Practicing Peace

Christian Peacemaker Teams members Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden, Jim Loney, and Tom Fox were kidnapped in Iraq on Nov. 26, 2005. The first three men were released after 118 days in captivity, but Fox was killed. Following is a reflection from Elizabeth Pyles, a Presbyterian minister and CPT member who works with CPT’s Iraq team.

"Tom’s dead.” This is what I wrote in my journal days after learning that Tom’s body had been found near railroad tracks in a neighborhood in western Baghdad.

In speaking with some soldiers about Tom a day or two later, I said, “Tom was killed.” It took several more days before I could say, “Tom was murdered.” Such a harsh word and reality, and so hard to believe, even after my attempt to accompany Tom’s body home.

The CPT team in Iraq made a commitment that whenever one or all of our kidnapped friends were released—healthy or sick, alive or dead—we would accompany them home. As I was the team member scheduled to leave Iraq next, I was chosen to accompany Tom’s remains.

A problem quickly developed: Though Tom was a civilian, the United States government required that his remains be taken by military transport to Dover, Delaware, for an autopsy. I received initial permission to accompany him, but got only as far as Anaconda Air Force Base in Balad, Iraq. There I was turned back two days later—permission denied.

In the meantime, I stayed on the base with the Army Reserve Mortuary Unit that received Tom’s body and would transport him home. The unit treated me with kindness and respect, and we spent time together in conversation during my vigil. Though it was decided I could not accompany Tom’s remains back home, I was allowed to walk with these soldiers onto the transport plane.

AT PREDAWN, MY new friends bear Tom’s casket draped with an American flag. The flag surprises me; Tom was not a soldier (although he previously served in the Marine Corps Band). For the soldiers, it is an act of honor and respect, and I am touched. I even smile a bit at the irony.

The soldiers load Tom’s casket into a van, and I ride along as it is transported to the cargo plane. The plane is gaping and immense. Entering its empty hold feels like stepping into the Close Encounters spaceship. For me, it is an alien territory, made more surreal by the droning engines, which drown out all other noise.

The soldiers carry Tom’s body to the front of the airplane as I follow. They set the casket on the floor and stiffly salute. I stand at the front and read the beginning of John 1, which says of the light: “and the darkness did not overcome it.”

When I return to the tarmac, soldiers approach with the remains of another—an Iraqi detainee. (All detainees who die in U.S. or coalition custody are taken to Dover for an autopsy.) Displaying the same respect that was paid to Tom, minus the flag and salutes, the soldiers pass. I start to recite “Bis’m’allah …” then “Allah Akbar …” but cannot recall the words. Stumbling, I recite a part of Job 1, both for Tom and the unknown detainee: “Naked I came into the world, naked I will depart. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Laughter mingles with my steady tears. Even in death, Tom accompanies an Iraqi safely to his destination.

Such a fitting end: Tom and an Iraqi detainee side by side in death, ministered to by young soldiers from Tom’s home. No more anger, no more fear, no more violence; only kindness and peace. How many more will die before moments of peace for the dead are transformed into a lasting peace for the living?

As we leave the cargo plane, I look to the sky. The bright morning star shines like a blessing.

Excerpted from 118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq, edited by Tricia Gates Brown, with permission from Christian Peacemaker Teams. Copyright 2008.

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