Just four minutes into his first battle in Iraq as commander of a company of 100 men, 21 tanks, seven Bradleys and a handful of Humvees, Chris Plekenpol heard the three letters no American leader wants to hear: KIA.
KIA stands for Killed In Action. One of his own men died in an explosion that formed a billowing black cloud 250 feet into the air.
“You got one job. And that’s to bring back everyone home alive,” Chris says soberly on an I am Second video. “In the first four minutes, I fail. I’ll, be honest with you, it kind of felt like, you know, God took a day off.”
Ever since he became born-again, Chris Plekenpol was an ardent evangelizer. But on that day of bitter battle, Chris’s faith was wounded. Ironically, it was the death of an enemy combatant that brought him back to Jesus with full force.
It all started when the West Point graduate, after serving six years in the U.S. Army, was persuaded to sign up for one more year. His colonel needed a good leader. He was stationed in South Korea, but in 12 days he shipped out to live combat in Iraq.
Waves of heat rose from the minarets in 125 degree weather. The explosion a quarter mile away sounded off alarms, so Chris, donning his flak jacket, sprinted down to his tank and mounted himself behind a 50 caliber gun. Men and machines moved in, searching for the culprit, the enemy who had blown to pieces one of his men.
After moving towards the city, they searched house to house, kicking in doors. After seven hours of intense searching, they came back with nothing. No enemy.
Frustrated and forlorn, all Chris could do back at his base was write the newly widowed wife, Michaela and their 13-year-old daughter, news about the soldier’s death.
“When I came to faith in Christ at 22, we kind of had a deal,” he says. “So here I am six years later and it kind of feels like that whole thing about ‘never leaving nor forsaking you’ is just kind of church…jargon. Where are You at the moment of when my companies were in battle and in combat?
“I’m frustrated. I’m tired, man. I don’t even feel like I’m a Christian at all. I feel like, you know, I’m not praying. I’m not reading my Bible, I’m struggling here.”
Then came the terrorist attack. Unrecognized because he dressed like a civilian, a man drove a car bomb into one of the unit’s tanks. But the detonator didn’t go off, and the perpetrator fell out of the car and rolled away as gas caught flame.
Chris knew the 7-ton tank would resist the inferno. He saw the terrorist rolling on the ground and realized he could rescue him.
He didn’t. He wouldn’t risk his life to save an enemy combatant.
“I could have saved his life,” Chris remembers. “I saw it, but I didn’t do it. I wasn’t willing to die for my enemy.”
Instead, he just watched. The burning gas set off the bigger explosion of the bomb.
It was his enemy. But still it haunted him.
“Sometimes I regret not saving that guy’s life,” he says. “That’s probably what a Christian would do, and yet I didn’t.”
Why did this haunt him? Because God spoke to him.
Chris was an enemy of God and Jesus came to die for him.
While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. — Rom. 5:8.
“When it comes to how I have lived my life towards God, I’ve been an enemy of Him,” he reflects. “Yet He didn’t sit back in His tank and just watch me die. He decided to come from heaven to earth and take that blast.”
The weeks of pondering the Scripture, seared into his heart by a horrifying example in real life, renewed his fervor for God.
“It’s so urgent, and we have just this need to share the hope that we have with people who have no clue,” Chris says. “I was not willing to go and risk my life for an enemy, yet Christ did that very thing for me.”
In addition to writing Christian news articles, Michael Ashcraft helps people plan financially for retirement, get out of debt, minimize taxes and avoid probate through living trust.