My war began on Thanksgiving morning.
At 2:00 a.m., November 22, 2007, to be exact. I was sitting in the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, eyes wide with anticipation and fear, as the Iraqi landscape slid by. Peering over the shoulder of our door gunner, I saw fires flicker in the distance, the lights of Iraqi villages, and the vast, black expanse of empty deserts.
And I’m not ashamed to say I was afraid. Looking back, after almost a full year under my belt, I shouldn’t have felt fear — at least not at that moment. I was flying at night, at very high speed, over mostly uninhabited desert. That’s about as safe as transportation got in Iraq, but I didn’t know that. Perhaps I should have taken a cue from the corporal next to me. He was sleeping soundly, gear piled in his lap, slumped on my left shoulder.
But I couldn’t sleep. Weeks before, I’d been home in Tennessee, a constitutional lawyer living with a beautiful wife and two precious children. My idea of a tough day was working on a legal brief until midnight. My idea of stress was looking at a too-long to-do list. My idea of deprivation was running out of milk for my Cheerios. And now my life was about to change. I wasn’t David French, civil rights lawyer. I was Captain French, Squadron Judge Advocate, 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment.
I spent most of the flight praying. I prayed for the men around me, I prayed for courage to do my duty, and the wisdom to do it well. And I asked God a very specific question: “Will I see my family again?”
There was no answer. I felt no sense of peace, no sense of security– just a dizzying uncertainty and the cold bite of fear in the pit of my stomach.
During the year I spent there, I asked God that question again and again. “Will I see my family again?” I asked it when friends fell. I asked it before I left the base on a particularly hazardous mission. And I would ask it sometimes late at night, when I felt most alone.
There was never an answer. Never a sense of peace.
To be clear, I was not “out there” every day. I was not they guy on the raids, knocking down the doors, or leading men under fire. I was not the hero. My job was to serve the heroes as best I could, but in Iraq, even that job has risks. And in Diyala Province, from 2007 to 2008, where al Qaeda was fighting to hold one of its last sanctuaries, the risks were considerable. We were beating the enemy, but not without horrible costs and not without heartbreak.
Unlike many good men, however, I made it home.
And then as suddenly as I landed in Iraq, I found myself back in Tennessee, surrounded by family, southern vegetation, good friends, and delicious food. But even then, peace was elusive. Why I was spared when others weren’t? In Iraq, I’d ridden down the same mine-laden roads that claimed my friends’ lives, yet I wasn’t scratched. In fact, I never even saw an IED go off. At times, death seemed so random, it was difficult to understand life.
In retrospect, it may not have been the optimal time to start the adoption process. For the first dozen years of our marriage, we felt we should adopt, but there was always a reason not to. We were changing jobs. We were moving. Work was particularly busy. And then, I was deployed. But when I returned, we both felt the time had come. The process was long and expensive, and it took almost a full year before we received our referral. It came in a letter-sized envelope, and we tore it apart – eager to see our child.
There was our new daughter. Small and beautiful. Naomi Konjit French. A child with no home who would soon have her own bedroom, complete with an array of stuffed animals. We devoured all the information we could. We looked at test results (healthy), behavioral assessments (spirited), and sent the photo to friends and family with all the pride of a birth announcement. We began to make plans to go to Ethiopia with our two biological children, to bring Naomi home.
As we looked over the forms, however my eyes froze on one line.
Her birthday. November 22, 2007. Thanksgiving Day. The very day I flew into war.
God is indeed mysterious. Even as he was silent in the face of my prayer for peace and safety, he was preparing our family’s future, in the form of a tiny baby born in a village far from war.
As we break bread together this Thanksgiving, I’ll think of the men I was blessed to call my brothers, the dark trial of my year at war, and my newest daughter who was oblivious to it all. Mostly, though, I’ll ponder the mysterious and merciful grace of the God who orders all our steps.
And I’ll be thankful.
My war began on Thanksgiving morning.