Waging Peace (Excerpt)

Editor’s Note: Diana Oestreich first joined the Preemptive Love community five years ago. But she started waging peace long before that, before this community existed. For her, it began in the unlikeliest place: the middle of the Iraq War.

Diana is a veteran, a combat medic, a sexual assault nurse—but to those of us who know and love her, Diana is first and foremost a peacemaker. One who knows what it means to put their body on the line. To risk their life before risking someone else’s. She knows the cost and the joy of waging peace.

This is also Diana’s last week with Preemptive Love. To celebrate her—and to honor every veteran who knows more than most the cost of war—we’re sharing this excerpt from her powerful new book, Waging Peace: One Soldier’s Story of Putting Love First.

“If you slow down or stop the convoy to avoid running over a child, you will be responsible for your fellow soldiers getting attacked. I hope you understand your duty.”

The commander’s words stung me. I was receiving the mandatory safety briefing for the next day’s 4 a.m. convoy into an active war zone in Iraq. The combination of the heat of the tent and the lateness of the hour had been pushing eyelids closed, but now he had my full attention. Safety briefings followed the same script. We trained as we fought, so even in war was routine—never a surprise, until now. His words made the sleepy room of soldiers buzz as if someone had poked a beehive with a stick.

The commander went on to describe a tactic the enemy used to interrupt the American invasion of Iraq. They would push Iraqi children in front of military convoys; when the trucks slowed or stopped to avoid hitting the children, the enemy would attack the last trucks in the convoy. Being at the end of the convoy made the soldiers sitting ducks: they couldn’t move forward to get away, and with no other trucks behind them, they were easily ambushed. The commander barked over the voices of a hundred soldiers in the tent, “I repeat: if you slow the convoy to avoid harming a child, you will be responsible for your battle buddies getting ambushed. If anybody isn’t able to do their duty and protect their battle buddies, stand up now and identify yourself.”

His words hung in the air, suspended by a growing feeling of dread. I wasn’t sure I could run over a child to obey this direct order from my commander. I believed in sacrificing to serve my country, even taking a life to save a life, but this? This pricked at my conscience. I knew it wasn’t an option to stand up and say—as the lone female soldier in the company—that I wouldn’t put the lives of my battle buddies first and do my duty. It would be a betrayal. But getting up the next day and choosing to run over a child didn’t feel possible either. Looking down at my sand-encrusted combat boots, I felt my heart pounding as I gripped the knobby seam of my dusty uniform pants. The tent was filled with a suffocating silence. No one moved.

Before I could decide whether to stand up and identify myself or stay silent and do my duty, the first sergeant’s voice boomed over my head like a firing cannon: “Dismissed.” A wave of soldiers shuffled to their feet and poured out of the hot, dusty tent into the night air. The moment of decision was gone, and I exhaled a small breath of cowardly relief. But I still didn’t know what I would do if a child were pushed in front of my convoy the next day. I had eight hours to decide.

Boots on the Ground

Burning air assaulted my lungs as I tumbled out of the C-130 transport plane into the ink-black desert night. The engines roared like pounding waterfalls, filling up my ears while the runway lights blinked and flashed around me. I sucked in a deep breath, pulling the syrupy thick air into my lungs, while the soles of my dust-colored combat boots turned sticky on the black baked tarmac. The acrid tar smell of the heated runway singed my nose, draping itself like garland across the shoulders of the soldiers of Bravo Company. My company. One hundred soldiers huddled together, waiting to face our first thirty seconds of war. We’d boarded the transport plane in the States—what felt like days or just minutes ago—and were now poured out into a war zone. Unable to see the landscape through the darkness, we stayed frozen in place. Sand-colored uniforms clumped together like human sand castles piled on the runway, waiting for the next order. The dimming roar of the plane’s engine echoed through the night air as it barreled down the runway away from us, turned the corner, and left us standing alone.

“Medic!” the first sergeant yelled over top of the whine of the departing plane. “I want every soldier to have an antidote injector kit in their hands in the next five minutes. Saddam might attack us with poisonous gas.”

“Keep your gas mask at the ready,” barked the sergeant as he piled a mountain of green, wax-coated boxes of chemical-antidote kits into my hands. The gas mask dangling at my hip would allow me to breathe during a chemical attack, filtering out the poison in the air, much as a charcoal filter cleans water. The antidote injectors act like a shot of adrenaline, helping the body fight off the poison’s internal attack. But neither one would save you indefinitely.

