After the smoke cleared, and all units checked the status of their soldiers, it was apparent that everyone had made it out alive. Amazing. It was Sunday morning and a service had just concluded, but most of the worshippers had left. A Catholic service was scheduled next, and one of the tents would have been packed. During breakfast, all the tents were packed, but not at the time of the fire. Some sharp NCOs pushed military and civilian cooks outside, and propane tanks were removed to safety. Firefighters arrived quickly and kept the flames from spreading to the rest of the camp.
What could have been a major catastrophe merely resulted in the loss of some equipment and soldiers eating MREs [meals ready to eat] for a few days. I call this a miracle. God takes care of his children, even when they are deployed far, far away from homes. Especially when they are deployed far from home.
But let me tell you the rest of the story. The fire occurred on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. This is the day many Christians observe the beginning of the season of Lent. It is a time of penitence, as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. We mark our foreheads with ash as a sign of this penitence. I had planned to offer ashes for Protestant soldiers who wished to observe this ritual. I didn't have any ashes though. Traditionally, you burn palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday celebration to make ash for Ash Wednesday. I didn't have any. So it seemed to me that the most significant ash to use for this occasion would be ash from the DFAC.
The site was under guard, so I asked an MP to escort me to the firefighters who were working there. Things had calmed down, and they were just watching to make sure there were no flare-ups.
"Is this enough?" he asked.
"Perfect," I replied. I placed the cup in a Zip-loc bag and headed to my tent.
Two days later I decided to open the bag and see if I needed to crunch up the ashes into smaller pieces. I was digging around in the cup with a plastic knife when I noticed the edge of something metallic. I reached in, and pulled out a cross. A flat, metal cross. It had some dark smudges on it from the fire, but it was otherwise undamaged. I could still read the etching on it: "Jesus is Lord."
I can't even fathom the odds of picking the exact site of that cross out of the acreage destroyed by the fire. It doesn't matter. The message to me is clear: God walks with us through the terrible firestorms of our lives, and we are lifted unharmed out of the ashes. We may be marked in some way, like the cross of ash placed on our foreheads during Ash Wednesday. However, that mark is a symbol of God's love and protection.
I wear that cross now on my dogtags. No matter where the Army may send me, or what God may ask of me, I will cherish this special reminder that God will never leave us alone to face the tragedies in our lives. With God's help, we will always rise out of the ashes.