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A veteran with a new vision

By Kirk Noonan

In only seven months on the ground in Iraq, Blake Leitch escaped the potentially deadly blasts of improvised explosive devices 26 times. The 27th time he was not so fortunate.

“It was at night and someone had to be the eyes of the Bradley [a large tank],” says Leitch, 26. “To do that, I stood in the turret giving our driver directions.”

Leitch doesn’t recall feeling or hearing the blast from the roadside bomb that disabled the mammoth Bradley. The force of the explosion knocked him out and shoved him down the turret. When he came to, he was covered in blood.

“I thought my number had been drawn,” he says. “But I quickly realized I was going to live — with a face messed up by shrapnel.”

He was medevaced to Baghdad. There, he underwent surgery to remove shrapnel embedded in his cheek and nose. Miraculously, he says, the shrapnel missed his eyes.

“I should have been killed, but not dying that night was God’s way of saying, ‘I am here and I am protecting you,’ ” says Leitch. He was on the cusp of learning a few more spiritual lessons that would change the course of his life.

Removed

As a junior in high school Leitch was invited to attend an Assemblies of God church’s youth group. At church he met some guys who, he says, “defined for me what the church is supposed to be. They still do to this day. Even now, when I face issues I call them for advice and prayer.”

Part of his friends’ positive example, Leitch adds, included open confession, praying for one another, and holding each other accountable. Their friendship and trust had a profound effect on Leitch. But, he admits, he struggled with extending the same grace to his family — especially to his mother.

“As soon as I went home I would quickly forget the witness of my new friends,” he says. “I definitely was not the kind of witness to my family as my friends were to me.”

Wanting to escape from his family situation he enlisted in the Army.

“I really felt sorry for myself,” he says. “When I was home I didn’t depend on or focus on my relationship with Jesus like I should have.”

The same held true at Fort Irwin in California. As his comrades be littled him for not cursing, drinking and carousing, his spiritual moorings slowly crumbled. Within months, the way he lived was indistinguishable from the way most of the other soldiers were living.

“My accountability was gone,” says Leitch. “I turned away from God.”

Though his faith waned, the love of his girlfriend, Jackie, back home in Mattoon, Ill., did not. She continued to encourage and pray for him regularly. They married, and Leitch returned to his faith — at least temporarily. But soon after being deployed to Iraq, Leitch fell back into some of his old habits.

“Once again I saw my accountability completely vanish,” he says. “My wife wasn’t there, and I had no communication with home, so I separated myself from God.”

His decision to stray from his faith would carry a steep price.

Lost

Leitch served in an Army infantry quick reaction team, a unit assigned to deal with emergencies ranging from taking out suicide bombers to rescuing fellow soldiers injured in firefights.

Because the team had done well they were sent to a forward operations base 40 miles from the Syrian border. They were tasked with securing an Iraqi city between Syria and Fallujah that served as a rest stop for insurgents.

“The day I got there a friend of mine and fellow team leader was killed by a round of mortar,” says Leitch. “That was a wake-up call.”

Almost every day Leitch or members of his tight-knit team had contact with insurgents. Gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades, roadside bombs and run-ins with al-Qaida were regular occurrences. None of it seemed to faze Leitch.

But the night before Thanksgiving 2005 everything changed for Leitch. He would never be the same.

Help

Over a crackling radio a team from Leitch’s platoon radioed for help. An intense firefight was underway and the team had sustained multiple casualties.

When Leitch’s team arrived they began extracting the wounded from the battlefield. One soldier, who was badly burned and had tourniquets on each limb, was placed in Leitch’s tank.

“I knew he wasn’t going to live,” says Leitch. “It was my ordained time with him, and I had about 10 minutes to do what I needed to do, which in my mind was to tell him what Jesus had done on the cross for me and him.”

But as the minutes slowly ticked past, Leitch struggled to muster the nerve to share his faith.

“I thought he wouldn’t listen to my testimony because of the way I had been living,” admits Leitch. “I had been living the life of a hypocrite and couldn’t bring myself to tell him about Jesus. I just said, ‘You’re going to be OK.’ ” 

The soldier died a couple of hours later.

“I had a perfect opportunity to lead someone to Christ, and I let it slip away,” says Leitch. “It was the most crucial time ever for me to share my faith, but I didn’t. I’ll probably never have such an opportunity again.”

The day after the soldier died, Leitch tried to celebrate Thanksgiving. He didn’t have an appetite. Something in him had changed too, he says. Where once he felt emboldened to fight, he suddenly felt fearful. The way he saw it, if he wasn’t brave enough to share his faith in Christ with a dying soldier, he probably wasn’t ready to die.

When he returned home he recommitted his life to Christ and underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries to repair his face. Today, he is out of the Army and bent on telling soldiers and veterans that they need accountability and, more importantly, they need Jesus.

“I want to help veterans and soldiers network with one another and learn accountability and why they need Jesus in their lives,” he says.

To do that he has joined Scott McChrystal, a retired Army chaplain and military representative for AG Chaplaincy Ministries, to launch Veterans With a Future, a program that networks active-duty military personnel with veterans.

“Veterans With a Future is a network that will provide connectivity for soldiers and veterans,” says McChrystal. “Our goal is to reach them with the gospel and offer prayer and accountability. Plus, we’ll open opportunities for them that will capitalize on their abilities and skills.”

Leitch is glad to be a part of such an organization. He only wishes he could have joined it earlier.

“Someone needs to be there to tell guys like my friend, who are at death’s door, about Jesus,” he says.


KIRK NOONAN is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Simple Plan (knoonan.agblogger.org).

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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