I always knew I would end up in the military. I grew up in a military family, played “war” as a kid, and dreamed of the day I would put on the uniform. That day came in 2003. I was an airborne infantryman in a scout platoon in the 82nd Airborne Division, and my entire identity was wrapped up in being a soldier. The fact that I was getting paid to jump out of airplanes and shoot things blew me away.

In 2005, my unit deployed to Afghanistan, and I was thrilled. I had married the love of my life two months earlier, so it was difficult to leave her, but I wanted to get in the game. We all wanted to deploy; we all wanted to fight. That’s tough for people to understand, I know. The only way I can describe the desire is that it’s like an athlete practicing his entire life and never actually getting to play in the big game.

In 2006, we returned from deployment, and my military career was marching on. I had planned to apply to Special Forces training. I had my entire life mapped out and knew exactly where I was going.

It all came crashing down on January 24, 2006. To make a long story short, parachutes are supposed to open, and mine didn’t. I experienced what is known as a “cigarette roll.” My chute deployed but didn’t open. I pulled my reserve, and it slowed my descent enough so that I didn’t become a permanent lawn dart. But I broke my back while landing, and it became obvious that I would not be able to stay in the military.

The Hardest Year

What came next was the hardest year of my life as well as the hardest year of our marriage. I felt like an empty shell. In the fall of 2006, my former unit deployed to Iraq and experienced heavy casualties. This quickened my downward spiral. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have been there. I struggled to support my family, experienced more depression than I let on, and contemplated suicide often. I felt like I should have died at war—and thought my family would have been better off if I had.

In the midst of all this, a recurring thought terrified me: I’ll never again get to go to war. One of the most perplexing phenomena among combat veterans is that many of them miss war. In the service, I had a brotherhood. None of us soldiers probably would have been friends outside the military, but we had a clear mission and identity, and that unified us. We were soldiers, we jumped out of airplanes for a living, we were all itching to get in the fight, and we all would have jumped in front of a bullet for each other. We were young, aggressive, and ready to take the fight to the doorstep of the enemy. We became brothers. When I was discharged, that brotherhood was gone, and so were the mission and identity I had built my life on.

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While processing a loss of identity, I began to experience something I had never heard a veteran discuss honestly: deep-seated racism toward anyone who appeared to be Middle Eastern. As a result of seeing and hearing about what was happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, I developed an intense hatred toward an entire people group. I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I wanted to do physical harm to any and all Middle Easterners. This terrified me. I was a Christian and loved Jesus, but I had no clue what to do about the hatred I concealed.

Enemy of God

Around this time, our family began attending a church in Michigan that talked about the gospel in a way I had completely missed growing up. I had harbored a dysfunctional view of the gospel: I believed that Jesus’ work got me on the team on day one, but I thought it was my work that kept me on the team from day two on. This church talked about the gospel in the present tense rather than the past tense.

As I read 2 Corinthians, I was struck by Paul’s line of thought in 5:17–21. He wrote that, through Jesus, we had been reconciled to God to be reconcilers. Sin had fractured my relationship with God, and he sent his Son to do everything necessary to restore my relationship with God. Then he tasked me with taking that message of reconciliation to the whole world. Through the gospel and the local church (Eph. 3:10), I had a mission again. In the local church, I found the brotherhood that had been lost.

I decided to put my “yes” on the table and prayed that God would do with it whatever he wished. I wanted to give my life to advancing the gospel, but I still hid a deep racism that I couldn’t explain. Then one day, while again reading 2 Corinthians 5, it hit me like a ton of bricks: God came after me while I was his enemy. That’s the premise of reconciliation. I wasn’t morally neutral, I wasn’t searching for God, I wasn’t a pretty good person whom he was going to make better. I was a dead person whom he was going to make alive. I was his enemy, and he was going to make me his child.

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God’s grace toward me while I was his enemy floored me. He pursued me when I was an enemy; how could I withhold that same pursuit from my perceived enemies? The hatred slowly turned to acceptance, then to an all-out desire to see adherents of Islam reached with the gospel.

In 2013, we planted Veritas Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg. I want to give my life to planting churches that make much of Jesus. I want to see Muslims come to worship the gracious, pursuing God of the Bible. I want to see my enemies become children of God. I want to see fellow soldiers understand the love of Jesus and the mission they’re invited into. I want to give my life to seeing others respond to the grace of God shown in Jesus.

In the local church, the brotherhood I lost has been redeemed. As I follow Jesus in authentic, life-on-life community, I’m continuing to see how the gospel frees me from depression and guilt and gives me a mission to give my life to.

Nine years after the day my military life ended, I cling to the truth that Jesus is greater than my identity struggle, Jesus is greater than my racism, Jesus is greater than my desire to return to war, Jesus is greater than the wounds I still carry. Jesus is all.

John Murphy is the lead pastor of Veritas Church.

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