I’m Thomas McConnell and I was a soldier, specifically an infantryman in the Army. I had always felt the call of military service, and at 17 years old I was able to take action on that calling when I joined the Army in 2007. After a few years of training and in the middle of my freshman year of college in 2010 I ended up deployed to Iraq with an infantry company of the Virginia National Guard. By 2010 the insurgency was on the decline, but still active against American and Iraqi supply convoys. Our mission there was to escort those convoys from base to base. My specific job was to function as a driver of a 3 man scout truck, driving a mile or two ahead of the convoy to find or trip an ambush or roadside bomb before it hit the convoy. In the event the insurgents didn’t take our bait and opted to attack the main convoy instead, we could turn around and counter attack into the ambush to bail out the convoy. On those long nights serving as well armed bait, my crew always debated whether we drew this assignment because we were good, or if it was because our chain of command wanted to get rid of us. The jury is still out.
Being a Christian in a warzone was complex. Having a job that subjected us to constant mortal danger while also directly participating in the application of violence against human beings can weigh heavily on the soul. In the midst of that struggle God surrounded me with a crew of Christians to ponder, discuss, and bear the burdens of our job together. In countless holy moments God showed up through our prayers, study of scripture and discussions to give us a peace, courage, and strength with what we were doing. God loves soldiers and calls on them to simultaneously be lethal practitioners of violence against evil andloving servants to those who need mercy and grace. God surrounded me with a community of men that drew out those qualities, and when our time abroad ended we resumed our lives to try and do good work. I finished college, moved to Richmond, started a career, and married an amazing woman. While my life here was idyllic, my mind and heart often still yearned for that community again.
In late 2017 that yearning was spoken to when my best friend, a Special Forces soldier, reached out to me about a manpower crisis facing Army Special Forces. They were in dire need of men, and my resume was the type of person they were looking for. For the next year I began quietly preparing to attempt a return to the army, while praying and discussing that path with my wife and close friends. In fall of 2018 I put in my application, and was actually invited for an interview with a Special Forces unit. It was the sweatiest interview I have ever had. At the end of the weekend they extended a really attractive offer to come back and begin the Special Forces pipeline. With that joyful news began an existential crisis on the next step. God had clearly put this path on my heart for years for a reason, He had provided so much support and encouragement from my family and friends that allowed me to train and prepare to get this far. He had given me a set of interests, passions, talents, and experiences that seemed tailor made for this path. There was a pressing, desperate need for people like me to step forward and take on this job. He also had given me an amazing marriage, home, physical and mental health, and civilian career that this path would permanently alter, scar, or destroy. Weighing out the significant costs and benefits took weeks.
Those weeks showed me that when faced with a decision that seems overwhelming, God doesn’t speak in a booming voice or dramatic signs and symbols. God speaks through his people and he spoke through ya’ll. He spoke over dinners, coffee, and one or two beers. He spoke through your stories and prayers for wisdom, discernment and peace. After adding up the costs God showed me that sometimes ultimate personal fulfillment of our interests, passions and talents isn’t what is right for us. Sometimes he calls us to sacrifice ourhonorable desires of returning to faraway battlefields for Hisdesires of honorable service on everyday battlefields here at home in our marriages, friendships, city groups, and jobs. I wish I could stand here and say that decisions like that are easy and light, but the reality of my mortal heart is that many days a part of me will always wonder who I could have been, and what I could have done. Until I can be with God for eternity, a part of me will always carry that burden of sadness, shame, and regret that I didn’t have the courage to return to the fight, or I wasn’t strong enough to be a world class solider anda good husband. While we all have to carry the weight of hard decisions like that for the rest of our life there’s good news that we have a Savior who already bore the greatest burden of all, and is alongside us now to help carry our burdens today. When those demons of doubt and regret come for me Jesus continues to show up for me through you all, showing me that there’s important work to be done for the kingdom here and now.