A Gust of Grace: blew through my life when I was in the US Army. I was in during the height of the Vietnam War (1967-1970). I had finished basic training at Fort Knox and the class ahead of me and the class behind me all were sent to Vietnam. Then ten months later everyone in my class except another fellow and me were ordered there. I had an office job, but my heart was heavy with concern that someday soon I would have to kill people. This became my entire focus and so in August of 1969 I left my post and headed to Canada. There were a lot of other young men also leaving because they had serious reservations about that war. For me, however, the bottom line was fear. I was afraid and so I drove north.
I contacted a man who was in the business of helping American deserters move to Canada. He told me I needed some paperwork which I had not thought to bring with me. I realized I needed to go back home and get it or risk possible jail in Canada.
On the way home I began to have second thoughts about my action. I thought about my schooling which would probably now be wasted. I started thinking about what I was putting my family (especially my mother) through. I contacted my mother who put me in touch with her boss, an ex-military man. I cannot now remember what he said, but in talking with him and my mother, I came to the conclusion I had to go back. I could not bring myself to become a deserter.
I returned to Fort Knox and received non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I was reduced in rank, made to forfeit pay and required to do extra duty for two months. Extra duty meant reporting in after regular work for more work.
While undergoing this discipline, I suddenly received orders to report to another company less than 100 yards away. This was another training company and as permanent party, I was given many benefits, including a special area in the dining room, access to the kitchen after-hours and extra thick mattresses. I had been given a fresh start.
Then, I made another bad decision. I went out with some other permanent party buddies to Louisville for a night out. One of the fellows thought it might be funny to throw raw eggs at cars. We had thrown two eggs when we were stopped and arrested by the Louisville Police. They put us in the drunk tank and the next morning arraigned us before the judge. The fine was $100. We couldn’t use any of the money we had with us, but had to call the Executive Officer down to bail us out.
In the Army, they have what is known as double jeopardy. If you have trouble with civilian authorities, the Army will discipline you as well. I remember thinking that I was really making some bad choices and was throwing away the work I had put in for an education and all the trust people had placed in me. I began feeling my life was out of control.
In the middle of this deteriorating situation, another gust of grace began to blow. The First Sergeant of the company was named Wilbur Harrington, a black man who had made the Army his career. When the Delinquency Report came down from the Provost Marshal’s Office, he confronted me on my actions. I told him the truth, that it showed poor judgement and I felt terrible. So he said and did something that turned my life around. He looked me in the eye and said “I don’t care what you did out there. I only care what you do here. If you do right for me, I’ll do right for you.” With that he tore up the Report. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, especially when I eventually realized there was not going to be any follow-up. The report was torn up.
I went on to complete the rest of my enlistment. I was not sent to Vietnam, but to Korea, just twelve miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. After my time overseas, I received an honorable discharge
It was my second-second chance in a fairly short period of time. I took it as a warning that I needed to straighten up and start making good choices. Now, years later I look upon those second chances as gusts of grace blowing through impossible situations. And today sharing it publicly seems like another second chance. Forgiveness is found in confession. Confession opens the door to a fresh go at life.
I am now going to be looking at these special life moments when grace seems to come in unexpectedly and radically change things.