I am going to take the teacher’s hat off for this one. My intent for this post is to bring to your minds a few things I had taken for granted, such as the existence and machinations of demons. They are very much real, as real as you or I, and fighting them is seldom ever anything like the movies. What I am about to describe is not a work of fiction, nor was it my imagination. The events described happened, my thoughts, feelings, perceptions, all happened. This is all very personal to me, so bear that in mind as you read this.
A few months ago, I had the fortunate misfortune to take a trip to Ft. Polk, Louisiana. My unit went there for a training rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). The food was horrendous and only marginally edible, the climate sucked (by our count we only had five days without rain), and we were very quickly reminded of just how low the Active Army’s opinion is of the National Guard by their casual disregard of our multiple requests for basic medical supplies that any other unit would have received in a heartbeat. That our Sappers outperformed their Active Duty counterparts at every turn only seemed to cement their utter disdain for us. Our commander’s foul mouth, and take-no-prisoners attitude certainly did not endear us to higher command, either. This was a once in a lifetime experience, or at least it was for me. Even if I were to decide to stay in the National Guard, I would absolutely refuse to go back to that place if given the choice.
Why do I refer to this trip in the terms that I do? Why do I say that I would refuse to go back if given the choice? During our training rotation I was asked what I thought of the exercise, and my response was, “This place has done so much for my spiritual life. I’ve never prayed so hard to get out of a place than I have since arriving here.” First, not long after we arrived everyone had to turn in their cell phones. For two and a half weeks we had zero contact with the outside world. No news, no calls home, no internet. For a man who is hopelessly in love with his wife and kids, this was pure, unadulterated torture.
Second, for more than two weeks our food choices consisted almost solely of MRE’s. While I am told it is better than starving, I can honestly say that I had eventually hit the point where the idea of going without eating had begun to take on a certain charm. Any longer, and I might have decided to go on a hunger strike until someone found a way to have Pizza Hut delivered to our simulated war zone. Ah, First World problems…
Third, chaos and disorder were the order of the day. We spent so much of our time mired in confusion that a certain 4 Non Blondes song became our official “unofficial” anthem, as we would repeatedly belt out that iconic line, “What’s goin’ on?!” While chaos and disorder are how the Army normally operates, this was on a level that was as impressive as it was unnecessary.
Now that you have either laughed, cried, or stared at your screen in confusion, we come to the fourth and most serious point: the warfare. Now, I’m not referring to the simulated combat (in which my unit managed to kick serious tail. Even our HQ element, as they were being overrun by a numerically superior force, managed to inflict serious causalities…or would have if OpFor hadn’t been cheating), but to the very real spiritual battle that took place on a daily basis while all of that comedy was happening.
Less than a week after we had arrived, I noticed that my dreams had begun to take a very odd turn. Not so much while I was still able to speak with my wife, but once the phones went away, I could not avoid the very dark turn my dreams had taken. On a nightly basis, I was assailed by nightmares that told me that my wife was cheating on me, that I knew about it, that I had allowed it to happen, and one dream even featured my wife’s voice telling me that she had picked wrong (meaning me). This went on for more than a week, robbing me of sleep, making me edgy and irritable, and basically making life even more miserable than it already was.
During this time, I had gotten into the habit of reading my Bible for 15 minutes every night before turning in. In this way, I read through all of Paul’s epistles, as well as the works of James, Peter, the Book of Revelation, and all of the others by the time we left Ft. Polk. In short, I read the entire New Testament, minus the four Gospels, in the span of two-and-a-half weeks.
Throughout the first week, I began feeling increasingly uneasy, anxious, and irritable. I began to withdraw a bit from the guys I was moving with, and just did not feel all that much like socializing. It did not help that one of the people I most often traveled with was our unit’s chemical warfare specialist (to any vets reading this, especially those who carry that particular MOS, I’m simplifying for civilian readers), and she is not an easy person to deal with under the best of circumstances. Between her unabashed belief that there is no God, and that life is just a “perfect storm of cosmic circumstances” (her words), and her constant whining about how life was so much better at Division, it eventually became difficult to be anywhere near her.
One morning, about a week and a half into the rotation, we were preparing to move from one town to the next, in order to link back up with the headquarters element when the anxiety came to a head. I was alone, grabbing my gear, and preparing to load up when my throat felt like it was closing, and I felt like I was about to collapse in tears. I just felt like I was at the end of a rope, and dangling over a fire. For just a moment, things seemed utterly hopeless. It was a full-blown anxiety attack!
It was in that moment that I lowered my head and began to pray. I told the Lord that I was not strong enough to bear up under the burden, and I asked Him to help me. In that instant, it all went away. No more anxiety, no more pain, no more fear. I felt nothing but resolve and certainty that I was going to make it through, and that no one had anything that I could not handle because of Who I have in my corner. Let me tell you, this is an amazing feeling.
It was not too much longer after this moment that I found out I was not alone. One of my friends, also a strong believer in Jesus, informs my Platoon SGT that he was mad at him for the first few days we were there because he had dreamt that his wife had cheated on him with the Platoon SGT. Their conversation got me to thinking about the origin of my dreams, and that overwhelming anxiety. Why was it that the believers in the unit were all having these really odd dreams? Why was the atheist chem. expert becoming increasingly agitated, even more than normal for her?
I eventually realized that there was something there, either in Ft. Polk or throughout the State of Louisiana, that was playing havoc with people. Given the hedonistic nature of Mardi Gras in NOLA, I do not doubt the presence of a Strongman over the whole state. On an abstract level, I found myself curious if infidelity and divorce were common on-post (moreso than usual). Given the thoughts racing through my head all day, and the dreams at night, it seemed to me that there likely were a lot of other people suffering through many of the same torments.
I eventually got to the point where I would immediately rebuke and reject every stray negative thought and image that ran through my head. In doing that, I very quickly realized that I would be fighting my way through this experience, tooth and nail. Y’all have to understand, those kinds of thoughts are unusual for me. I’m not the jealous type, and I have no doubt in my mind that my wife is not the cheating kind. If I had had a single doubt, I would not have married her.
As we moved through the training rotation, I would spend every moment I had to spare either praying or reading the Word. It consumed every moment I had available and was, as it turns out, building up to a very specific moment that I did not see coming: the night I finally cried out to God.
We were near the end of the event, and were camped out. As I was setting up my one-man tent, my heart began to feel like a lead weight. The sun was setting fast, the temperatures were dropping rapidly, and it was beginning to rain. In short, the night promised to be miserable.
As I lay in my sleeping bag, listening to the rain patter on my tent, I began to pray. As I was praying, I felt this massive upwelling of emotion deep inside. In short order, it all flooded out of me, and I lay there praying helplessly as I cried like a baby. I prayed for my two oldest children, both of whom are estranged from me. I prayed for my wife and my other children, for my mother, who is suffering through Alzheimer’s, my stepdad, as he suffers through taking care of my mother, and for my sister, who is running from God as if it were the Olympics.
I also repented of all my sins again and again, asking for forgiveness. I spent well over an hour in this condition, laying on my back, shattered into a million pieces, crying and praying, pleading with the Lord to bring my oldest children back to me (they are adults), and to help me fix the points where I had failed as a father. As I said before, we are all broken sinners, and I am a prime example.
This, as it turned out, was the last battle I would fight there. That night, I slept peacefully. The next morning, I awoke to a much lighter heart. I felt as if I had gone through a major trial and emerged victorious. It was glorious. I understand now, that God ensured that I would have this time with Him, as He had a few very hard lessons in store for me. This was one of my wilderness experiences. I can only imagine what else He had in store. We shall see.