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Enlightenment occurs decades after war ends

Last year I joined a Bible study group. The leader, Tim Paskert, asked us a question.

"In your darkest hour, did you turn to God for help or did you turn away from God?"

My first casualty call came to mind. Cpl. William "Billy" Bixby was killed in action and I had to notify his mother. At the house, Billy's stepfather answered the door. When he saw me and the chaplain, he knew.

"Billy's Mom's at work," he told us. We sat down in the living room.

"She won't be home till 5:30," he added, "Less'n the traffic's bad." It was 3:30. "Oh, this is gonna kill her," he repeated, over and over. "Billy's her only son."

Inside my stomach, frozen softballs were tumbling around.

"Billy's sister's at FSU," he continued, "living in the dorm. Gonna kill her, too. She's gonna take this real bad."

The grandfather clock in the living room bonged four times. With each stroke, my stomach twisted tighter and tighter and tighter. I bent at the waist.

My mind screamed: Come on, Mrs. Bixby, get home! Let's get this over with.

"His real dad's dead, you know," the stepfather continued. "Billy loved him a lot. I don't try to be his dad."

Oh God, I prayed, make this guy shut up, please! To break the tension and ease the pain, I stood up and walked around.

On one living room wall, I saw a frame with a fancy embroidered cloth that read: "Jesus Never Fails!" The irony of the situation slapped my cheek. Well, he failed this time, I thought.

On the opposite wall of their living room was a matching frame that read: "Prayer Solves Everything!" Well, prayer ain't gonna solve this one.

The feeling of dread in the living room became heavier and darker.

The kid's dead. I've got to tell his mother. Please, God, get me outta here. Why'd you do this to me? Why do you allow wars? Why do good people die young?

Sitting in that bible class last year, those familiar feelings flared up inside of me again. I couldn't change the subject or crack a joke. As I stayed with those feelings, tears rolled down my cheeks. I thought about Buddhist Monk Claude AnShin Thomas and how he asks us to look deeper into our pain. So I did.

This was a Christian home. Billy Bixby was a Christian. His mother was a Christian. I was a Christian. Who better to make that casualty call?

In my darkest hour, God sent me a sign. No, he sent me two signs, one on each side of that living room wall. Blinded by anger, I missed them both.

Suddenly, I saw my selfishness. My prayers were Santa Claus wishes — all for me. Today, 43 years later, I realized that truth.

As a Catholic kid I always prayed, God, help me to be a man. I wanted to prove my courage and experience combat. I was wounded twice and lived. Billy was hit once and died.

What was my ultimate test of manhood? To look at death. See it face-to-face. And there I was, in Billy's living room, forced to face his mother and wound her forever.

The irony of that slapped me on the other cheek. I know I could have done better back then. But I was shallow. I couldn't go deep. I couldn't face the pain and look deeply into it. And as a "man," I couldn't accept the fact that the one set of footprints I saw in the sand belonged to God.

Fred Tomasello Jr., of Cheektowaga, is the author of "Walking Wounded: Memoir of a Combat Veteran."