn’t see how easy earth pushed
pasque flower, silver sage, the old story.
Opening, again, for him. I remember sunrise
the morning he remained suspended.
Carpenter, builder, he chose destroyer,
this son, this brother, this soldier, lover,
when godlike he’d refused life. Or mercy.


The sapper felt he had no other option. He couldn’t see how the prairie was being re-born, or how the old story of the Carpenter, the builder, the story of Christ’s resurrection offered new life even in the face of pain and ending. He chose the destroyer instead of God’s mercy.

You never know how you will deal with the news that the mighty have fallen. Almost a month ago I was in Wainwright on another exercise. We were practicing and acting like we were in Afghanistan. One of the units I take care of is the Operational Mentoring Liason Team, or OMLT. The OMLT has a small platoon of just over twenty young men who are the Security Force or SecFor for the OMLT. SecFor goes out on missions doing things that need to be done for the OMLT. One-day part of their mission was to get me from point A to point B and back to point A. I rode with two soldiers in the convoy, one a young energetic “rookie” and another, a young but experienced veteran. The veteran’s name is Ash Van Leeuwen. During our mourning together we talked. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was not riding with Van and his winger by accident. Van was in Afghanistan through the spring and summer of 2006. Less than two weeks before redeploying home he was sent out on a patrol with his then winger and best friend Ray Arndt. It was August 5, 2006. Van has written about the day: the story is in chapter two of Christie Blanchford’s, Fifteen Days.

That day, Van and his friend Ray were in a jeep like vehicle called a G-Wagon. While travelling roads they had been down before it was not a bomb that got them but a collision with a jingle truck, a transport vehicle that hit them. Ray and Van were ejected from the G-wagon. Lying on the road Van quickly figured out he could not move his legs and his friend Ray was dead.

When Van talked to me about the loss and his friend he spoke with warmth, conviction and a sense of duty. Van has worked hard to get back into fighting shape and onto this mission. He is going to return to Afghanistan for Ray. He wants to go back because the two of them promised each other they would return to Afghanistan to see the mission through. After Van has finished our mission he will have fulfilled a promise to a friend he loved.

Last week I went looking for Van. I wanted to ask him some questions and get his permission to talk about our conversations in this sermon. I found him in the SecFor locker room. When I asked him he told me to tell you that even though his friend died and he had been injured he lives with hope. Van was taking off his uniform when he told me he is spiritual, he is a believer, he just does not like church much. As we talked I saw this large beautiful tattoo on his left arm. In the background are clouds and in the foreground is a beautiful female angel. In the arms of the angel is a dying Canadian soldier. I asked Van what the tattoo was about and he said it was a picture of his friend Ray. Van has a representation of Ray’s journey to heaven on his arm. You never know how you will respond to pain, or the death of someone you love.

In the gospel reading we heard today, a woman desperate for healing reaches out to Jesus in hope, and because of her faith she is healed. An established religious leader wants Jesus an untrained itinerant preacher to heal his daughter. The Psalmist cries out to God from the depths of despair asking God to listen, hoping for a response and putting trust and faith in God’s steadfast love. David pens a song of lament, a poem in honour of two warriors: one he served for the other he served with and loves. Today in some aspects of popular culture cynicism, despair and suicide are almost vogue. There is this idea that if in your youth or as an artist you don’t suffer profound pain, or you don’t have dark thoughts like suicide you don’t know what life is about. Some even think suicide is an acceptable option. Death, suffering and even despair are realities everyone experiences. But none are God’s will. God’s desire for all people is the promise of the old story, the resurrection of the carpenter and the love and mercy of a God who carries a soldier who sacrificed his life to heaven on the arms of an angel. However you want to give voice to hope, by writing a poem or prayer, painting it in a picture or on a tattoo or by telling a story, it is hope that gives the poor shunned woman the strength to reach out, hope is the muse that inspires David’s lament and the Psalmist’s prayer. All of them reach out, they cry out because they have faith God will hear them, and in Christ the power of healing and mercy will be known. You never know how you will respond to the news of death, or brokenness, but when it comes will you reach out? Amen.

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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled more soldiers words sent to me. It was posted here on July 12, 2009.


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