August 4, 2020

Death Letter, part two: In love and war, all’s unfair

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We continue our reflections on David W. Peters’ memoir of his experiences as a military and hospital chaplain called, Death Letter: God, Sex, and War. Peters served as a battalion chaplain in Fort Hood, Texas from 2004-2007, which included a deployment to Iraq in 2006. After Iraq he also served as a chaplain clinician in the amputee, orthopedic, neuroscience, and psychological wards at Walter Reed Hospital.


Sometimes before a mission, the Soldiers say they are glad I am going with them because now they will be all right. I tell them the founder of my religion was killed about 500 miles from here and I do not expect my life to be any different. They all laugh. Sometimes I think leaders should give the troops more hope, even if it is a false hope. But the Soldiers understand why I say this. They know the crazy calculus of death can’t be written in chalk on the blackboard. It can’t be written in a book in ink. It can’t be carved on the wall of a stone church. Shit happens. Death happens. Love happens. That is all we hope for in the hot Iraqi night.

After spending time in Iraq David Peters learned that “the most certain category of humanity” is death. He writes of baptizing stillborn babies, gathering with a group of grieving soldiers who had just lost comrades in an IED explosion, counseling a young soldier who was in shock after the first time he shot and killed an Iraqi, making visits to troops at two in the morning who are shoveling garbage off the streets so that the enemy can’t hide lethal bombs in it.

Peters records that some soldiers were carrying bandanas with words from Psalm 91 on it because of an Internet myth about a unit in World War II who carried the psalm with them into battle and none of them were killed.

You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.

I remember hearing this psalm read at a funeral service for a young man who died, not in war, but in a battle with cancer in his own body. A woman who had been deeply touched by his death and who had a very literal kind of evangelical faith came to me in tears afterward, unable to reconcile her perspective on the “promises of God” with what had happened to her friend. How much more might this be true for those who have the grisly task of retrieving the boots, helmets, and body parts of their fellow soldiers? What can you say about God to a young person who is holding a bag in which is held the finger of a friend, wedding band still intact?

I went into the business of religion so I could understand death. I wanted to see life and death and I wanted to do something about it. I went to college and then to theological seminary where I learned to translate Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic into English. I also learned about theology and stocked up on an impressive set of conclusions and beliefs. I was not ready for what I would face in war. I did not know there would be so much death and that I would see most of it with my own eyes and touch it with my hands. In the valley of the shadow of death there are only metaphors and mysteries.



It was his own wedding ring and thoughts of his wife and family that kept David Peters going and gave him hope as he lived and ministered amidst the death of war.

I write to my wife Anna and call her every day. When I am in the backseat of a Humvee rolling down a Baghdad street I think of her. She is the happy place I go when I can’t stand the heat, the exhaustion, or the boredom. Every day when I kneel down to pray in my room, I think of the ways I have not been a good husband to her. I think of my failures big and small. When I return, I will buy her the minivan she has been saying we needed for three years. She has the most thankless job of war. It is her responsibility to tell the world how I am doing when they call her. I know that we will emerge from this war with a passion for one another that will be worthy of the World War II couples that are memorialized forever for their long-distance relationships.

Alas, it was not to be. Among the least publicly acknowledged casualties of war are the families that die because of it. And so it was for David Peters. Three months home, he realized his wife was having an affair with their neighbor, a Major and a friend. This initiated a relational landslide that eventually led to divorce. That which had been Peters’ strength and hope slipped away fast and left him bereft and devastated.

I am not sure what to do so I drag myself to work during the day and wander the streets and parking lots at night. My stomach fills with a sickening nausea and I lose about thirty pounds because I no longer want to eat. I lost so much weight that I could probably go on TV as a spokesperson for a weight-loss product but only I know that it came at the price of heartbreak. I never knew that heartache was physical until I felt it in my chest.

Welcome to chaplain school.

Welcome to the real world, where all’s unfair in love and war (and everything in between).


  1. Shit happens.

    Grace happens.

    Who knows how the chasm between them is crossed?
    Or maybe there is no chasm
    and the mystery and suffering
    all belong to one land.

  2. I read the book. Talk about dispel neat little categories.

    Peters went to Iraq and spent his time comforting others and avoiding being blown to bits by roadside bombs. He always had the hope of his wife and family at home.

    Only he arrives home to have his own life blown to bits. The pain is palpable, raw and visceral. He lets us in on his sexual brokeness that came after his divorce. When he talks about his various girlfriends I started to think ‘hey, this is almost pornographic’ and then I realised I was hearing his confession, and that his voice was the wail of millions of divorced men put to paper.

    Now in a small way I understand what some of my divorced male friends might go through, the sense of betrayal by their spouse, God and their Christian community.

  3. I received this from a reader today who was hesitant to post it for fear of raising a stink. I think it’s a worthy contribution and asked permission to post it anonymously.

    I’m writing today on the Death Letter series. I don’t post the following in the comments as I am quite sure it would offend just about everyone. But I’m so torn up inside, so I must say this to you. Please forgive me for adding to your burdens.

    I was in the navy for six years. I never saw combat. So, I know a bit about being a veteran, but not like the author. During my time in the navy, I ‘acquired’ a physical problem I will take to the grave. Again, I never saw combat.