The sergeant’s words scraped at the raw truth: chemical warfare is a living horror show, and few survive it. The gas masks and antidote injectors equipped us with false bravado and borrowed time. When the air around you turns into a weapon, you can’t outrun it. When your lungs turn into soggy pools of liquid, you can’t breathe. The thought of drowning inside my own body without escape made my twenty-three-year-old knees quiver. Pushing against the ticking clock and the fear of being attacked with poisonous gas, I ripped open the tops of the boxes holding the antidote kits, cardboard tearing the skin between my knuckles. My heart beat so loud in my ears that I couldn’t hear anything else around me. In the darkness, I approached each huddled group of soldiers, and into the hands of every soldier, I shoved the required antidote kit to store with their gas mask. I had just five minutes to serve one hundred soldiers needing medicine to keep them alive if the air around them turned into poison.

“Breathe in, breathe out,” I told myself. And just like that, I completed my first medic task to keep my soldiers alive in wartime. The invasion of Iraq had begun for my company.

For a month before this moment, I had been training at Fort McCoy to be deployed in support of the Global War on Terror. I was taught to lie on my belly and use a twelve-inch wooden stick to find hidden improvised explosive devices and disarm them before they harmed anyone—a skill every soldier learned before we deployed to the Iraq War. Nicknamed IEDs, these devices were different from the more sophisticated version called bombs.

“Medic” was a nickname given to me, but I was a combat medic, trained to be on the field to save a life—trained to stop the bleeding and keep a soldier breathing and alive while I called in a helicopter or an ambulance to get them to a hospital. The medic backpack I carried held bandages and morphine to dull the pain, not the miracles and the reassurance my soldiers hoped for. If I could keep someone alive for the first ten minutes following a battlefield injury, they cleared the first hurdle of survival. My knees shook under the weight of putting all my training into practice. I needed to keep my soldiers alive because their families and their kids expected them to return home. Their wives and families filled up my vision, as they had filled up the gym to send us off the previous week, until I couldn’t see anything else. I couldn’t feel anything else.

Cold dread marched up my spine, because I was standing in a killing zone. That’s what war is—a battle to see who can kill more of the other until someone folds or surrenders. Turning to take one last look at the plane as I stepped off, I understood for the first time in a real, visceral way that I might never make it back home.

When Diana returned to Iraq with Preemptive Love, she got to spend time with soapmakers Goze, Sozan, and their families.

Home was where I had picked up the phone two months earlier to the words that brought me here. After graduating college, I had started my first nursing job on the hospice/oncology floor at Saint Luke’s Hospital. I lived with two roommates on the shore of Lake Superior and was pretty sure I’d met the man I wanted to marry. He hadn’t called me since our first date, but I was an eternal optimist and had a feeling I couldn’t shake about him. But on Valentine’s Day, the day of the call, as I held the white plastic phone receiver up to the curve of my cheek, I heard the sergeant’s voice crack like a whip: “Pack your bags and report for duty in thirty days. You are being deployed in support of the Global War on Terror.” As I stood and listened, with the phone cord dangling loosely from all the times it had been stretched into three different bedrooms, I understood that I was going to war. The sergeant told me to write my will, move out of my apartment, and put my stuff in storage, because he didn’t know how long I would be gone or when I would return home.

The sergeant didn’t need to tell me where I was going. On TV, I had seen the bombs dropping in Iraq. The call meant the military wheels were already set in motion. The military works in reverse order. The commander in chief creates the mission and then calls up the soldiers and equipment needed to execute the mission. Calling up my unit to be deployed meant the commanding officers already knew exactly where we would be going and what mission my engineer battalion was needed for. Reporting for duty in thirty days was step one in a plan that had already been set.

This is what we had trained for, but I never believed my Army National Guard unit would get called up for active duty overseas. We deployed to flood zones or to assist in recovery after a natural disaster, not to a war. Although I was a combat medic, I couldn’t imagine putting into practice all the lifesaving techniques I had learned to keep someone alive on the battlefield. I prayed I’d never have to use them.

I had been in the National Guard almost six years, since I signed up at 17 years old. My head understood what was happening. But my body wasn’t catching up. I couldn’t hold the weight of his words. They were like water dripping through my cupped hands; their meaning was slipping through my grasp. It didn’t feel possible to leave my life in Duluth, Minnesota, with my roommates, my church, and my family. The phone felt like it had turned into lead—two hundred pounds of too much, too heavy to hold up.

When I had watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11, sitting in nursing school, I knew the world was changing around me. Still, I didn’t realize that two years later, my life would be changed by the terror of that day. My life now held a fault line—a before and an after—and I was standing at the edge. One phone call had cut me off from the life I knew and propelled me forward into a future I didn’t want.

