Some Things Never Change

I’m taking a break in the photo scanning exercise for a more substantial reminiscence.

Military service outside of the US takes people out of their comfort zone. I’ve often noted how getting people away from their familiar settings tends to strip away a lot of religious pretense. Granted, there was plenty of effort to find communities of folks with similar religious habits, and the Charismatics were particularly noted for this. However, most of them did this stuff on the side, and still participated in the wider chapel community a great deal. There were simply no specialty groups large enough to provide a full range of activities for the most part. People of genuine faith were driven to make the most of the situation, while those of weaker faith found it too easy to avoid.

It worked best when the chapel leadership didn’t try to rally strong support for any one brand of religious expression. I’ve seen a strong sectarian chaplain move in and marginalize everyone else. There was no place left for the more vivid fellowship, and it fell apart. I’ve also seen a sectarian chaplain realize what a mistake he was making and change course to grant a more relaxed administration of religious activities, allowing ministry among the members to flourish.

As I look back on that experience from where I stand now, two things catch my attention.

First, there is an acute polarization between women’s groups. There were women in uniform and there were military dependents. Female troops could break into the latter group, but it didn’t happen that often. In most military communities overseas, the female population was predominately spouses of men in uniform. These women were more likely to be busy in chapel than their men. If you think about it, you would hardly be surprised at what kind of society this turned out to be in most cases. It was dominated by the semi-feminist evangelical culture you see here in the US, simply because the US military is dominated by that same middle-class evangelical population in the first place. This is the fellowship that women in uniform had to join, or go it alone.

It could get pretty rigid, at times. With so much time on their hands in a foreign atmosphere, you can be sure they organized very actively, seeking to maintain what they regarded as holiness and stability. I’ve overheard many wives who really needed something else complaining that the system was worse for them than it was for their husbands with military bureaucracy. There seemed to be an unofficial shadow hierarchy and bureaucracy of its own under the label “Protestant Women of the Chapel” (PWOC) throughout Europe, at least. While the faces and names rotated in and out, the system remained generally intact and unyielding to any pressure to include the outliers in any meaningful way.

Note: My wife has no significant pleasant memories of her time dealing with the PWOC in our community. She told me it wasn’t a lot of exploring genuine faith, but a lot of religious activity. Also, please note that there were similar organizations for Catholics and other liturgical brands of Christian religion, but those were generally tiny in number. In terms of activities, the Protestant groups were about the only game in town.

Second, men of faith were terribly hungry for an atmosphere where they could open up and just be themselves. As you might expect, these two were related. Most of the men in the matching organization — Protestant Men of the Chapel (PMOC) — had less time to devote to the meetings and stuff. However, when they did get together, I frequently overheard men revealing sorrows over the lack of opportunity for sharing their burdens. They wanted to grow in faith, but felt stymied by the larger presence of men who refused to delve into such things.

In particular, a few insightful guys noticed that men in uniform who were driven by faith came to these communities far from home with a genuine expectation and hope that they wouldn’t have to wade through so much purely cultural Christianity. Only those truly driven by faith would invest the time in chapel activities with so little free time in the first place. They came hoping that they could get away from the empty religious experience so common with civilian churches back in the US.

Sometimes they succeeded, simply because they were joined by others who had sufficient rank and influence to push aside hindrances. Too often, those moments of openness with men of like faith were lost because of the regimentation reflex of organizing stuff. But this was not something they sought consciously; it was just a reflex built into the chapel system itself. This was the opposite of how the women consciously created an atmosphere to intentionally straight-jacket women who didn’t conform. The men did have their breakthroughs now and then, while the women seemed to never get a break.

In other words, I had more chances for growing in faith than my wife did while we lived in Europe. Oddly, for someone of nominal rank (just a Sergeant E-5), I had way more influence from the unofficial faith angle than many officers. In religion, I was “promoted” over many men who outranked me in uniform. My wife had no desire to lead in the first place, but she also had no wish to be roped into supporting something that she knew instinctively was not biblical. I found it frankly disturbing that her avid support for her husband’s ministry marked her as an oddball. Too many of the leading ladies in PWOC were not really behind their men.

Worse, I heard from men stationed all over Europe that it was the same in their communities.

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Feminine Power Abuse

I watched it happen with my own eyes.