    I never question the bravery and terrible sacrifices that the troops, especially the combat troops, make. But I will always and forever question the government when it comes to sending the military into war. Over the past several years, more and more information has come to light regarding the motives and decisions of government officials when it comes to the wars in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq. To my disgust and horror, the ‘reasons’ were mostly lies. Lies from the so-called ‘compassionate Christian’ civilian leaders, lies from the bureaucracy, lies from the military leaders. Thousands of American soldiers are dead. Tens of thousands are wounded in some way; most of these for the rest of their lives. Hundreds of thousands of Afghanis, Iraqis, Pakistanis and others in the Middle East are dead or wounded. For lies! And now, incredibly, insanely, more soldiers are being sent there again!

    How many times have you, Chaplain Mike, heard in churches and from allegedly Christian church people, that the wars are ‘blessed by God’, that ‘we’ are waging war against ‘the forces of the devil’, that our leaders are somehow ‘heroes’, that all the people in the Middle East are ‘evil’? All this from the supposed followers of Jesus, who died rather than fight.

    The author’s marriage died. For lies!
    The author’s agony at pain, loss, death, destruction; all for lies!
    His life damaged, wrenched out of anything resembling normal until he finally, mercifully dies; for lies!
    All this multiplied by the hundreds of thousands. For lies!

    As you said, ‘welcome to the real world’.

    Jeremiah 12:1 ESV
    [1] Righteous are you, O LORD, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?

    • This may have something to do with an economy based on the manufacture of armaments.

      It is massive and has customers all over the world. But no matter who is in power they always manage to convince us that war is needed.

    • Patrick Kyle says

      This is heart rendingly true. We enter into war under false pretenses and lies, then don’t allow our soldiers to fight the way they need to in order to really win, because the politicians need to run the war from behind the scenes for their own ends. We kill a few hundred thousand people, thousands of soldiers are killed, and tens of thousands are wounded, crippled or traumatized. Then we come up with a bullshit excuse to leave, leaving the job undone and a welcome mat out for those who were our enemies. They return and kill or torture anyone who helped us. So our guys basically died for nothing, and the fools who believed our promises get to die horrible deaths. Then we treat our veterans horribly, the VA being the platonic form of suffocating and inept government bureaucracy.

      This is a case in point of exactly why I have a deep disdain and mistrust for the lying thieves that run our government, and who think nothing of sending us (or our children) to some foreign country to die in order to accomplish God-knows-what.

    • “Take a Bow” by Muse.

      Corrupt, you corrupt
      And bring corruption to all that you touch
      Hold, you’ll behold
      And beholden for all that you’ve done
      And spell, cast a spell
      And cast a spell on the country you run
      And risk, you will risk
      You will risk all their lives and their souls
      And burn, you will burn
      You will burn in Hell, yeah, you’ll burn in Hell
      You’ll burn in Hell, yeah, you’ll burn in Hell
      For your sins

  4. Senecagriggs yahoo says

    It truly doesn’t get much worse than this.

    Prayers for Ergun and his wife.

  5. I’m sorry to say I agree entirely with Anonymous, Ken, and Patrick.

    “Sorry” to say it because I grew up completely believing in America and our exceptionalism — taught this way in school and it was never questioned at home because my parents were taught that way in school. As an old person, I have had to watch “my” America disappear under more and more revelations of ugly truth.

    “Sorry,” too, because my brother, now in his 60s, had his youth burned up in the acid bath of Vietnam. Then when he came home, America sneered and turned away from him and all of his fellow soldiers who made it back.

    Sorry for all the soldiers who have ever died in vain. Or gone to war at 19 and come back two years later, age 56, like my brother.

    Loathing for the fat, compacent creeps who sent them to die. I guess I should pray for those creeps, to rid myself of the rage. But I looks at the list of Chickenhawks (you can google it) and can’t really do it yet.

  6. OldProphet says

    War sucks. Sin sucks. I can’t even comment on your writers book. It’s so attempt to talk about it is possible. I won’t even try. But as to anonymous, I would say this. The anger and pain is obvious. Nonetheless. Blame just can’t be assessed anywhere. The decisions to fight in Iraq and Afghistan were by the US government, not the church The US is a democratic -republic, not a theocracy. Christians’ didn’t send our young men, the jerks in D.C.did. Yeah, some stupid Christian leaders shouted idiotic things but who doesn’t There is do much about God that I don’t understand or know. Sometimes I despair because I lack so much understanding. The only thing I only know is that Jesus loves us and someday I shall stand before Him and He will tell me what it all meant, and why. Ot wil be the same for David Peters. Besides, I agree with Peters’ reply to Jesus. Lord, where else can I go?

  7. the other Mary says

    I finished “Death Letter” last night and only have a little to say. It don’t know if it will make the editorial cut. And maybe it is coming too late. I feel it was important for the author, for his healing if nothing else, to voice his incredible pain and suffering. But I am disturbed by the lack of hope in the end. He started his story with “I got into the business of religion….” and seems to end with something like – well it finally got better and I got back into the business again. Where is the hope? Where is the grace and healing presence of Christ? Is that no longer real to him or was that a casualty of war also?
    Years ago when I trained as a volunteer chaplain the Lutheran minister who gave us our training said one thing that has always stuck with me. He said, “You come to bring people peace because you have it to give as you carry the presence of Christ.” I understanding suffering and ‘the dark night of the soul’ and am in no way criticizing the author.