gas masks, bunkers, and sharing the gospel

The first time I recognized that there was a lopsided-ness to the world, I was deep in the trenches in  a bunker in Kuwait. I arrived in Kuwait a few weeks before the war started and I had barely enough time to get myself mentally situated for the upcoming air strike that was bound to get the world’s attention. I remember the first night of the war like it was yesterday. I, along with a soldier I did not know were given orders to stand watch on one of the towers of the outermost position. Standing watch was just simply climbing up into a box on stilts on the outer edges of a camp and looking out into the desert for hours. I remember feeling extremely perplexed at our leadership’s choice to send me. I figured they would want to send someone with a bit more courage. I rationalized that I was pretty dispensable since I was trained to only deal with admin duties.

I was assigned the midnight shift and I was scared out of my mind because I did not know what to expect. Was there going to be massive bombing? Was I going to get killed by a random missile? These were scary unknowns for woman who joined the military later in life only so that she could acquire education benefits and whose sole purpose in the Army was to type memos and push paper.

I arrived at the outpost at 10 pm and waited. Nothing happened….for hours. It was eerily quiet. I played with my night vision goggles for the majority of the early morning hours looking towards Iraq, anticipating something. When morning came I was relieved of my duty and went back to my tent to sleep the rest of the day. Later that day when I woke up and on the way to the chow hall for dinner, the news was splattered with story after story that confirmed that somewhere, deep in Iraq, the war had begun. 

I really didn’t see any “action” other than the very stressful, very scary missiles that were daily visitors to our camp. Our camp was not the only beneficiary of these random, never accurate, missile strikes. There were many American camps situated all along the Kuwaiti border, south of Iraq and they would receive these gifts from the Iraqi military as well. Many times, sometimes several times a day a siren would go off. A siren going off was an alert of an incoming missile. When that happened we literally had to drop what we were doing and run to the nearest bunker. Once we got to the bunker we had to put on our gas mask and wait for either the “all clear” signal or the “other signal”. Nobody wanted to hear the dreaded “other signal”. It meant a missile with potential chemical warfare was used and there was an increased possibility that some form of chemical gas in the air. That other siren meant we had to put on our entire chemical protective suit. It meant that there was a very grave possibility that death was in the air.

At the time, the assumption was that Saddam Hussein indeed had chemical weapons and would more than likely use them on us so we had to take all the necessary precautions. We trained for it. We prepared our minds for it. We had to behave as though it was just a matter of time before we would be faced with chemical warfare. 

Gas mask training was a big deal during basic training. We had to learn how to put on our gas mask in less than a minute. We then had to train how to put on our full chemical protective suit in less than 3 minutes. Gas mask training was not just a mere basic training component. Once we got into our respective units, we had regular and frequent re-fresher gas mask training.

I remember one particular field training exercise was especially challenging.  We had to stay in our masks ALL day. We wore our masks while we set up our tents, while we did our jobs, during field training, while we stood in formation and while we took down our tents. Literally the entire day. Wearing a gas mask all day was exhausting. So many times I wanted to take it off when no one was looking just to get a breath of fresh air. Moving around with limited air flow was difficult and in order not to panic, I had to learn to control my breathing and my thoughts. I had to keep telling myself to not panic to keep from hyperventilating. As difficult as it was to train my lungs and mind to keep the gas mask on when all I wanted to do was throw it off and breath fresh air,  I knew it was important to train my body to keep it on for the scary possibility of being in a situation where we HAD to use it or risk death.  

Camp Virginia Kuwait

When I found myself deployed in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert everyone had orders to carry their gas mask on their hip at ALL times. We had strict orders to wear the mask on our hip like a fanny pack everywhere we went. We wore it to breakfast. We wore it to lunch. We wore it to dinner. We took our gas mask to the shower stalls. We took them it with us every time we had to use the bathroom in far away port a potties, yes even those middle of the night potty trips. I slept with my gas mask under my pillow.

what the inside of the bunker looked like

Once, we were in the middle of putting up a tent in the middle of the day when the first siren went off.  Quickly and without thinking, I ran to the nearest bunker with the rest of the people in my unit. Once there everyone began donning their gas masks. I came to the quick yet distressing realization that I forgot my gas mask on my cot. The standing order was that once inside the bunker, no one was allowed to leave the bunker until the “all clear” signal went off so I knew I could not just run back to the the tent and collect it. 

