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I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing

On 4 July the last 750 regular British soldiers left Afghanistan, bringing to an end 20 years of military deployment in the country. Since the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom was launched, following the 2001 September 11 terror attacks, 454 British soldiers and civilians have died in Afghanistan. Some 2300 US personnel have also been killed and 50,000 Afghan civilians. The future of the country is very uncertain as the Taliban advances in many parts of the country, sparking fears of a new civil war.

The withdrawal of British soldiers from Afghanistan has brought back very painful memories for soldiers who still remember the sacrifice made by some of their friends. In the early hours of 10 July 2009, Rifleman Peter Sherlock was woken on his camp-bed at Wishtan forward operating base in Helmand’s Sangin district by his fellow troops preparing for their dawn patrol. Peter, then 21, should have been among the men heading out that morning but had been struck down by severe heatstroke the previous day and had been ordered to remain in the base. Peter chatted with the men getting ready, one of whom, 20-year-old Rifleman Danny Simpson, was his best friend in C Company, 2nd Battalion, the Rifles.

As the men said goodbye and filed out of the front gates, Peter went to sit with the medics wondering who had taken his place in the patrol. Within minutes, there were two loud explosions in quick succession, about 500m from the base. Eight members of the 30-man patrol died and more than a dozen suffered life-changing injuries. The first death Peter heard confirmed over the radio was his best friend Danny, who had an eight-month-old son at home. Peter says, “The guilt of not having gone out with them was instant and has haunted me ever since.”

It is important that we remember and give thanks for the people, many of them young men, who have died serving in Afghanistan. They laid down their lives in a foreign land far from home seeking to bring peace to that troubled nation. Peter says, “I don’t want to say my friends died for nothing.” We pray for those like him, still living with the trauma of what he experienced, and others with life-changing injuries, and for the future of the Afghan people. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus is the supreme example of self-sacrifice. His death and resurrection have brought hope to our sad and suffering world. His love in dying for our sins has brought peace to many people burdened with guilt and comfort to those with profoundly sad memories.

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The story of Rodwell Khomazana

On 2 May 9-year-old Rodwell Khomazana was attacked by a hyena and suffered life-changing injuries. The attack took place when Rodwell was with his family at a night religious service at Zviratidzo Zvevapostori Apostolic Church in Zimbabwe and was sleeping. In the attack Rodwell suffered terrible injuries losing his nose, left eye, most of his upper lip and parts of his forehead and face. He was rushed to Harare’s Parirenyatwa Hospital, the largest hospital in Zimbabwe, where surgeons stabilised his wounds but didn’t have the resources to repair the terrible wounds to his face. A senior nursing sister Chaku Nyamupaguma volunteered to care for Rodwell. The excellent medical care Rodwell received in Zimbabwe saved his life.

Rodwell’s mother couldn’t afford the specialised surgery he needed, which is only available outside Zimbabwe, but contacted doctors in South Africa who agreed to operate on him free of charge in a private Johannesburg clinic. The news was shared, many people prayed, and donations came in to cover the full cost of getting Rodwell to South Africa. One of the team managing Rodwell’s medical evacuation said, “It’s just very overwhelming to see the amount of love that people have shown so readily, without even knowing him.”

Dr Ridwan Mia, a renowned plastic surgeon who is leading the team operating on Rodwell, said, “If he wasn’t to have this reconstructive surgery, I think we would be hearing a terrible story of a child who probably will not face society again. And that was the big key, that we can get him a face that he can walk around in public with and still feel and be as normal a child as possible.” As well as the reconstructive procedures, Rodwell will need months of speech therapy, occupational therapy, and psychotherapy to help him speak properly again, eat by himself again, be able to play football with his friends once more and gain the independence any young boy deserves to have.

The responses of the medical teams in Zimbabwe and South Africa and the generosity of people are a great example to us all. One of the greatest commandments is, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus said, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” Jesus came into this world to reveal God to us. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made his light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.”

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Light in the darkness

The VE Celebrations last weekend were very moving. Seeing thousands of young men boarding ships on their way to serve in faraway places reminded us of the great cost paid by a whole generation. Many never returned, others came back with life-changing physical injuries or psychological traumas, which today we recognise as PTSD. My father served in India and my wife’s father was involved in the D-Day landings. Thankfully both returned safely. The dignity of the survivors who were interviewed was impressive. Most were ordinary soldiers who faithfully served their country and put their lives on the line. Some were moved to tears as they remembered their fallen comrades.

Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, spoke of her visit to the troops in Japanese-occupied Burma. She said she decided to go to Burma in 1944 because the men who served there had not been visited. Seeing footage of the men listening to her sing you could see that her visit lifted their morale. Her courage in making that 4-month visit encouraged them and made them realise they were not forgotten. The songs she sang also gave them hope as they longed for the hellish war, from which they could not escape, to be over and to be able to return to their homes and loved ones.

Those troops so much needed hope, as we all do. As Vera sang, for a brief moment, they could look beyond the present horrors to being reunited with their loved ones far away. “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Keep smiling through just like you always do, ’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow, just you wait and see. There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free.”

The generation of men and women who served in World War II were familiar with the Bible and the Christian gospel. Tens of thousands of them had attended Sunday School as children and had learned about Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead to give us hope. They had learned memory verses such as John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” No doubt, in the heat of battle, as they faced certain death, many asked God to help them and he heard them and took them safely to heaven.