Does war tend to strengthen or weaken the faith of those fighting? A man who has collected more than 80,000 soldier letters has an answer.
For Arthur Craig, a letter from his son Brian is precious beyond words. The 27-year-old staff sergeant wrote it from Afghanistan in 2002, just days before he died in a blast with three other soldiers. The four were part of an explosives unit, trained to destroy rocket caches like this one. But this time, the enemy had trapped the site.
Craig remembers his last phone conversation with his son. A sandstorm made it difficult to hear, but he had an important question.
"Out of my spirit I asked him, 'Brian, how is your walk with the Lord?' and he started to tell me and we were cut off," Craig recalled.
So Brian decided to write his dad a letter.
'You have asked me about my walk with Christ on the phone," the letter read. "It is strange that of all my experiences in life, here in Afghanistan I have really started to grow spiritually. Pray for me that I may be a good example of a man of Christ."
The words provide a glimpse of a soldier growing in his faith. They would prove to be a great gift.
"It was a tremendous blessing. That was one of the days that we were very down," Craig said.
Brian's letter is included in Andrew Carroll's new book, Grace Under Fire. Carroll is the founder of the Legacy Project, a national effort to collect American soldier letters.
Showing a Soldier's Faith
Grace Under Fire focuses on letters of faith, like this one from a teen civil war soldier who lay dying from a gunshot wound:
"I don't think I shall live to see morning, but my kind friends, I am a soldier of Christ. I will meet you all in Heaven."
Other letters ask the great questions of life, like this from a WWI private.
"How can there be fairness in one man being maimed for life, while I get out of it safe?"
Others recount deep spiritual growth. This from a soldier in WWII.
"I always considered myself a good Christian until I was captured, and then I learned what a fool I had been, and what it really means to have faith."
Despite the span of years, from the Revolutionary war all the way to Iraq, Carroll says the emotions are the same.
"Whether you go off with a musket or an F-16, you're confronting your own mortality, and this in itself engenders these very profound questions and answers," he said.
Carroll calls the letters the 'great, undiscovered literature of America.'
"What really happens is when you're in a war zone, your mind concentrates on what's truly meaningful and lasting in life, and what are those things? Faith and family," he said. "So it's not really a question that you're grasping onto something to help your own self survival. It's that the mind and soul are clear and they see with greater insight and purity what's really meaningful in life."
There was one man who survived the explosion that killed Brian Craig and three others--Army Staff Sgt. Jeff Pugmire.
As Pugmire wrestled to make sense of the tragedy, he wrote this letter to his wife:
"I can tell you though that we don't do it for money or fame or fortune. Heaven knows i'll never be rich," he wrote. "We do it for one another. For the men and women that are next to us, but most of all jennie, I do it for you and our beautiful little girls."
Pugmire believes Brian and the others did not die in vain.
"They gave their life in something they believed in. In something that was important to them. It says in John, 'No greater love has a man than this--that he lays down his life for his friends.' That epitomizes Brian, Justin and Jamie."
In the midst of their grief, Brian's parents decided to share their son's letter with others and it has yielded a rich harvest. Many have given their lives to Christ--or rededicated themselves.
Who would have thought that one letter, written on simple notebook paper, could produce so much for the kingdom of Heaven?
*Original broadcast May 27, 2009.