Over the years, our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has sent resolutions to individual Sessions for their consideration. In the late 1980’s the U.S. covertly funded Contras in Nicaragua. (This was when most of us first learned Oliver North’s name.) Overthrowing the left-wing government of Daniel Ortega, the U.S. supported the election of Violeta Chamorro, who immediately began to undo the land re-distribution undertaken by Ortega, but Chamorro’s party, the UNO, was accused of using torture in their round-up of Contra forces.
In the wake of the Iran-Contra affair, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) invited our congregation’s Sessions to denounce the use of torture. I presented the resolution to my Session members, who passed it unanimously with little discussion. Shortly after the vote, one of our newest members, Bob, shook his head and said, “Torture is a horrible thing. All I have to say is when it comes to war, we’re no better.”
Bob was a stocky guy who always wore his American Legion cap. I knew he had fought in Korea and had worked as a metallurgist for the US Steel Works on the east side of Chicago. Diabetes had taken a toll on his eyesight, and he had agreed to serve on Session on the condition that someone drive him home if the meeting ran after dark. As elders dismissed to their cars, I let Bob know I would drive him home after I got a few things from my office. Bob followed me into my office, collapsed in the chair opposite my desk and began to shake and sob, massive tears splashing on the floor. I sat down at my desk.
It took several minutes for Bob to gain composure and explain his reaction. It was November, shortly before Thanksgiving and the holidays. He looked at me across the desk, red eyes swollen. “Every year around this time I’m a mess. I think of all the Christmases I’ve ruined around the world.”
Right after high school, Bob had entered the Air Force. He was proud to serve. As a young guy, he had admired all the World War II veterans. Now retired from the steel mill, Bob spent most of his free time visiting WWI vets in the nursing home. Bob excelled in the military; the Air Force moved him into officers’ training, and then he was hand-selected for military intelligence.
In Korea, it was his job to torture prisoners.
“I was good at it!” Bob said blank-faced. “I mean really good, I could make you say anything I wanted you to say in a matter of minutes and not leave a mark on you.”
A slight chill went down my back as I realized he wasn’t bragging but offering a statement of fact. Bob briefly described his favored technique; years later I learned it was what we call ‘waterboarding’.
Bob then explained that he was so respected for the quality and efficiency of his military service that he was invited to remain with the Air Force following the war. He was sent to several Central and South American countries to train others in his craft. That’s where he believed his skills ruined the lives of young kids around the world.
“The point is,” said Bob, “after I was done with you, you would never be the same again. For the rest of your life, what I had done to you would mess with your mind.”
Bob continued, “When I got out of the Air Force, I wondered what I would do with my life. Before I went in I wanted to be a Methodist pastor. I was active in MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) and always admired pastors, but after what I had done while I was in, I figured I didn’t have a soul. So, I went to the mills. That’s why I’m so proud to be an elder; after all these years you were willing to ordain me.”
After that November evening, every Christmastime Bob and I would meet for prayer in my office. He would pour out his memories and ask God to somehow forgive him.
Several years later, when Bob was in the hospital dying, I was called in the middle of the night by the nurse from intensive care. Bob was having violent nightmares, and he was calling out my name.
When I arrived, his wife told me he was fighting the whole Korean War all over again. I went to his bedside and took his hand. He opened his eyes and told me to pray! “Pray for those poor b*st*rds…! Pray for THIS poor b*st*rd!” I did, he calmed, a few hours later he died.
I’ve thought a lot about Bob over the past few weeks. With the appointment of a new CIA director and Korea once again in the news, I’ve thought about Bob, his life, his loyalty and the lesson he wanted me to understand. When one tortures another, two victims leave the room.
Haunted by the memories, I remain,