Fr. Dan Farley has become a good friend through on work on Relevant Radio's The Inner Life, our program on spiritual direction. This good priest has now been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease. Fr. Dan has asked me for some help on a book he would like to write about his life as a priest. What follows is the beginning of our collective efforts. Let us know what you think!
The Chinook helicopter was still out of sight. But, the wop-wop-wop sound of the prop blades was getting louder. Army pilots had made this run into Restropo and its sandy, arid mountains of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley hundreds of times. This mission would be no different. Stay low, get in, get out, and do it quickly.
As an Army Major, Catholic priest, and Chaplain, I knew the drill. Full combat gear – helmet, flak jacket, protective goggles to keep the flying dust and sand out of my eyes. My job…run like crazy, jump into the chopper, and get out of there before some sniper a thousand meters away could take aim and fire.
As I strained my eyes to pick up a glimpse of my ride back to our main base in Jallahbad, the massive Chinook peeked briefly above one of the nearby ridges, slipped out of sight down a short ravine, lumbered up and over a small hill and roared into its landing zone. As the aircraft hovered over the uneven ground, I rose up from my crouching position and started moving toward the monstrous aircraft about 35 meters in front of me. The terrain was rocky and uneven. My path to the chopper included a 15 meter sprint across the side of a hill.
Then it happened. And all so unexpectedly. Running with my head low as quickly as I could, I fell. The first time it seemed as if I had rolled my ankle on a small stone. But, when I got up, it happened again. This time as I smacked the ground I seemed to bounce and ricochet around the Afghan rocks like a stray bullet. My foot felt floppy. No stability, some sudden and unexplained weakness.
The helicopter was still hovering, rotor blades whirling mightily. The crew was yelling for me to hurry. I couldn’t hear them over the engine noise, but I knew what they were saying. If I could have seen their eyes through their dark visors, I know they would have looks of desperation in them. This was not the time to alter the plan. But, I couldn’t get up.
The chopper crew knew (and I knew, too) they had to get out of there. In a war zone time misspent was an enemy’s best friend. Even this Catholic priest couldn’t keep the pilot from delaying the mission for more than a few extra and precious seconds. Feeling almost paralyzed, I knew the pilot had no choice. With fear beginning to gain the upper hand, I watched helplessly as the chopper lifted up, twirled around and made a beeline for a nearby ridge. All I could do was lie on the rocky ground, shielding myself from the rotor wash.
Now what? My heart was racing. The sound of my pulse was pounding in my ears. I knew the chopper crew would have radioed its status and help would soon be on the way. But, I was now out in the open, exposed to any enemy combatants in the area. As I scratched and crawled my way behind some larger rocks, I heard the chopper again. The familiar wop-wop-wop of the helicopter steadily grew louder. They were coming back to try again. But, I needed to get there this time. No excuses. As the Chinook swooped in, I crawled from behind the rocks and dragged myself on all fours to the vehicle’s open door. With a bear-like grip, one crew member grabbed the back of my flak jacket and in one continuous motion lifted me up and into the helicopter. The pilot was already swinging the nose around. We were in the air and headed back.
Near breathless in the rear of the giant Chinook, I was thankful we were on our way out of this barren, stark combat zone. But, I wondered! What was going on? Why would my leg and foot suddenly give out? What could this be?
There would be no answers. At least, not today. As it turned out, there would be no answers for many, many months. What I didn’t know then was this would be the first sign of what doctors would eventually diagnose as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Medically it’s known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. More simply it’s called ALS, a fatal illness that impacts the nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. ALS would end the career of baseball Hall of Fame legend and New York Yankee great Lou Gehrig. His high profile battle with the dreaded disease would forever associate his name with the illness.
That day in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan would begin an intense time of encounter not only with my own mortality, but also with the God of the Universe. It would force me to confront my own fears of suffering and death. This diagnosis of ALS would teach me about things like trust. I would also discover an extraordinary peace of mind and heart…knowing always that Jesus Himself in his own suffering and death would lead me and show me how to live…truly live in the midst of my own suffering and pain.
This would begin a journey that I would not wish on anyone, but a journey that I would never ask to change.
So, what do you think? A good story?