Friday, September 21, 2012

Fourteen Stars: Finding Faith with The Fallen

By: Matthew Talafuse
(Note from Christine: today we will take a break in our story to listen to Matthew's testimonial. Matthew and Lindsey took our marriage prep course. They got married August 8th this year).

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

The day you first speak to God is a day that you will never forget.  Some have this conversation at an early age, others never will. As for me, I thought I knew him. I had been baptized, gone through confirmation in my church, and sang in the praise band on Sunday’s. I was under the impression that this meant I had a relationship with God. I was wrong.  I didn’t have a true conversation with him until I was standing inside the morgue at the Balad Combat Hospital in Iraq. It was within these makeshift plywood walls that I discovered what it truly meant to “know” God.
It was August of 2006 and I was on my way to Iraq with the Colorado Army National Guard. I was 19 years old, and had no idea what the next 12 months would have in store for me. I was a Black Hawk Helicopter Mechanic, and would be deploying with a Medical Evacuation (Medevac) unit to LSA Anaconda (Balad Air Base), Iraq.  Once in country, our operational tempo was high. The flight crews and mechanics worked 12-16 hour days in order to keep our helicopters up and running. The surge was beginning, and American troops were being injured constantly. Our helicopters flew multiple times a day, picking the wounded up off the battlefield and delivering them to the combat hospital on base. 
Black Hawk Helicopter (
A few months in to the deployment I found out that the combat hospital on base was in need of volunteers.   I’m not sure why I was so eager to go over and help, but soon it became a daily routine. I would Work 12 hours at the hangar, and then head to the hospital to help in any way possible.  I started working on the helicopter pad, running out to the Black Hawks as they came in, unloading the wounded, and rushing them in to the Emergency Room (which was actually just a large tent).  Often times, these men and women were in rough shape, and we made the 100 yard dash while doing chest compressions or holding pressure on large wounds. Statistically, if you made it through the doorway of that emergency tent alive, you had a 96% chance of surviving. It would be the 4% of those who did not survive their injuries that would introduce me to God.
While working in the ER, I became one of the “go-to” guys when a soldier died. As the soldier’s life slowly ended, I would stand by their side, holding their hand as they took their last breaths. Once they had perished, and the doctor pronounced them dead, the painful process would begin.  I would take their body in to the makeshift morgue, clean it the best I could, place their limbs in the proper location if necessary, and then tag one hand and the opposite foot if possible. We would search for dog tags or military ID’s to identify the person, remove any personal belongings from their pockets, and finally place them in a body bag. We would then unfold an American Flag and tuck it around them. Then the entire hospital staff would come to the position of attention and salute our fallen brother as we rolled the stretcher outside to be taken over to mortuary affairs. I did this 14 times. 
While preparing these 14 men, I often questioned my faith, and would get angry with God. I questioned his existence. “Why did these young men have to die?” or “How could a loving God do this to a family?” And soon, he began to respond. At first, I simply felt his presence. I knew that he was with me. Often times I would spend hours in the room with these men, tears running down my face as I removed their wedding bands, pictures of children from their pockets etc. Many times, it felt as though a hand was resting on my shoulder; comforting me as I worked and wept.  Soon I began to pray, as I asked questions or said prayers, I could hear a response. Although it was in my conscience, I knew where it was truly coming from.  As I asked the next question, a response was immediate. “Why did this young man have to lose his life, God?” and then…”I have a reason for everything. Know that he is in a better place.” Although the answers were vague, they were real.
Inside that plywood morgue, my life was changed forever. I still see these men’s faces, and I know all of their names. I have spoken with some of their families, and passed along my condolences.  In that hospital, I saw things that I would not wish upon anyone’s eyes; horror in the rawest form. I would not want anyone to experience that portion of war, but wish everyone could experience the relationship I found with God. I often wonder why my life has turned out the way it has and I think back to what I was told…Everything happens for a reason. 
I knocked, and the door was opened.
This is the tattoo I have on my left calf dedicated to those 14 men. It reminds me to live life to the fullest and appreciate each day. You never know when your time will be up, but when it is, you hope you have positively changed the life of someone left here on earth. They forever changed mine!

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