I started panicking. 

If that were not enough, we got the other signal to put our entire protective gear on. I immediatly became short of breath and got really dizzy and just started balling. I didn’t want to die. I thought about my kids. My youngest daughter was 2 years old and I lost it with the possibility that she will not know her mother. My overemotional crying outburst provoked some random Sgt to take off his gas mask and give me his. I was so desperate to live, I NOT ONCE question his motives. I just took it, relieved. I have no idea what motivated this Sgt, this man I barely knew, to give me his gas mask. Maybe it was just to shut me up because the stress of it all broke me and I lost it. Whatever the case, I was grateful and not one bit embarrassed about my selfishness.

Our gas mask meant life.

A few days later, right after lunch, my battle buddy and I were throwing away our lunch trays when the siren went off. Everyday we passed a bunker on the way to the chow hall tent so we knew instinctively where to run. We darted out of that chow hall tent as fast as we could and hunkered down in the middle of it. Right on my heels were a few food workers, two or three cooks or maybe servers. 

Our chow hall dining tent

The workers and cooks were brought into the camp by bus every day. They were foreign nationals, not Kuwaiti citizens. The foreign nationals were citizens from various countries around the region and by the looks of it, they did not have easy lives. They served us our food every day. They cleaned up after us. They dry cleaned our uniforms. They cleaned out the port-a-potties. The workers did the low menial jobs that nobody wanted to want to do around the camp. 

My battle buddies and I donned our gas masks in less than a minute and waited for the next siren. I looked at the workers through the lens of my mask and they looked at me. They looked as scared as I felt. In that bunker, it did not matter where I was from, or where they were from. In that bunker, we were just people wanting to survive. I saw in their eyes that they did not want to die. In that moment, I was not an just an American solider. I was a woman, I was a mom, wanting to live and I saw that those workers were just men, possibly fathers, wanting to live.

And just like that, in the time it takes to think lots of random thoughts under life or death situations, I  became fully aware of the lopsided-ness…and selfishness of life. What if THAT missile was gas. What if the siren went off that gave us the order to don the rest of our protective suit because chemical warfare was detected in the air. What would happen? I would live and they would die. 

I felt ashamed. I felt humiliated. So many thoughts and questions flooded my mind. 

Why do I get a mask? Being born in the the US gave me the privilege of having a mask out there in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert but those men did not. Was my life more valuable because of my status and label of being American? Who determines who is valuable and who is not?

Those questions stayed with me for a few years after leaving the Army and they were the motivating factor for wanting to pursue missions after becoming a Christian. 

But…..then life happened, kids happened, jobs happened, and that scene in the bunker on that afternoon with the desperate hopelessness of those faces became a distant memory. 

Moving to a city, albeit a small city that has many different people groups from around the world represented, my desire for missions has been re-ignited. 

It has also occurred to me that being American comes with privileges that others around the world just simply do not have. We live with luxuries and oftentimes call them needs.  Even the poor in our country have considerably more than most people in other parts of the world. It’s embarrassing for sure. 

I’m not in anyway saying that it is wrong to have wealth. However, I am saying that we have the audacity to complain about some of the silliest, most trivial first world problems.

As I thought about this today it dawned on me that for many American Christians we have turned the gospel or good news of Jesus into our own personal gas mask.

We have it. We know it. We study it. We keep it to ourselves. We know it provides life, yet we do not share it.

We don’t do anything with this wonderful life giving  privilege of knowing the Gospel. 

Instead we sit in bunkers, wearing our gas masks with other Christians wearing their gas masks thanking God for the sand in the bunker while ignoring those that have no gas mask. 

We build big bunkers in parks next to streams of water and complain about how hard life is.

We make lines in the sand and tell each other that only people that have the same gas masks as us can come in our bunker and if they are wearing a different colored gas mask they need to go to a different bunker. 

We are so concerned and selfishly preoccupied with our own gas mask that we are not even aware or basically we just don’t care that there are millions of people that have NO gas mask, have never heard of a gas mask, and will die completely unaware that a gas mask could have saved their life. 

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