‘Three years at war’

Three years at war

An abridged excerpt, in which Josh Fortune tells of God’s encouraging presence with him as a soldier in Afghanistan.

Dirt kicks up around us, bark splinters, leaves get hit and fall lazily onto us. So this is what it is like to be under a withering hail of bullets, I think to myself. We are lying flat on the ground. An Afghan soldier several metres away from me has thrown away his weapon, and is lying like a starfish, not even wanting to lift his head.

A bullet hits a patch of earth to my right and sends up a puff of dust. Sinister cracks and snaps have become our world. It is absolutely terrifying. A British soldier to my left swears loudly as a bullet whizzes just above his head. Despite the situation, we laugh. It’s unreal. BOOM! A rocket-propelled grenade is fired, but thankfully misses. A message comes over the radio, two words that nobody in any army ever wants to hear. Man down.

‘Get up and run’
Somebody — we aren’t sure who — in one of the lead sections has been hit. He is in a critical condition, and will die if he is not rescued. We are the reserve section, the casualty evacuation section. We have to move. The platoon commander tells us that we have to go. There are blank looks of fear from both Afghan and British soldiers. We have just been hugging the ground, praying for our lives, and now we have to get up and run through the bullet-infested air. I am shaking, but I resolve not to be the one who refuses to move — I am a cameraman, and for me to delay the efforts to save a wounded man would be unforgivable. Lord, I pray in my head, I ask that you watch over me now and, if I am to die, please can it be as painless as possible.

‘Go!’ It’s time to get up. My arms and legs scream at me as I force them to make me stand. We begin to run across a boggy field. Taliban fire comes in. CRACK! CRACK!

Words to Joshua
I am absolutely terrified. I pray as I run, while pushing the Afghan soldier who is stumbling in front of me, his strength flagging. In my mind, God’s words to Joshua — the man I was named for — in the Bible suddenly come to me: ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go’ (Joshua 1.9).

I know that God has ordained that I am here, in this moment, running toward the casualty with the soldiers. I know that he is completely and utterly in control of this situation. Despite my fear, I feel peace wash over me; I know that he is with me. I repeat his words to Joshua over and over as I run through the bog and the grass.

Not a pleasant sight
An orange smoke grenade bursts about 50 metres away, marking the location of the casualty. We are heaving with exhaustion, numb-legged, and the last few steps drag on and on. What we arrive at is not a pleasant sight. I immediately turn my camera off — now is not the time to gather footage. He has been shot in the face. The bullet has sliced through jaw and cheek, and emerged on the other side. His tongue, wet with dark blood, is hanging out, touching his ear. I never realised that tongues could be that long. His face has a pale green tinge to it. The medic, a young blonde Navy girl called Kate, frantically works on him, inserting a breathing tube into his nose. His mouth is too clogged with blood and ragged flesh for him to breathe unaided. We load him onto the stretcher, where Kate will have to tend to him as we run.

Chinook run
We pick up the stretcher: the wounded man is heavy with bulky gear. We sink deeper into the mud. ‘Go! Go! Go!’ the commander shouts, and we pound forward as fast as we can. I have never known physical exertion like it — none of the brutal Para selection tests from my former army days even come close to this level of agony. Hands burn, legs shake, breath is ragged. The soldiers shout at each other to keep going. They shout to the injured man — who I find out is called Jon — to hang on, telling him he will be OK. I wonder if they actually believe what they are saying. To me, it looks like he is going to die. We run, and we run, and we run. Angry, panicked voices berate any who don’t put every ounce of effort into getting Jon out of there. A British medical Chinook is on its way, and we don’t want to keep it waiting with the Taliban around.

Protect the casualty
After what seems like three hours of running — although it’s probably only about 20 minutes or so — we finally reach the makeshift landing site, that other soldiers have secured. The ‘whump-whump-whump’ of the Chinook descends to surround us. ‘Cover the casualty!’ someone screams, as the heat, grass, and dust kicked up by the Chinook thrash at our faces. We throw ourselves over and around Jon, protecting his open wounds from the cloying dust. Once it has settled, we pick him up and run him over to the Chinook. The medics take him and, within an instant, he is gone.

‘Thank you, Lord’
Silence. Birds sing. Crickets chirp. I sink to the floor and rub the sweat from my face. Soldiers begin to check that everyone is OK. We drink water, lots of water. I wring the wet filth of the stream from my socks, and feel at a complete loss for what to say. I have never experienced anything remotely like this afternoon in my life. Everybody is congratulating Kate: she ran across an open field, under fire, to save Jon with no regard whatsoever for her safety. Several soldiers thank me for helping when, as a media guy, I could have just sat there and not got involved. I thank God for giving me the strength to volunteer myself. That night, we receive reports from Camp Bastion that Jon is going to live. I lie in the dust on my camp bed and watch the moon. Tears fill my eyes. ‘Thank you, Lord.’

Beginning to doubt
One year later, things have changed. I have now been in Afghanistan for two years, and my morale is low. I have fallen in love with the daughter of the pastor of our church back home. I have one more year to push out here. We are on the eve of one of the largest operations in history. The next morning, we will be airlifted into hostile territory and seek to secure it from Taliban influence. This could get bad. Despite the fact that God has kept me for the last two years, and brought me to a greater faith in him, I am beginning to doubt. Now that I am in love — and have so much to lose — I am beginning to believe that I will end up as one of those tragic stories of young love cut short. How do I know that I can trust God? What if his plan for me is to die in the next few days?

Dog tag encouragement
A British soldier, who is part of the company that I am attached to, walks up to me before bedtime. ‘Hey Josh’, he says, pressing a small metal dog tag into my hand, ‘I think this is yours, it has your name on it, mate.’ I frown slightly, I haven’t lost my identity tags — they are still firmly around my neck. I turn over the tag that he has given me, and I am lost for words. I can see why he thought it was mine; it has the word ‘Joshua’ written on it. It is a quotation from the Bible book of Joshua, the same verses that I repeated to myself over and over as I ran to help save Jon a year ago: ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go’.

Wow! There is no way that this can be chance. A soldier who I barely know, walking over to me and giving me this dog tag because — for all he knew — it belonged to me. These words from the Bible, God’s promise coming at precisely this moment, when I needed it.

The reminder that I shouldn’t be afraid, because he will be with me wherever I go. Whether I will die in the next few days, or live to enjoy a long, happy life with Danielle is no longer so pressing. My God is with me, and whatever happens, I am going to trust in him.

This is an abridged excerpt from Three Years at War by Josh Fortune, published by Day One (224 pages, £5.00, ISBN 978 1 846 253 720, http://www.dayone.co.uk).

Josh Fortune now lives in London with his wife Danielle and their son Jacob. He helps run a youth group at his church and also preaches regularly.

This article was first published in the December 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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