A Voice Calling – Through a Soldier who Died
(Part 1 of a Series in 3 Installments)
Recently, I was asked whether I had ever built anything as a kid that gave me real pride. The answer came easy, a three-and-a-half foot tall Saturn 5 model rocket. Then I was told to imagine how proud I would be if I had created not just an object, but a living thing, and moreover, a living thing with a soul. That is a poor explanation, but perhaps the best one I have ever heard for understanding the love that God has for each one of us. I was told that God built each one of us exactly how He wanted us to be, different in every detail, like a fingerprint or a chromosome.
The person who told me this was Ret. U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bartlett. Robert is a devout Catholic, although he was not always one. In May of 2005, Robert died three times, after his armored vehicle was struck by a roadside explosive. Robert and I talked about it in a 45-minute telephone interview.
The story he tells of the events that followed is riveting, the details horrific, the encounters fantastic. And yet, when he speaks of them, he can do so in an almost cavalier way on the things we might find most compelling. He will say “my buddy who died returned to tell me I could not go because I did not yet have my wife and children,” or “yeah, I saw the Evil One, Purgatory and the Blood of Christ,” and then continue on with his conversation, as if he had not said something that should send bells pealing for miles.
He will also mention how his wife (he is now married as his buddy told him he would be) emerged dry from a bath at Lourdes, or how he experienced a miracle that restored sensory ability to his lips when he kisses her (though not when he drinks hot coffee), and not pause to draw special attention to such happenings.
The reason is that he is more concerned with another type of miracle that is available to each one of us, the conversion of our heart. He wants to talk more about the love of God, the mercy to be found in confession and the need to live in virtue, so as to give proper respect and glory to the One who built us. He wants us all to believe as fervently as he believes, even though the images spurring his faith have been forged into his mind forever and we can know of no such similar things. It does not matter. He can be our eyes for us. He can tell us what he saw.
We may believe him, but still not take his story to heart. We may not doubt that he actually experienced what he says, but still not change anything in our lives. If we hear his story and do not, it is a loss for us. His experiences are not just for him, they are meant, in many ways, for us. They are the voice of God calling through Robert.
(Part Two will continue with the events surrounding the roadside explosion.)
A Voice Calling – Through a Soldier Who Died
(Part 2 in a Series of 3 Installments)
In this part, the chronological events surrounding Sgt. Bartlett’s three deaths will be discussed.
On May 3, 2005, a group of three U.S. Army vehicles was travelling down a road just outside of Baghdad. Sgt. Robert Bartlett was driving one of them when it was hit by a remotely activated roadside explosive. The device was particularly destructive. It sent a molten mass tearing through the vehicle at 3,500⁰F, dragging pieces of impacted metal along with it, before it continued out through the other side. It also contained ball bearings the size of quarters that came ripping through the dashboard. Sgt. Bartlett took a direct hit that cut his face in half, from his left temple down to his jaw. He lost sight in his left eye, suffered a collapsed lung and had severe internal bleeding. Through it all, he never lost consciousness. He still remembers the burning metal striking him in the face and the smell that followed during the ordeal.
The same projectile that struck him also took off the legs of the gunner who was seated above him. His truck commander’s head was also severed. After the impact, he helped straighten the gunner’s legs and lay his head in his lap. The gunner wrapped his arms around Sgt. Bartlett. They did not need to exchange a word. He looked at his gunner and the gunner looked at him. They both simply thought they were going to die, together, in that place.
During this time, another soldier was lying in the street unconscious. He was awoken by the spirit of a buddy of Sgt. Bartlett who had been killed. This man’s spirit instructed the soldier on what he had to do to save the life of Sgt. Bartlett and the gunner. He managed to get into the vehicle which, somehow, was still running. He moved Sgt. Bartlett into the rear seat and drove the vehicle out of there. The motor and transmission had been penetrated by ball bearings but the vehicle lasted long enough to get them to another truck. Ten minutes after the explosion, Sgt. Bartlett was at an aid station waiting for a helicopter to evacuate him from the area.
There, he was comforted by a chaplain. Earlier, Sgt. Bartlett had told this same chaplain of a message he had received when he was 24. The message said that he was going to die at age 32. The chaplain had not believed him. Sgt. Bartlett was 31 at the time of the explosion, and during the time just prior to it, 32 kept flashing across his mind. Now, in the aid station, this same chaplain was holding his hands when Sgt. Bartlett died – the first time.
The spirit of his deceased buddy came and spoke to him also. He told him that he had to go back because he had not yet had his wife and children. The mode of speech was different than ours. It was as if one had no ears, all being quiet and yet hearing someone plainly. After this, the medical personnel got his heart going again and resuscitated him.
Sgt. Bartlett now tells those who wish to hear that the spirits of our loved ones are around us. They exist, although they do not share the same existence as ours. We need to pray with them because they want to spend time with us. We need to remember their crosses and pray for the souls in purgatory. One day we will be with them again.
