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FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Sometime shortly after 9 a.m. this morning, the mortal remains of an old solider were laid to rest in the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery.

This American son was a patriot of the first order and a good man, once you worked your way past the gruff exterior. He had a penchant for sarcasm, a quick wit and the kind of smile — mostly hidden away behind a bushy mustache — that never leaves your memory.

He did not die in Iraq or in Afghanistan. He died from a long illness, leaving a wife and two daughters.

He was a military historian who accompanied the surviving members of the 101st Airborne from D-Day to France for the 50th anniversary of the invasion. He was proud to be a part of their tradition.

He served with L Company, 75th Rangers, Echo Recon, 2nd of the 501st, 101st Airborne in Vietnam. He received the Combat Infantry Badge, three Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars for Valor, one Silver Star for Valor, and a Presidential Citation. He bore the scars of battle on his face.

I was proud to call him my friend.

Two weeks ago, I thought about him as I was driving home from work.

“I wonder how he’s doing,” I thought to myself. In the hustle of traffic in Dallas-Fort Worth, my attention soon was diverted to the cars darting in front of me like ants scurrying to a picnic.

He crossed my mind the next day, too. “It’s almost Thanksgiving, almost Christmas.” That’s when we usually talked, but we hadn’t for almost two years. I knew he was in poor health the last time we’d spoken, so I knew I needed to call him before it was too late. But life got in the way.

Yesterday, some two weeks after he’d first crossed my mind, I thought about him again and thought the Lord might be trying to tell me something. I tried to find his number but couldn’t, so I did what most tech-savvy people do. I went to the Internet. I found his obituary instead. He had died Oct. 30 at his home with his family.

I first met him in 1990. He was the volunteer Vietnam veteran with many stories to offer about what life was like in combat. I’d heard similar stories from my father, and because of that, my friend was always considerate when I asked about the jungle, the people and the war in Southeast Asia. He never tired of me asking him questions, or so it seemed to me. Each time we talked, it was like speaking to an older brother whose exploits were legendary.

It wasn’t long after we’d first met that we had our first conversation about religion. It wasn’t the sort of direct, intentional conversation you have with someone with whom you want to share the Gospel. It was more about his dislike for religion and specifically people who claimed they had it all figured out, people “who think their way is the only way.”

From that day forward I prayed for him, and in every conversation I had with him afterwards, I knew I needed to be bold and say what the Lord had laid on my heart — about how much He loved my friend and his family, how He longed for him to enter into Paradise, how Jesus had been wounded mortally for his sin. But I never did.

Shortly after I took my father back to Vietnam in 2005, I called my friend to tell him the difference the trip had made in my father’s life. He thought my father being able to deal with the loss of his friends in Vietnam was a good thing. We said our goodbyes, again without me voicing any presentation of the Gospel.

And then, a few minutes later, I sat down and wrote him a letter. In the letter I explained that I had no excuse for not sharing the message of Christ with him earlier, that I wanted him to know that there was hope beyond this life. I told him of what Christ had done in the heart of my Green Beret father. If He could change a hardened Special Forces sergeant, He could change a hardened paratrooper from the legendary Screaming Eagles.

I sent the letter, and never spoke with him again. I thought I had absolved my Christian conscience. I had given him the message in written form.

But today I am wondering if he ever received it. Did he dismiss my rendering of the Gospel? Did it make him think about life outside this mortal coil? I will likely never know, unless somehow, by the grace of God, my friend’s own vision for things eternal was awakened and the Spirit of God poured into his heart. Perhaps that is why I have grieved so much today.

I am confident that God judges rightly and that I do not know the faith — or lack thereof — in any human heart beyond my own, but I pray that my feeble attempt to share Christ, born from my disobedience and my lack of courage, was sufficient. I had 17 years to convince my friend of the truth of God’s Word.

I can only hope that, though he has found his earthly resting place among his band of brothers, that he is enjoying the beginnings of a long and happy eternity with Christ. That may be the only way I sleep for a while.
Gregory Tomlin is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.

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  • Gregory Tomlin