For the purposes of this story we’ll call him Zach. Zach and I shared the same Battalion but the similarities ended there. I am black and Zach was white. I am from New York City while Zach grew up in the backwoods of the Midwest region of the United States. Our body shapes, the way we talked, what we ate, everything that could possibly be different about two individuals was on display whenever we interacted. What we did share — besides being soldiers — was our belief in God. Any yet while we shared the same religion, there was still a disconnect. While I gently slipped my pinkie toe into the waters of Christianity over the years (usually yanking my foot out of its murky depths), Zach had Michael Phelp’d his way through those waters; emerging only to tell anybody he encountered that the temperature was fine and to “jump on in!” His total embrace of Christianity was both disturbing and refreshing. You tended to ignore the crazed look in his eye because, well, he was such an incredible guy. Which is why when he invited me to attend church service one Sunday, I accepted the invite.
That morning, I got a call from Zach saying that he had to go to the field for weekend duty but for me to go ahead without him and enjoy the service. Every fiber of my being wanted to skip church and go back to sleep; but Zach was such a good guy that I didn’t want to disappoint him. I could also hear my late Grandmother — who was a devout Christian — yelling in my head to get up and go to church. Even after her death she’s the best at guilt-tripping me into doing something I don’t want to do. After I agreed that I’d go to Zach’s church without him he laughed and said in a heavy Midwestern accent, “You gonna get that spirit!” I got up and went to the service.
A few months later, in October, my battalion left the U.S. and landed in Iraq. Zach was killed by a roadside bomb in late November. I refused to believe the news until we stood on the helipad, saluting the bag that held what remained of my friend.
The Bible states that the main job of a Christian is to introduce people to Christianity and spread the news of God’s word. While I acknowledged God’s presence, I damn sure wasn’t a recruiter. My faith wasn’t exactly a secret but I followed a loose “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that I was sure made God want to slap me. How the hell could I still be alive while Zach was gone? I was not following God’s word; Zach was. He was converting people and praising God as loud as he could, while I kept religion (and most people) at arm’s length. How could a fair and just God take this man’s life?
Two days later, I shuffled into Zach’s memorial service. I flipped through the program and was shocked to learn that Zach had a daughter. I mentally scanned through the conversations that Zack and I had had over the years. He had never mentioned having any children.
I wondered what this must be like for his daughter. Was she old enough to understand? Is she growing up without that wonderful man as her Dad? I was unmarried and did not have any children at the time and again wondered, why was I alive and he dead? What purpose was I serving? Those questions plagued me the rest of my deployment.
Twelve months later, my Battalion — minus 28 souls — returned to the U.S. I left my belief in God in Southwest Asia. I could not reconcile the concept of God that I had in my head with the deity that took a man who did everything in his power to serve. How could God take this man and leave someone like me whose faith bordered between nonexistent and a passing acknowledgment? I buried the G man along with most of my feelings and concentrated on transitioning into civilian life.
On the outside, I’m sure things seemed decent. I graduated from college, had a solid government job, and tried to connect with my new wife and child. But something was off. My life held no real joy, no real purpose. I was a like a high-functioning alcoholic. I looked like I was in control, but my hold on things was tenuous at best. A perpetual list of the 28 soldiers my Battalion lost — with Zach in the middle — played on a constant loop in my head. I was going through the motions; living in the middle of a fog where it seemed like no one could see me.
A few years later I sat on my couch looking at Zach’s memorial. He was in uniform, smiling as if he had just won the lottery instead of what turned out to be a one-way ticket to the Middle East. I replayed what he said to me when I told him I’d make it to his church even though he was going to be in the field: “You gonna get that spirit!” And just like that I had an epiphany. Living in this constant haze was doing me no favors. It was as if I felt so guilty about being lucky enough to have survived a war zone that I wanted to turn myself into a ghost. A ghost is an apparition, something that one cannot feel or touch. I had been living my life in the shadows, unwilling to feel or touch anything or anyone in any real way. I wanted to be invisible and stand still in a place of inertia. “You gonna get that spirit!” I began to realize that instead of treating lost friends like ghosts, you should treat them like spirits.
The definition of Spirit as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “An animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms.” That definition is the total opposite of death and dying and being a ghost. Spirits are supposed to galvanize people and breathe fire into a person’s soul. Instead of using the people who have left you as albatrosses of your own pain, use them as spirits who can breathe life into everything that you do. Honor them by living for them.
I slowly emerged from my funk. Thinking about the special person that I lost, not as a ghost but as a spirit helping to guide me, worked wonders. I left my government job and pursued the nonprofit work that sparked passion in me; I regained the energy needed to pursue another passion of mine: writing. I have a few publications and plan on pursuing an MFA in creative writing this fall. Most importantly, I became a better father. Whenever I feel the urge to crawl back into the space I was in before, I think about Zach’s daughter who will never get a chance to see her Dad again. I use Zach’s spirit to continue being a good father to my daughter.
I wish I could tell you that I became a devout man of God who has taken up Zach’s street ministry and dedicated my life to spreading the gospel. That has not happened. I’m still trying to repair the relationship I once held with God. But instead of wallowing in the self-pity of survivor’s guilt, I thank God for the good things in my life and for introducing me to Zach who taught me that his spirit is much stronger than his ghost.