When I was stationed in Europe, our unit received a new Sergeant Major. He came before his predecessor retired, so spent a few weeks at loose ends. A small group of us Christian sergeants decided to make him feel as welcome as possible. We found out he was an avid runner, so we introduced him to volksmarching. Shorter distance walks — 10-20 km — were wonderful running experiences. Before he got his own vehicle, we took him with us to several different events. He seemed quite grateful.

We made it plain we expected nothing in return. It turns out he had been recently divorced, and I recall it was because she refused to move again. He seemed to appreciate our efforts and we encountered him out on the trails a few times after he got a car.

After he took up his duties, he also took up with one of the most ambitious, bitter and hateful female sergeants in our community. Once she hooked up with him, she became even more impossible to deal with. Worse, it affected him. And sure enough, our kindness had not influenced him in our favor unfairly, because she had long hated us for various imagined slights.

The atmosphere deteriorated quickly. Men I used to look up to began stabbing me in the back for precisely the same things that they previously applauded. The other sergeants with whom I worked all became distrustful, and all the respect we had developed for each other dissolved in just a few weeks. This Sergeant Major began enforcing the most arbitrary and silly policies. He was just about everyone’s enemy.

This was also about the time my knees became such a serious problem. My physical profile was downgraded to category 4 on one scale, a sure career killer, I was told. Yet the US Army went to some lengths to encourage me to stay. I was slated for two hard-to-get career advancement schools on my next reenlistment. But taking it all together, I decided it was a good time to go do something else.

Granted, there were a lot of other things going down the tubes, but I cannot forget how this good man was turned into a destructive force by marrying such an awful woman. Nobody was surprised that she went after him, but we still shake our heads about him accepting her overtures. Several others left the service at about the same time.

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Scanned Photos 05

The trip to Berchtesgaden was a free gift to all military personnel and their families stationed in Europe, paid for by the Kuwaiti royal family after Desert Storm. Naturally, this was handled on rotation by location. My area was sent there in Spring 1992. They loaded us up on tour buses and we were scattered among various hotels and such throughout the city. This shot of my wife and kids was taken outside our hotel.

We were allowed to take all kinds of tours and side trips at a reduced cost through the American Military recreation system. One of our better choices was to visit Salzburg, Austria, just across the border north of Berchtesgaden. This is the Hellbrunn Castle, used in parts of the movie Sound of Music.

My personal highlight was hiking up to the Eagle’s Nest, while my family was visiting the war bunker. There is a trail that runs up from the General Walker Hotel parking lot in Obersalzburg. After a lot of climbing up through heavy forest, I broke out into an open area at the foot of the cliff. Into the face of this northern cliff a narrow path had been cut in order to build this retreat often called “Hitler’s Tea House.” There were patches of snow on this trail that day because it’s in the shadow of that north face. I wasn’t able to hike the whole way up because part of the hiking path was closed near the top. I waited for my family to arrive by bus and we climbed up through the elevator with everyone else. This panorama (above left) was stitched together by hand from the photos, but I think you’ll get the idea. The retreat is just barely visible near the paper break at the top. The second shot is the retreat from the ridge above, still somewhat snow packed, as well.

I recall the above picture of Konigsee was shot from the bus window, because it’s not in line of sight from the retreat. The Konigsee was one of the tours we could have taken, but we ran out of time. We did walk a bit up the trail toward the natural dam that created this body of water, which is where this last picture was taken. I was wearing a snug knee brace and very sore from the climb to Eagle’s Nest the previous day. It was the last big hike I took, as this was before the surgery when my right knee was still going bad, and I began using a cane later that year.

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Scanned Photos 04

My part in Desert Storm was an exercise called DEFORGER (Departure of Forces from Germany), a play on the older term REFORGER. In our case, we were loading out vehicles from US units in Germany headed for Desert Storm. My job was guarding this load-out from Rotterdam, Netherlands. I was on the deck of the Saudi Makkah in front of the ship’s bridge viewing the vehicles loaded on the Weather Deck. We were told a few weeks later that a bunch of this stuff got washed overboard during a severe storm in the Atlantic.

This was one of the more unique shrines, a grotto built entirely from tree roots and trunks. It stood in Wallerode, Belgium, a small village near St. Vith.

