We enjoyed seeing what their outreach, Center Seven, was doing to reach inner-city Toulouse, its youth, and extensive refugee population. But even more so, we enjoyed fellowship with the delightful BCM colleagues who were our hosts, Chuck and Cathy Powers, with their daughters and sons-in-law, Elizabeth and Herve Anneville, Michelle and Ben Hildebrand, and their own small children.
Though Lancaster, PA, natives, the Powers after twenty years in Toulouse were more French than American, with all the warmth and hospitality of their adopted country. We were made to feel immediately like family, friends and church members streaming freely in and out to greet us, good food and wine (this being France) flowing as freely. A single incongruity in this proud French city was the large American flag hanging across a living-room wall.
The flag was there in honor of Powers' youngest child and only son, Josh, home on break from Iraq. Specialist Joshua C. Powers of the U. S. Army 10th Mountain Division, had served tours in Korea and Afghanistan and was now working as a private security contractor in Baghdad. Well over six foot with the muscular build of his profession, Josh was very much a soldier's soldier. He was also soft-spoken, with a French accent as attractive as unusual for a young man raised till age six in Pennsylvania, highly intelligent and well-read. His love for his family was palpable, and one or another of his four small nieces were usually crawling over his lanky frame.
And his love for others as well. On our second day there, Josh took pity on his busy parents by taking their visitors on a tour of the famed medieval city, Carcasonne, where Kevin Costner's Robin Hood was filmed (see Josh, bottom right). At the family-owned restaurant where we stopped for lunch, Josh was greeted as an old friend. When the proprietor's wife told of a recent family crisis, Josh shared quietly and easily of the answer he'd found to pain and crisis in his own life-- faith in Jesus Christ.
When conversation turned to the new book I was researching, set in Afghanistan and the world of private security contractors, Josh graciously took time to outline the life of a PSC for me, patiently answering every question I could come up with and many I didn't. PSC work wasn't glamorous, he warned me with that rueful, almost shy smile of his. But it was a vital support to the soldiers still in uniform, and the mission was worth doing. We were leaving Toulouse by then to our next country stop, Italy. But if I had more questions, Josh assured me, I could email them, and he'd be happy to get back to me.
I never did. I had other PSC contacts, who like Josh crept into the pages of Veiled Freedom as I finished the book in the shape of characters and opinions and insights. But through the BCM grapevine and the Powers' own emails, I kept abreast of Josh's news and movements. He was back in Iraq, but planned to leave PSC work soon to study for the ministry. I was looking forward to sending him a copy of Veiled Freedom as thanks for his contribution, to hearing what his reaction might be to glimpses of himself in its pages.
Then last week I answered the phone. I didn't at first recognize the voice on the other end. It was Chuck Powers. He was calling to let us know that while Josh was working a security detail in Baghdad, the car he was riding in had been struck headlong by a truck. Josh and an Iraqi colleague had been killed. It was Friday, January 23rd, 2009. Josh was twenty-seven.
"Our Josh has gone home to heaven," were Chuck's words on the phone.
The memorial service was yesterday right here in Lancaster, PA, the U. S. home where Josh had so seldom lived. Chuck and Cathy and family flew in from France. Other friends and family, fellow soldiers and PSCs traveled in. My teenage daughter, to whom Josh is a hero, insisted on accompanying us to Hempfield Brethren in Christ Church, which had been Chuck and Cathy's home church. The service was difficult. The anguish of losing a beloved only son and brother cannot be overstated.
But it also overflowed with love and hope and a reminder that a goodbye here is not an end for the child of God, but the promise of future reunion. Through tears, Cathy shared how they'd learned long ago that their children were God's children first of all to be held in an open hand. Chuck reminded us that the heavenly Father who'd created Josh knew the grief of giving up his own precious Son that His creation might know eternal life. Brother-in-law Ben Hildebrand sang that beautiful picture of heaven, "I Can Only Imagine . . . " And as the 'band of brothers' who were Josh's military and PSC buddies closed the service with the honors due a soldier fallen in battle, we were left with that triumphant comfort from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15:
Yesterday's memorial service was followed today by a private military burial at Ft. Indiantown Gap. As his closest loved ones say goodbye, I'd like to take this time and place to say thank you.
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.
Thank you, Josh, for serving your country in and out of uniform. Thank you for the lives you touched, the people to whom you showed God's love, the difference you made and will continue to make.
Thank you, Chuck and Cathy, for your shining example of love and courage and faith.
Thank you, Elizabeth and Michelle, Herve and Ben, for sharing your brother with so many.
We love you. We grieve for you. Our prayers are with you.