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Lt. Col. John Church

August 27, 2010

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As a Marine officer and educator, Lt. Col. John Church has seen the best and the worst of life in war zones. He's witnessed individual and collective acts of bravery among soldiers and civilians; as well as the devastating toll of armed conflict, on people and their land. So he decided to tell that story on This I Believe, while stationed in Afghanistan; his latest tour of duty. Upon his recent return he was named President of the Valley Forge Military College. His essay was recorded in Helmand Province in Afghanistan by NPR reporter Corey Flintoff.

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I believe in understanding. I've learned understanding as a U.S. Marine.

I understand despair. Years ago I came upon a wounded Somali on a Mogadishu street corner. The wound on his back was as big as my fist. I applied direct pressure. We moved out. He faded in and out of consciousness. He begged us to take him home. He claimed he was a Somali Army colonel. The rules of engagement mandated the hospital. He pleaded some more and passed out. At the hospital we laid him near a long line of dying Somalis along this hall with a slick, sticky yellow-tiled floor. Amid flies and filth there was an Irish aid worker, sullied and sweaty. She had brick red hair, porcelain skin, and bloody hands. I reported the colonel was weak, bleeding, and probably not going to make it. She exhaled, took the back of her pale wrist, gracefully brushed away a red tangled wisp of hair from her cheek and said flatly, "Much like his country." I wanted to stay. We had to go. As we left he awoke and wept. I learned despair in Mogadishu.

I understand the importance of a promise. In Kosovo I met a village elder in a mountain side hamlet where I was to broker peace between Albanians and Croats. After small talk, sitting on the floor, legs crossed, shoes off, sipping sweet hot seat tea out of shot glasses, this pint-sized gent asked me what I could give his village. I responded I was ordered to give nothing, only to enable the villagers to work together so they could sustain their own efforts. He laughed and replied all the previous officers had promised him new schools, better roads, rebuilt clinics, and clean water. He asked me what I could promise him. I promised only to be with him. He smiled and said, "Mejor, I promise to be with you, too." We each kept our promise. Thanks to a grizzled tiny villager in a small hamlet on the side of a huge mountain near Stripce, Kosovo, I learned the importance of a promise.

I understand the power of remembering. Two years ago, when deployed to Iraq, three of my friends, two men and one woman, died the same week my second son was born. Via long distance, my wife agreed to name him after the two men. When I hug and kiss our son I think of those three heroes. They shall live on. I cannot forget them. Our son will know of them and he, God willing, will pass onto to his children the memory of those three, who died so far away from their families. Thanks to my beautiful wife and our second born, I learned the power of remembering.

I believe in understanding. I believe understanding is a learned gift given to us by selfless aid workers, village elders, and new born sons. This wondrous, tragic, beautiful, and complex world allows for understanding. This I believe.