During the four years or so I lived in the village of Oirsbeek, Netherlands, I passed this old farmhouse at least twice each week. It’s on a street named Wolfhagen, and the arch and the room above it was under restoration during those years. It was old enough to garner government funding. As we were preparing to leave the country, I ran around taking lots of pictures of stuff like this. Here the restoration was nearly finished.

This is the old Ford pickup I drove from Oklahoma to Oregon. I took this picture in 1978 right after I bought the thing for $150. Turned out it required a rebuilt engine for about $200. Over the next few months, I added a rear bumper, rebuilt the front suspension and did a lot of other work on it before our big trip.

If you stood in the market square of our village, this is what you would see. That’s the Saint Lambertus Church in the background. Behind me were a couple of vendor trucks hawking fresh fish and some vegetables. I was the only one in the family who liked the local fish, so I would come down and buy a breaded fried herring steak now and then.

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Scanned Photos 03

This is one of my all-time favorite photos. I carried it in my wallet for a very long time. This was just before we loaded up in the old Ford pickup, moving in 1979 from Midwest City, Oklahoma to Bethel Heights, Oregon where my elder sister lived. My parents traveled with us on this long drive. It was also a journey on which I could have killed all three of us because I fell asleep at the wheel driving late one night somewhere around Salt Lake City, Utah. Fortunately it was a long straight stretch and my hands were centered on top of the steering wheel. We roared along a couple of miles at about 90 MPH and the pickup was quite overloaded. I woke up confused and thought I was way behind my parents, but they were trying to catch up to me. God had plans for me…

One of those oddball marches that I never hit again was around Tongeren, Belgium in 1988. Like most such landmarks in Europe, this one was undergoing some kind of preservation work. Oddly, it’s one of the few towns where I can recall the layout and the terrain, but I only ever saw it again once.

My first 50 km hike was called “The Two Lakes.” It was centered around Eupen, Belgium and ran through the massive Haute Fagnes Park. This bridge caught my eye on the trail in the woods.

One of the lakes had a very picturesque dam. A giant stone sculpture of a lion stood at the centerpoint. There was a nice tower open to the public where I could get this shot after we crossed the dam. The other lake had more infrastructure, but we didn’t get a look at it from any good angle like this one. I was with my buddy, Mike Girdler and his dog, Sparky, a golden retriever.

Catholicism remains quite popular in the Benelux. This is just one of thousands of little shrines you find in rural areas. Standing near Maasmechelen, Netherlands, this one featured a small plastic bottle resembling a statue of Mary. These bottles are sold at the Miraculous Spring of Our Lady of the Poor in Banneux, Belgium. My own trip to Banneux was a disaster because someone removed the trail markers and they weren’t replaced until after I missed the route. Still, I remember seeing those water bottles in similar shrines all over the Benelux.

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Fond Memory: Martin Box

During my time volksmarching in the Benelux, I usually tried to avoid the social clumsiness of walking the same pace as some strangers near me at any point. They typically returned the favor. But I typically wore a hat that marked me as American, so I was quite the novelty for these folks. Sometimes there was light conversation; almost everyone knew some English. They were always friendly as we greeted and then resumed our walking in privacy.

I once ran into a fellow who was quite the polyglot, from Antwerp. I overheard him chattering fluently in Walloon French, Flemish/Dutch, German and with me in English. He mentioned at one point he knew Spanish and Italian, as I recall, and was learning Russian because of his business in medical supplies put him in contact with Russians. Our pace was nearly identical and he had a lot to ask me about, so we became friends. He was quite entertaining, telling me a tale of having hip replacement surgery and so very glad he could walk again. He recalled the nurses told him that, coming out from under anesthesia, he chatted away in American English, lying in a Belgian hospital bed. It was as if the anesthesia changed his persona somewhat. At the end of the march, we parted company under the assumption that we would unlikely ever meet again.

But I ran into him at least two other times on walks in other areas of Belgium. He actually celebrated the moment with more fondness than I expected. We walked together and talked about life on a philosophical level I found quite rare anywhere. He was one of those few souls who definitely wanted good friends who were on his level, and found quite few.

