Phil Downer

Machine Gunner, Corporal, USMC

Operation Battle Ready

We were ambushed during a search and destroy assault and it was a kill-or-be-killed battle.

My buddy John Atkinson was a machine gunner, which was always the first target. We charged across the open rice paddy as bullets rained down on us. I hit the deck to return fire as a bullet ripped through my pack, bursting all my chow and narrowly missing my head. Then I felt a heavy weight. John lay dead on top of me, having caught all the bullets except the one that found my pack.

It felt like someone had ripped my stomach out. John would never meet his unborn baby. I had just been promoted from machine gunner to team leader three days earlier and John had been promoted as well to take over my machine gun. A hardness entered my heart.

When I came home, I met Susy in college, we were married, and then went to Emory Law School together. I began to hope that the internal scars from my combat were going to leave me forever. But they didn’t.

Susy immediately felt deceived. I blew my stack on the second night of our honeymoon and it just got worse from there. I wanted to be kind and nurturing to my wife, but my nightmares each night and the scars in my heart left me tense and angry, and I took out my pain on the one I loved the most.

Then Susy began studying the Bible with another woman. They convinced me to attend a meeting where a Christian man shared his story. It wasn’t what I expected. He talked about a real peace and forgiveness that came from following Jesus. His words pierced me to my core.

Phil Downer Accent
I realized that just as John’s taking my place as the machine gunner had allowed me to live to see another day, Jesus’ taking my place in death through his sacrifice on the cross and resurrection allowed me to enter into new life. This meant I could not only be rescued from the prison of spiritual death, but also the ongoing pain of the war.

I began meeting with a man who introduced me to the Bible and led me to passages such as this one from John’s first letter, which reads:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

I wanted this life. And I wanted this life to reverse all the ways I had been emotionally killing my wife. I decided to follow Jesus and give him control of my life.

I apologized to my wife for my anger, verbal abuse and even my adultery. She was planning to divorce me but when she saw the change in me, she decided to follow Jesus too. Then she asked God to give her a new love for me. God answered her prayer and restored our marriage.

My journey to life started on that day when John Atkinson died in my place, seemingly in vain. But because of his sacrifice, I was able to understand that we don’t have to live under the power of death. When God raised Jesus Christ from the grave, he conquered the powers of sin and death. And now, all who are willing to accept this gift of new life that Jesus offers can step from death into new life in him.

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