Closer Than A Brother


Nick was used to being ridiculed for his faith.

After three years in the Marine Corps, it wasn't the first time his principles had gotten in the way of his popularity with the men of the unit. It would have been easy for him to join them on a night of drunken bar-hopping, to just allow himself to be "one of the guys." Nick wanted to be liked as much as the next man, but his Marine Corps training had echoed what the Bible had taught him -- that a man's integrity is his most valuable possession.

This trip to the Middle East promised to be tedious. Normally, the sailors enjoyed the ability to e-mail messages from the ship to loved ones back home. On this outing, however, e-mail privileges had been suspended so the troop ship's movements wouldn't become known to the world at large.

One day, however, the burden of loneliness lay especially heavy on Nick's mind and heart, so he went below decks to a quiet place where he liked to pray. "Father, he began, "I feel like I'm fighting the battle alone. It sure would be easier to stay faithful if I had someone to talk to, a friend who could keep me accountable. I don't feel like there's anyone on this boat who believes in You like I do." He went on to ask God to send him someone who could keep his faith sharp.

Back in his platoon's berth, not five minutes later, he ran into Sam.

Sam Valasquez had been in the platoon for over a year, but Nick still didn't know much about him. "So why do they call you preacher man," asked Sam

Taken somewhat off guard, Nick haltingly told Sam about his faith and watched as an astonished look crossed the younger man's face.

"That's amazing" Sam said. "I've been looking for another Christian to study the Bible with."

Nick was so shocked that he almost forgot to offer a prayer of thanks.

Their unit arrived in Kuwait, and Nick and Sam became fast friends as the weeks of waiting wore on. They started studying the Bible together and enjoyed discussing their faith whenever possible eventually other marines joined their group, turning more easily toward spiritual things as the war with Iraq loomed closer.

When the fighting finally started, it was almost a blessing. The marines in Nick's unit knew that their only ticket home lay ahead in the city of Baghdad.

Toward the end of March, the unit was given a mission near the town of Nasiriya. They encountered no resistance at first, but after crossing a bridge, the Marine column suddenly came under sniper attack. When Nick stuck his head out of the top of his armored carrier to check on the troops outside, a mortar round hit near him, and a large piece of shrapnel dug into his neck. He sat down heavily inside the transport, stunned. "Lord please give me the faith to make it through this."

After a few minutes, Nick was able to remove the shard and stop the bleeding with a compress, not realizing then how close the fragment had come to his carotid artery. A lieutenant stumbled over to Nick's vehicle, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds. Nick turned his attention back to the men outside his vehicle, who were now bearing the brunt of the heavy mortar attack. Forgetting his own injuries, Nick began providing cover fire as the driver started hauling their wounded comrades into the vehicle.

Then Nick noticed other vehicles pulling back. "We've got to get out of here!" He yelled, suddenly realizing that their communications must be down.

The enemy fire intensified as they made their way back across the bridge, but then Nick's vehicle was hit again. This time it felt like a mortar round had exploded in his lap.

Everything turned white for Nick. "This is it, I'm not going to make it," he thought.

Somehow, he managed to slide down the side of the now-burning vehicle and run for the safety of a house by the side of the road. Part of him knew that the others in the vehicle hadn't gotten out.

Did Sam make it? Nick fell, and only then did he become aware of the severity of his wounds. He looked down and saw that one of his heels was gone. The bullets started kicking up sand all around him. Adrenaline made him forget his injuries and somehow he got up and ran to cover.

Some buddies patched him up as best they could, and when reinforcements arrived, Nick was ferried on the back of a tank to the casualty collection point. Corpsmen continued to work over him when his gunny sergeant came by, also injured. He looked at Nick lying on the stretcher and said, "You okay, Elliot?"

"I'm alive," he answered weakly.

"Velasquez got hit too, but he's going to be all right."

An unexpected wave of emotion swept over Nick at the news that his fiend was alive. Thank You God! He broke down and started sobbing.

A week and several surgeries later, Nick was recovering in the ICU of a military hospital in Germany. Depression started to creep in, and he began to wish that he was back on the lines with his unit. The medical team had been able to repair the Achilles tendon that had been blown off, but they had to take some skin from his back to close the wound. The doctors told him that he couldn't possibly have run without his Achilles tendon.

But the doctors had never been shot at.

He actually felt a bit guilty for having been injured. He wanted to be there for his men. He was wrestling with those feelings when the physical therapist walked in.

"Someone wants to see you," she said. "Do you feel up to having a visitor?"

Nick wondered who it could be. "Sure."

A few moments later, Valesquez limped into the room, lighting up the room with his smile.

"Sam!"

"Hey there Corporal. You ready to get back to work yet?"

"Absolutely!"

The nurse says that in a couple of days you'll be able to move downstairs with the rest of us, unless you'd rather stay here by yourself."

Nick laughed. "I can't wait!"

The two friends were reunited shortly thereafter and stayed together on their return to the States and during their recover in Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C.

The scars they bear will remind everyone they meet of the price of freedom. Nick and Sam, however, see those scars and remember something else. A bond forged by shared wounds and a shared faith -- brothers not only in the Marine Corps -- but also in God's service.

Even after Sam was discharged, he stayed with Nick's parents to that he could be close enough to visit him until he was also cleared to go home. Both men are expected to recover fully.

Chuck Holton soldier@mission4me.com

Chuck grew up in a Christian home and gave his life to the Lord when he was 4. His grandfather and father were both Baptist ministers. Ever since the 6th grade, Chuck wanted to be in the military. When he was in 10th grade, an Army Ranger taught his Sunday school class. "He exuded a quiet confidence," says Chuck. "I wanted what he had. Nothing short of the Ranger beret would do."

In 1987, after high school, Chuck joined the Army and later joined 150 other men in the Ranger Indoctrination Program (also known as RIP). The sole purpose of this three-week course was to weed out those who wouldnít be able to handle the rigorous demands of life in a special operations unit. Three days before graduation, Chuck was late for a formation, and his sergeant told him to pack his things. Chuck prayed that night that God would intervene. The next morning, Chuck knocked on the sergeantís door. He asked them not to "recycle" him and told his superior that God didnít put him there to fail. Against all odds, the sergeant decided that he could graduate.

After completing his tour of duty, Chuck met and married his wife, Connie. Today they have five children.

Chuck is writing a series of articles on positive male role models, stories of men who have exciting careers and carry their faith to work with them. "Unfortunately, most teen guys get nothing but negative male role models, in the men that they are shown in the Media. There are lots of positive male role models out there, they just don't get any press. I aim to change that."

Chuck is also working on his next book, a non-fiction project that takes a look at the Christian response to risk and fear. "The whole concept of what's risky should be different for a Christian," he says. "It should have more to do with one's standing before God than with one's exterior circumstances. This is a perfect time for Christians to model the peace that comes with knowing everything works together for Good."

Chuck speaks to churches and youth groups across the country, and is available for speaking engagements. To schedule one, please contact Chuck by clicking here: Visit his website at http://www.MissionForMe.com

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