It wasn’t so much a matter of high intellectual level as something more important: We were both hungry for friends who understood that fellowship was more important than almost anything else. This was early yet in my theological journey, and this man was of a similar religious cast as I. We were both headed in the same direction morally. We agreed that theological particulars could cause unnecessary friction, but that you can’t simply let just anyone in the door of your life. You have to seek people of faith with whom you can work by virtue of similar ideas about what really matters. We spoke openly of such things with the same kind of hunger.

Apparently we were just such friends to each other. Nothing I said surprised him, and vice versa. That is, we could both bare our souls and neither would be shocked or put off by it. We instinctively understood each other’s human frailty and it was no hindrance to see the imperfections we bore in this life.

Alas, I lost the slip of paper on which he wrote his address for me. When I started having knee trouble and couldn’t take those long hikes any longer, I wanted to write him, but I could never find it.

Still, I’ll never forget the man himself and the deep impression he made on me. He had a rare genius for friendship and fellowship. Given his age, I doubt he’s alive any longer. Here’s to you, Martin Box of Antwerp.

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In the Lord’s Service

I am a soldier by divine calling. It’s not my vocation, but it does help to explain how I get things done. I tolerate conditions I can’t control and faithfully engage the mission.

Traditional pacifism is a lie. The Bible presumes no peace-making outside of the Covenants. Thus, the whole activist notion of promoting the end of military conflicts is not what Jesus taught at all. Everything He said about peace was as a consequence of submission to God under a Law Covenant. It’s not that He didn’t promote peace as a good thing, but that He clearly said there can be no expectation of peace outside of divine revelation. In this He echoes the very clear trend of Scripture ignored by most people, because peace among humans is simply not possible without first having peace with God. And God said peace with Him is not possible outside of submission to His lordship.

We who follow Jesus want peace. We also know that it is impossible on secular terms. We know beyond all doubt that warfare is essential to fallen human nature. No amount of wishing and harassing and governing will make humans peaceful; only God can do that. He won’t do that where He isn’t Lord. Only within the individual soul seeking Christ can genuine peace come to life. All other forms of apparent peace are the result of the most brutal, hateful oppression.

Some of us are soldiers by divine calling, and it’s our job to break things and kill people. That’s what soldiers do, though they do those things rightly only as protection for their own people. The nationalist sentiment is from God. If you cannot understand how the Tower of Babel narrative forbids imperial or global government, then you simply do not understand the Bible. The only way God will bless human government is when it is tribal covenant feudalism. No other form of government is approved by God.

So the only thing left for Christian troopers is the ethic of defending the people, and to hell with the government. We might agree to play along with government regulation and bureaucratic military discipline, but that’s just a means to some greater end. We cannot ever be true believers in the system, because there is no system that so much as acknowledges Biblical Law.

Thus, we tend to be true soldiers of the people, and real leaders who empathize with subordinates suffering the unjustified and often inexplicable oppressive nonsense coming down from our military leaders. Here in the US, in particular, it is widely known that the system has been hijacked and only uniformed politicians get promoted. Real leaders are permitted only in the lower ranks, and are driven out once they start shaking up the system.

Have you not seen how Gamma bullies are deciding what is best for the military? Recall that a Gamma Male is someone who lives in a fantasy world of things that never were real, and cannot ever be real. They love all kinds of rule-making and nit-picking silliness because that’s what Gammas do when they are in charge. It’s how they take control. They cannot compete on genuine manliness; they have no clue what makes men manly. So they make up goofy legalistic requirements that appear on paper like good order and discipline, but in reality is a system to stymie real men so the Gammas can win.

This is exactly what the Pharisees promoted. This was their system, a means for vengeful nerds to crush everyone who didn’t bow down to them slavishly. They only imagined that they were God’s favorites; Jesus made it clear they didn’t even know His Father.

This is far, far different from someone who develops procedures based on very real failures that most certainly can be prevented. It might be hard to explain to subordinates who lack the experience and perspective, but it can be explained when someone listens. Real leaders are always ready to explain from real-world experience. Press a Gamma into a corner and final answer is: That’s the way I like it. They have no real-world experience; all they have is delusion and fantasy.

But we real soldiers put up with this crap because it’s the only way we can defend the people, and sometimes we have to defend them from the Gammas who delight in tormenting others. As our US system of government grinds to a halt, it’s getting closer to the moment when the real soldiers will show themselves.

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