After being airlifted to a support hospital in Balad, Sgt. Bartlett died again – a second time. When he did, he found himself kneeling on a marble-like landing. In front of him, everything was black, white and gray. Directly in front of him were stairs that led down into a pool. In this pool were pillars. To his immediate right and his immediate left were two pillars that had fallen over, about half of the way up. The rest of the pillars were lying in the pool. As he gazed out, there was nothing around, forever. It was like two places at once, very far away and very close up.
As soon as he saw the pool, he saw a drip coming from nowhere and coming from everywhere. It was dripping into the pool. He subsequently realized that these drips were the Blood of Christ, raining down, for the sins of Sgt. Bartlett and those of all men.
He also realized that the first two fallen pillars represented his unholiness. He had only in the last couple of years begun going to mass, but had not made his First Confession, nor had he experienced Confirmation. When we receive Christ, we are His temple. We are the cup in which we receive Him. To keep the inside of the cup clean, to keep our soul clean, we must go to confession. Sgt. Bartlett had not done that, and, in his own words, had not done a good job of caring for his temple up to that time.
As he looked to his left, Sgt. Bartlett then saw a creature in the form of a dragon, with claws and a tail. It was perched on a pillar, but then leapt down and began clawing at him. He sensed how evil the devil is, how he is incapable of love, incapable of compassion, incapable of mercy. The edge of Hell was near. The pool was the beginning of Purgatory. This place near both was where people choose one way or the other. He was scared, like a child, and begged God to take him out of there. Then, suddenly, he was out, and felt a Love come over him. He was now in the presence of God.
Five days after the explosion, Sgt. Bartlett was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. His breathing stopped and he died again – for a third time. They resuscitated him once more. When he awoke, an elderly priest happened to be walking by, Fr. Kenny. Although he could not talk and could barely wave his arm, he succeeded in summoning Fr. Kenny and obtained a blessing from him.
After having undergone more than 40 surgeries and procedures since the day of his injuries, Sgt. Bartlett speaks of his tribulations as a “great experience” and the scars on his face as his “greatest gift.” He lives now trying to do God’s will as best he can and to pass on some of the knowledge he still has. His is a life that has been changed, and he tells his story in the hope that it can help to change others.
(Part Three of this series will focus on the aftermath of Sgt. Bartlett’s fateful event
and the lasting impressions to be taken from it.)
A Voice Calling – Through a Soldier Who Died
(Part 3 in a Series of 3 Installments)
After the fateful events on a road outside Baghdad, Sgt. Bartlett began a slow, painful process back from his injuries. He had to deal with the trauma of his physical condition as he tried to readjust to life, with the memories of his spiritual encounters never far from his mind. In the process, he underwent more than forty surgeries and medical procedures.
During some of this time, he used to have to carry a towel, because he had no lower lip and saliva would drip from his mouth. He felt less desirable than others physically and thought that no woman would ever want to marry him. There was one woman, however, whom he had met before he left for Iraq. He thought that she did not like him. When he had tried to engage her in conversation, she did not respond very much. After coming back home and having had several surgeries, he met her again. They began to date.
She had been baptized a Lutheran, but began to attend Catholic RCIA sessions. At one point, she had a vision of the Blessed Mother, who told her “you must, you must.” She interpreted this to mean that she must become a Catholic.
She did and the two of them were married. When he kissed her, Robert could not feel her lips. In fact, it hurt to kiss her.
Then, they both went to Lourdes, France, the place where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. They both entered the bath waters there. Although the water was cold, Robert felt a warm love envelope him. He emerged from the bath water dry, as did his wife. He also emerged with a cessation of the headaches and neck pain he had as a result of the explosion. In addition, although he still cannot feel hot coffee, he can now feel his wife’s lips when he kisses her.
While there, a little girl came out of the baths and looked at his face. She asked him “why are you so handsome?” With the innocence and insight of a little child, she saw something more than just his physical features.
Sgt. Bartlett now lives with the knowledge of these and his other experiences. He believes in a reality far beyond that which we experience daily. He feels, though, that others are more blessed than he is. He believes because he has seen. As he sees it, those who believe without having seen are more blessed.
He lives now with a knowledge of sin that is deeper than ours. He knows of the hurt done by the smallest of sins and feels the gravity of them on a level like that we feel with murder. He goes to confession often, to seek time with our Lord, and implore His soothing forgiveness.
He lives with knowledge of God’s love. It is an intense love for each individual, a love as strong as if each of us was His only creation.
He lives now with a memory of having knowledge of so much more. When he died, he experienced an instant knowledge of everything. He cannot recall all that he knew then, but knows that such knowledge does await us.
So Robert Bartlett is here with us. He tells a story that beckons us to believe, to deplore sin and offenses to God, to give thanks for the unfathomable love God has for each of us and to mirror such love, as best we can, in our actions toward others.
The question that remains is whether we will receive the gift of Robert Bartlett’s story and let it change our hearts.