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Strength in Prayer

Lead me to water, please. A soldier relies on prayer and God to help him.

White butterfly
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The heat was intense, hovering at 100 degrees even in early morning. I shielded my eyes from the whirling dust as the whoop-whoop-whoop of the helicopter rose above me and the four other soldiers in my infantry squad.

We would walk miles across barren land, and a week would pass before we saw the chopper again. That is, if we stayed alive. No one knew what waited for us out there.

We were on patrol in southern Africa in 1970, searching for the enemies of our country, the newly independent Rhodesia. Pro-communist groups crossed our borders in pursuit of power. Bands of terrorists ambushed our troops, planted land mines, and slaughtered women and children in their farmhouses while the men worked in the fields.

Young men had no choice but the military. I was drafted at 18, directly from high school. I was short and weighed only 99 pounds. “Our little Pete,” the soldiers joked. I ignored their gibes, but it was true: I was a scrawny kid, hardly a man, ill-equipped to be a soldier.

Our squad had been dropped in the Angwa River valley. We carried food, water and supplies for the week. No replacements. No radio communication. No rest. We had to stay alert for terrorists and big game alike.

“Let’s go,” the squad leader said. I adjusted my rifle and backpack, and the water bottles strapped around my waist. We started off across the arid valley, where even the river had been baked dry by the relentless sun.

Three days into the patrol, we made temporary camp in a grove of thorn trees. “It’s time to ration our water,” the squad leader ordered. We’d been drinking more than we should, in the futile attempt to quench our thirst. Our situation had become desperate. We sank to the ground in the shade.

How could we go on without water? Where will I find the strength? Fear was a stranger to none of us now. Four more days until our pickup objective. If the terrorists didn’t get us, the sun surely would.

Dear God, I have nothing left in me. I need your strength. I stared across the parched land, endless and forbidding. A thought pierced my mind. Water. Water was close by. I don’t know what made me so sure.

The Angwa was a tributary of the great Zambezi. The runoff had to go somewhere. Sometimes it ran underground. Wild animals survived. They knew how to find hidden water. How would I? I got up, threw my gun over my shoulder and strapped my empty water bottles around my waist. “I’m going to find water,” I said to the others.

“Sure you are, little Pete,” they said as I walked away. An animal trail led off through the thorn trees. I followed the trail down into the bone-dry bed of the Angwa. Which way now?

A white butterfly skittered by and meandered up the riverbed. I’d follow it! The race was on—rocks, sand and debris had to be negotiated. I pursued this winged creature with steady determination. Lead me to water, please.

Far ahead my guide disappeared behind a massive granite boulder. My military instincts demanded caution. Anything could be watching me. I crept forward. God, I hope you are in this. The men would really laugh if they saw me now. I skirted the rocky outcrop, listening for any sound besides the pounding of my heart.

I reached the other side of the boulder, not knowing what I’d find. What I saw nearly took my breath away. The rock was almost completely obscured by a fluttering of white. My winged friend and thousands of his companions had settled on the rock. Many more butterflies covered its base. What were they all doing here?

A few butterflies dotted the sand. I watched one. The sand glistened in the sun beneath its fluttering wings. If not for the butterfly, I would not have seen it. Water! The butterflies had come here to drink!

I crawled through the cloud of angels. The desert heat almost disappeared in the moist, cool sand. My bare arms tingled with the gentle touch of butterflies. I scratched into the sand. Damp became wet and turned into the unmistakable feel of water. I looked up at the red-hot sun in the sky and praised the God who made it. “Thank you!” I shouted.

I dug until I had enough space to insert a bottle. It took all my willpower to forgo drinking until the mud I’d stirred up had settled. Then, at last! Cold water trickled down my throat. I lay on the ground, sipping the earthy-tasting liquid. The cloud of angels fluttered around me as if sharing my delight.

I filled four bottles with water and retraced my steps to our camp. When the men saw me, their laughter rattled the quiet grove. But then they spied the bottles hanging from my belt. “Water!” they shouted with one voice. The men drank their fill. We revisited the rock of the fluttering white wings, and replenished our water supply for the next four days. “Thanks, little Pete,” one of the soldiers said, clapping me on the back.

The rest of the week would be easier. We cheered when we spotted the chopper that would take us home. I was a soldier, a grown man in spite of my size. I had found my strength.

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