After deplaning and getting our antidote kits, we waited on the tarmac in the desert night for the bus that would take us to a cluster of tents in the desert, where we were to sleep for the night. Eventually, it arrived, we boarded, and I slid into my seat as a small sigh of relief escaped underneath my breath. My first medic task was done. As the bus pulled away from the tarmac, the bus driver turned around and mumbled through the humid midnight air,
Don’t peek through the closed curtains. You’ll give the snipers an easy shot.”

Eight Hours

Eight hours wasn’t long enough to decide if I could follow my orders to run over a child if necessary. The convoy briefing was over, but my night was just beginning. Walking back to my tent, I kept my head down, avoiding the other soldiers joking around me. The tension crackled as everyone geared up for driving into enemy territory the next day. The more dangerous the mission, the louder the jokes—that’s how we handled fear.

Rucksacks needed to be packed, gear double-checked, trucks fueled up before we rolled out at four o’clock the next morning. Inside the tent, I found my green cot, and underneath it, I lined up my medic bag, rucksack, flak vest, and nine-millimeter Beretta—ready for tomorrow’s mission. I lay down on top of my sleeping bag, trying to trick myself into sleeping. The commander’s words were lodged in my brain: “You have to do your duty, even if it means running over a child.”

Everything I believed about being a soldier and a Christian reassured me this was okay. Soldiers did hard things. I knew that. That’s why my Baptist church honored them and clapped for them. My mother and father stood up in the sanctuary on Veterans Day to be honored for their military service. And their father and brothers and cousins could stand up next to them, representing our family’s commitment to enlisting. I was a third-generation Army veteran. My grandmother had sent three of her five children into basic training, and I was just one of her three grandchildren now on active duty. My family tree was like a human flagpole for the American flag.

But something was crushing my chest in a vise grip and it wouldn’t let me sleep—or even breathe. As I stared up into the darkness of the green camouflage tent, my cot felt as stiff and confining as a coffin. Arms folded across my chest, I lay motionless like a corpse. I struggled to shield myself from the indecision beating me up on the inside. How could I choose between the lives of my fellow soldiers and an Iraqi child? The impossibility of the choice was breaking me apart on the inside. Whose life would I protect, and whose would I take?

Hoping no one would hear me, I whispered a tiny prayer, “Oh, God, oh, God, help me,” into the dark. As I prayed for the tension in my chest to release, I heard something in the dark: “But I love them. I love them, too, Diana.” I froze. The words halted the wrestling match inside me. Even though I know no words were actually spoken aloud, they seemed to echo all around me.

This was not the first time I had felt sure I was sensing God—a divine presence that was so much bigger than me. The first time I experienced it, I was ten years old at Trout Lake Bible Camp, where all the Minnesota Baptist churches sent their pale Scandinavian kids in the summer to swim, get sunburned, and accept salvation. I was clapping along in chapel, when I felt like someone turned on a light switch in the room around me, and a phrase exploded in my mind like fireworks lighting up the Fourth of July summer sky: “God’s love changes everything.” My ears didn’t hear the words, exactly, but I felt warmth spread across my chest as I watched Divine Love change everything—repainting my thoughts and head and heart with vibrant colors. Love turned my black-and-white world into Technicolor. Everything was different, as if noticing God everywhere ignited something that hadn’t been there before. The words kept dancing around me: “Everything is different because of my love.”

We each experience the Divine in different ways, and I can’t begin to explain the “voice” I heard that day at camp. But during my night in the Iraqi desert, I heard the same voice. And it turned my world upside down, just as it had done when I was ten years old, clapping along in the chapel. The words cut through me, challenging everything I thought I knew. “But I love them, Diana. I love them, too.”

God was stepping into the middle of the darkened tent with me, but instead of comforting me, God was challenging me. But if God loved “them,” what did that mean for me and my orders? Was God challenging my loyalty to the “us” that I knew and loved? My uniform, my country, and my faith community had taught me that to serve my country is to serve God. I tried to understand. If God loved an Iraqi child the same sacrificial way God loved me, what was I supposed to do in eight short hours if a child was pushed in front of the convoy? This was the first time I felt caught between what God was asking of me and what my country required of me. Wishing I was anywhere other than that tent in the middle of the desert, I squeezed my eyes tightly shut.

I thought of the place where I grew up—a town of eight thousand people deep in the pine-dotted woods of northern Minnesota, famous only for walleye fishing, giant mosquitoes, and being the hometown of Judy Garland. I wished I could return to my “no place like home,” just as she had. But instead, in Iraq, the yellow sunrise was coming, bringing an impossible choice. Tears slid down my face. The threads that stitched my beliefs together were fraying at the edges. I believed God is the greatest force of love the world has ever encountered—a self-sacrificing love that remakes and restores all that’s broken and loves us back to life again. I knew God commands us to love our enemies—but now, in the middle of a war?

To read the rest of Diana’s story, order her book Waging Peace.