MADERA, Calif. (BP)—Marc Unger and his 19-year-old son, Daniel, were taking one last trip to Walmart before Daniel deployed to Kuwait the next day with the California National Guard. Unger will never forget the conversation that night.
“Dad, I know there’s a war going on,” Daniel said. “Anything can happen. But, Dad, I’m right with Jesus.”
Tears streamed down Unger’s face. The California Southern Baptist pastor had previously had plenty of life-and-death discussions with parishioners, but the conversation is different with a son.
Years earlier, Marc had told his son that if anything ever happened to him, he would be waiting in heaven.
“Dad, the tables have turned,” Daniel said to his father. “If anything happens to me, I’ll be waiting for you in heaven.”
Little did Unger know the next day would be the last time he would see his son on this side of eternity. Just three months later, on May 25, 2004, a mortar attack killed Daniel as he saved the life of two Iraqi civilians.
“He left us too soon,” Unger said. “I’m very cognizant of that, maybe more than most parents. Any parent who has lost a child will say that it defies the natural order of things to bury a child. That’s true.”
Parents do all kinds of things to remember and memorialize children they’ve lost. Many put flowers on their graves on each birthday. Some start charities in their honor. When Unger lost his son during the war in Iraq, he became a chaplain to the California National Guard.
In December 2020, after 16 years of ministering to men and women who were prepared to give, as Abraham Lincoln once described it, the “last full measure of devotion,” he retired.
Unger’s journey to gold-star father and military chaplain was hardly a straight line. Unger, who currently serves as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Madera, Calif., grew up a fourth-generation secular, Russian Jew in New York. Outside of knowing some of the Jewish traditions and attending Hebrew school for a couple of years, he knew little about the biblical teachings of the Torah. In time, he became an atheist. In the late 1970s, God began to draw Unger to himself as he started reading the Bible and becoming more interested in spiritual matters.
Yet, he never fully turned his life over to Christ. In time, his life drifted out of control.
In October 1982, Unger hit rock bottom. He considered suicide but instead fully surrendered his life to Christ.
“I just want to pick up my feet and have you direct my path one step at a time,” Unger told God. “I’ve sinned against you, and I’m truly sorry for that. I believe Jesus died on the cross for me, and I want you to direct my path.”
Through the faithful discipleship of a local pastor, Unger grew in his commitment to Christ. Four months later, he accepted God’s call into pastoral ministry. He married Lynda, a woman he met while on a sales call where she was the secretary-receptionist.
In 1985, Daniel was the first of four children born to the Ungers, and he was a model son in several ways. He was a licensed minister who served as a young evangelist while in high school. He was an excellent student and an accomplished athlete.
Although Marc and Lynda didn’t know it at the time, Daniel’s commitment to serve his country followed shortly after 9/11. After his death, the family found a letter dated 9-12-01 where he described his desire to protect the nation from those responsible for 9/11. Three years after writing that letter, Daniel left for Iraq with the support of his family.
Three months later, at Forward Operation Base in Kalsu, Iraq, Daniel had been assigned to provide an escort for two Iraqi contractors doing plumbing and electrical work. When the first mortar hit the base at 3:30 p.m., everyone except Daniel took cover. Noticing that the contractors appeared confused, Daniel pushed them toward the bunker ahead of him. Then the third mortar hit, killing Daniel almost immediately.
“Daniel gave his life. No one took Daniel’s life,” Unger said. “Daniel gave his life willingly and, in the process, saved two Iraqi civilians who would have died.”
The Tuesday morning in May when Unger learned of his son’s death is forever seared in his memory. Unger had just taken a church member to the dentist and was waiting at home with his daughters while his wife was at a church Bible study. At 10 minutes until 10 a.m., Unger saw a car parking in front of his house. “That’s strange,” he thought. “Who is coming to see me at 10 minutes until 10?”
But when he saw three men get out of the car with dress greens on, he suddenly knew. It was Daniel. The next few minutes would confirm Unger’s greatest fear. The next few hours were a blur of notifying family—his wife and the other four children—about Daniel’s death.
About two weeks later, thousands sat in Monarch Stadium in Exeter, Calif., to memorialize a 19-year-old boy who had graduated high school a year earlier. At the funeral, Unger shared the same gospel his own son had proclaimed as a young evangelist. Thirty people professed faith in Jesus Christ at the end of that message.
A few weeks later, California’s Adjutant General asked Unger to become the state’s first—and only—gold-star parent to become a chaplain. Gold-star parents are those with a child who has died while serving in the U.S. military during a time of conflict.
For 16 years as a volunteer chaplain, he shared the gospel, his son’s story and Bible-based encouragement with soldiers who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Doug Carver, the executive director of chaplaincy at the North American Mission Board, believes stories like that of the Unger family can remind us of the great sacrifices that soldiers make to preserve American freedoms. Though Southern Baptists should reflect upon those sacrifices more than just one day a year, Memorial Day offers a unique reflection opportunity.
“Memorial Day should be a time when Southern Baptists remember and give thanks to God for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have served and sacrificed their lives to preserve the future and freedoms our Nation enjoys, especially the freedom of religion,” Carver said. “The Christian ideal of religious liberty comes at a great cost through the selfless and sacrificial service of members of the United States Armed Forces who swear an oath to protect and defend our many freedoms with their very lives.”
Unger echoes those thoughts, pulling from his own experience as both a gold-star parent and a chaplain with the California State Guard. “We must remember. We must go to the Memorial Day service, or at least visit a cemetery,” Unger said. “Look at how many flags are there because every flag represents our freedom. Every single flag represents our freedom, not just Daniel’s flag. Every gold-star parent represents freedom because we gave the ultimate sacrifice by allowing our child to do what they did for this nation. We need to remember that freedom is not free. Freedom has never been free. Freedom will never be free.”