In the fall of 2011, I had completed the filming of Father, Give Me Bread in Ethiopia and South Sudan. I was scheduled to travel on to Afghanistan to meet with a co-worker; however, I had a week of down-time in between. So, wanting to take advantage of being “in the neighborhood,” a friend and I went to southern Iraq on a scouting mission. I recall what Samuel Zwemer said of his Gospel work in the same region a century earlier, “From the outset, the mission policy seemed to be expansion rather than concentration.”* Mine, too. And the only way to test the door for Gospel work there was to go to Baghdad. After several promising days in Baghdad, Babylon, and Ur, things suddenly changed while at an Iraqi Army checkpoint. Here are my journal entries from that day:
Somewhere in Baghdad, east of the Tigris
This morning we were stopped at an Iraqi Army checkpoint southeast of Baghdad. After some questioning, we were taken to a second checkpoint, where our passports were confiscated, and we were detained for a time. Afterwards, we were escorted by Iraqi forces to an Iraqi Army post, where Jason and I were photographed and questioned at length. No explanation has been offered as to why we were being held. The Iraqi officer in charge reported that we were to be sent to the brigade headquarters to see General Abdul Azeeri. So we were separated from our interpreter and taken under armed guard to an Iraqi base called Alrusafa. I’m now in the office of the deputy commander, and between questions I’m using this time to write. The Iraqi colonel is sitting behind a desk of polished walnut with neat stacks that an aide keeps tidied up for the great man. His shoulders are weighed down by the gold-crested epaulets of power, and a big pistol holster circles his considerable girth. The commander’s jutting jaw and penchant for thumping the desk as he talks to us reminds me of an old Mussolini newsreel. Not sure when we’re getting out of here, or even why we’re being held, or if we will miss our flight tomorrow. Still have my Blackberry, though. When the sun was setting a couple of hours ago and the last azan was sounding from mosques all over Baghdad, I sent a quick message to Debbie to send out our own “call to prayer.” I’m confident, though, that ours will have results.
CAMP VICTORY, BAGHDAD
Blackhawks are humming overhead, as the sun brightens the sky east of the Tigris. These past twenty-four hours have been unforgettable—a reminder that our King commands generals and spies and also guides the steps of his children. Angels come in many forms. Last night mine came in the form of a Skoal-spitting army colonel from Alabama. After nearly ten hours in the custody of the Iraqi Army, suddenly Colonel Cole with the 82nd Airborne arrived and sought to take custody of us. It seems that a few hours earlier we had been spotted by his Kurdish interpreter, who had reported to him that he thought he saw some Americans with Iraqi troops.
After some back and forth, Jason and I were able to go with Cole, but we were not allowed to leave the Iraqi base. As it turned out, we ended up at the U.S. Army’s last outpost east of the Tigris River. Although the details are classified, what the colonel could tell me was that Iranian-backed groups were looking for American targets to kill or kidnap, especially before the upcoming United States troop withdrawal. Elements in the Iraqi Army were providing these groups with intelligence, and it looks as if we were in their sights.
The Army Rangers then went to work on a plan to move us to the airport. So at 2:30 a.m. we strapped on vests and helmets and set out in a convoy of 3 MRAPS, crossed the Tigris River, and went on to the airbase here at Camp Victory. Have just been briefed by several Air Force undercover agents who have laid out a plan for maneuvering Jason and me past the checkpoints outside and inside the Baghdad airport. We set out soon for this last round of cat-and-mouse—and hopefully our flight back to Abu Dhabi!
It seems my idea of a tour company office in Baghdad may be a little premature, but there must be other ways to position Christians here for the sake of the Gospel. All these businessmen I flew in with four days ago are still here—risking their resources and even their lives in order to make money. Why can’t Christians risk at least as much for the gospel?
Daniel in his time risked everything in this land to spread the fame of his God. He kept company with lions and angels and proclaimed the King of kings. Lord, send another Daniel here. Call more Abrahams and Sarahs to leave the things that will turn to dust anyway to make your glory and your Gospel known.*
Lt. Colonel Cole is short, powerful, and every inch a soldier. For him, “duty, honor, country” is not just a motto—it’s his compass. He served 3 tours in Iraq, and last week I was honored to attend his retirement ceremony held at Army Central Command. I have since learned more of the backstory of that fateful night, and it has become even clearer that Col. Cole’s intervention was decisive and likely saved my life. I salute his courage as well as his dedication and skill through 25 years of service in the cause of freedom. I’ll always be grateful to the “Angel of Baghdad” and for this special friendship forged in the company of warriors.
*Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine, The Golden Milestone: Reminiscences of Pioneer Days Fifty Years Ago in Arabia (Fleming H. Revell Co.: New York, NY, 1938), p. 108.
**Tim Keesee, Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World’s Difficult Places (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2014), pp. 231-233.