March 2, 2014

We’re Going to Guantanamo Bay

Gary Thomas — 
All rights reserved by Don Vansant

All rights reserved by Don Vansant

The dozen or so women clung to their men, and everyone knew why. Everyone gave them space.

It was at the Denver Airport, during the height of casualties in the Iraq war. The military personnel were all wearing fatigues, and the tears being shed by their wives left us with no doubt as to where their husbands were headed. I didn’t realize the TSA made exceptions for non-traveling military wives to go to the gates with their husbands, but I was really glad they did.

It’s not like the husbands could say, “Don’t worry; it’ll be okay.” Men and women were dying every day. As painful as the daily separation was, the fear of a lifelong separation must have been just as bad.

Fast forward several months. I’m speaking in another military town. After I’m done, a chaplain brings up about ten soldiers, scheduled to leave for Iraq in just a few days. “It would mean so much to them if you would just say ‘hi,’” he said. You have got to be kidding me, I thought. I am the least significant person in this room right now.

Most of the soldiers looked like kids. Seriously. When your own children age past the point where servicemen and women enter the military, it’s startling to see the young souls we throw in front of the enemy. Our nation’s defense rests on the shoulders of so many who are so young.

These two moments changed me for life. I saw the sacrifice of military life in a way that hits me just where I have devoted my life to serving—marriage and family life—and I’ll never be the same. I won’t take a single military family’s sacrifice for granted. To the soldiers, the parents, and the spouses, thank you.

That’s why, when the chaplain at Guantanamo Bay contacted me last year and asked me to come out to the military base to speak there, the only question was when we could find a spot in our schedule, not if. (To keep the record straight, the military does not pay religious speakers, nor will we be selling any books—though, through the generosity of our publishers, we will be giving many books away.)

On Tuesday, March 4, Lisa and I will travel via military transport to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to minister to the military personnel and their families who are stationed there. We’ll be traveling with our good friends Dr. Steve Wilke and his wife Rebecca. I’ll be talking on marriage Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evening, and to singles on Wednesday and Thursday. Steve will join me in some of the talks but will spend most of the time talking to the officers about leadership and organization (all the stuff I know nothing about).

A person who lives at Guantanamo told a visiting journalist that living life in a small enclosure (40 square miles, in a country that doesn’t want us there), and the common requirement that you can’t leave for two years, turns people into a hunk (body-builder extraordinaire), a chunk (eater extraordinaire), a monk (escaping into yourself), or a drunk. These courageous men and women serve in anonymity, and it’s our prayer that this week will be a spiritual oasis during a potentially lonely assignment.

The U.S. Naval personnel who run Guantanamo have been fabulous. They asked about any food restrictions. Any of you who know my wife will be pleased to hear that following a strict, gluten-free diet won’t be a problem at all. “If you need fish for dinner, we’ll catch it that day,” one of them said. Happy Lisa.

Please pray for the marriages. Please pray as I speak to students (on Wednesday, it will be in a non-religious context at the school; we’re hoping that will draw some to the Thursday meeting, where we will be able to share our faith more openly.) Please pray for Dr. Wilke’s work with the officers. As a special favor, the connection between the military transport and the Wilkes’ commercial flight back out on Friday is going to be very tight. Steve will be pouring his heart out all week long—I get exhausted just looking at his schedule—so we’re really hoping he can get back to San Diego on Friday, without missing his flight.

I’m hoping to provide regular posts, with pictures, outside of our normal blog schedule, but I’m there to minister first, so some of the posts may not make it online until after we’re home.

Thank you for being a community that, when asked to pray, truly does. I’m so grateful when these special opportunities come along, knowing that Lisa and I never go out alone. I get your emails, Twitter messages, Facebook posts, etc., letting us know. And I know many of you pray without telling us. Bless you. And may God richly bless those who serve us in the military, in places near and far.

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3 responses to We’re Going to Guantanamo Bay

  1. Mom & Dad Thomas March 4, 2014 at 11:01 pm

    You have been chosen to share God’s way through your public speaking and writing of books to share with the world that has this special need. May God bless you and Lisa and your ministry on this important mission, and bring you home safely. Mom & Dad

  2. Christie Miller March 3, 2014 at 10:24 am

    Praying for this experience. It WILL be a turning point in lives. I can just imagine how many of them have been praying for something outside to come in and encourage them! God has answered their prayers. Glad another couple is going with you.

  3. How fabulous! Thanks for being willing to serve!