Raising a Scout Sniper
He was my baby.
Saint Patrick’s Day 1996 was the birth of our first child and our only son, Matthew Riley Barnes. His name means gift from God; his impact on my heart is immeasurable. The moment they put him in my arms I experienced a fierce love I’d never known before. Becoming a parent helped me understand the love of God in a deeper capacity, but also produced higher levels of stress. The fear of something bad happening to my children still creates constant worry and a lifelong struggle to trust God with their well being.
Matt was born with one arm reaching out above his head. He also kicked the daylights out of me in the womb. These early clues that he would be intense and driven proved accurate though I thought nothing of it at the time. I had no idea what direction his life would take.
Just because we can't see the plan, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
Within the first few weeks that we brought our newborn home, I began to notice that my son seemed like a man trapped in a baby’s body. Babies are often squishy and snuggly with cute chubby little cheeks and fat rolls. Ha! He was so adorable! But when we got Baby Matt home from the hospital he did three sit-ups and said, “Will you hand me that pocket knife? This is ridiculous— laying around all the time. I need to learn how to walk.”
Let's face it: kids can be stressful.
Sarcasm has helped me cope. I really wanted to snuggle that baby for the rest of his life or at least until he was twenty six but he would have none of it.
I guess I was lucky; my baby weight came off quickly because motherhood was a workout. Some of his favorite past times as a toddler were smashing pop cans, climbing dangerously high trees and balconies, dumping out cleaning supplies, and breaking loose from our grip to run free in crowds. We held him facing out. We avoided quiet restaurants. We played outside a lot. We only snuggled when he was sick.
Despite being constantly on the go, he also loved for me to read to him and our sing-a-longs in the car were the best. I noticed his kind heart when he watched his favorite movie, Winnie the Pooh. He cried aloud and covered his eyes as the tree house blew over and hit the ground on a blustery day with Pooh and Owl still inside. He was part sunshine and part tornado, that child. A unique bundle of empathy and energy.
My child didn't need to change; I did.
I tell you these stories about my son to share how God used him to teach me to trust Him more. There were days when I wished he was easier and calmer, like the time as a baby he shook out a whole bottle of talcum powder creating a white fog in his bedroom. I wished he were less intense. I wished that he could play calmly in restaurants and meetings. But instead of changing my child, God changed me. Even better, He showed me the wonderful qualities in each of my children that I have come to admire so much and their unique strengths and gifts.
We had major issues with going places. Carseats were a battle because Matt did not enjoy being strapped down or restrained. I drove a Honda Accord in those days and once, as I was cruising down main street, I looked in the rear view mirror and found that my 16 month old baby had wiggled out of his 5 point harness, rolled down the back window, and stood in his carseat hanging his head out of the car. Matt was having the time of his life waving at folks on the street. Oh hey, don’t mind me, I’m that mom who can’t control her kid. Enjoy the show, people. I quickly whipped the car into a parking space to strap that boy down, heart rate elevated, jaw clenched. No cops thank goodness. In that moment I wondered why the simple things like going to the grocery store had to be so hard. Also he fought to stand up in the shopping cart, which had no seatbelt. So there was that.
It was at times entertaining, endearing, hilarious, scary and exhausting to parent Matt.
Thank goodness for my parents, who were a huge help. They adored him and took him to their house from time to time. My mom was endlessly patient, thoughtful, and creative with him. My dad gave him dump truck rides and helped him build an airplane out of a Radio Flyer wagon at three years old. Matt begged dad to drive him to the top of the mountain so he could ride it down to see if it could fly, but dad figured out a way to talk him out of it.
Today my son is a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps enrolled in the notoriously difficult Scout Sniper School. This week he is working on a skill called Stalking. They wear ghillie suits tied with brush, twigs, grasses to match the landscape and try to crawl undetected through enemy territory. He must master the art of camouflage, stealthy movement, judgment, and self control. He is at the top of his class so far and covered in a rash of poison oak from crawling through the brush.
You could drop him in a jungle and he would find his way out. He could pack you on his back for miles. Through pain and blurred vision he can proceed calmly through tear gas chambers. He shoots with chilling accuracy. He presses through sleep deprivation, hunger, and nasty conditions remaining laser focused on the task at hand. Nothing seems to scare him and he is being trained as a vital member of an elite military force. Marines are known as the "tip of the spear" and trained to run toward danger, not away. Surprise, surprise. Insert more sarcasm.
It makes perfect sense in HINDSIGHT that he would join and excel in the military, but I never saw it coming. Key word: hindsight. Having a child that was born highly energetic, fiercely independent and crazy about risk are fantastic adult traits but I sometimes felt I would barely survive it. I hoped he would go to college and get a "normal" job.
Hey Matt, what are you doing 30 feet up in that tree? Daycare, 2 years old. Mom can you drive me to the top of the Butte so I can jump off? Hang gliding, 16 years old. Dad, let’s go backpacking in the mountains this weekend. I’m home worried without communication from them for the biggest thunder and lightening storm of the decade. I'm being deployed to the Middle East. Oh, dear God.
Too often I made parenting about me, my comfort, my fears, my dreams. I questioned whether God really loved my kids as much as I did. I couldn't see the big picture.
Yet, so much of what I’ve learned about motherhood and walking by faith I’ve learned from Matt. I resisted and resented his gifts of independence and energy at times, but God knew what He was doing. Instead of worrying or trying to parent him out of his temperament, I started to learn from my son.
In the book, "Cure for the Common Life," Max Lucado has this brilliant analogy about our skills, passions, and tempermants being like a suitcase lovingly and intentionally packed for us by God for our own unique journey. Here is an excerpt.
Unpack Your Bag
You were born prepacked. God looked at your entire life, determined your assignment, and gave you the tools to do the job.
Before traveling, you do something similar. You consider the demands of the journey and pack accordingly. Cold weather? Bring a jacket. Business meeting? Carry the laptop. Time with grandchildren? Better take some sneakers and pain medication.
God did the same with you. Joe will research animals . . . install curiosity. Meagan will lead a private school . . . an extra dose of management. I need Eric to comfort the sick . . . include a healthy share of compassion. Denalyn will marry Max . . . instill a double portion of patience.
“Each of us is an original” (Gal. 5:26 MSG). God packed you on purpose for a purpose. Is this news to you? If so, you may be living out of the wrong bag. I once grabbed the wrong bag at the airport. The luggage looked like mine. Same size. Same material. Same color. Thrilled that it had emerged early from the baggage catacombs, I yanked it off the carousel and headed to the hotel. One glance inside, however, and I knew I’d made a mistake. Wrong size, style, and gender. (Besides, my pants would be too short with stiletto heels.) What would you do in such a case? You could make do with what you have. Cram your body into the tight clothes, deck out in other-gender jewelry, and head out for your appointments.
But would you? Only at risk of job loss and jail time.
No, you’d hunt down your own bag. Issue an all-points bulletin. Call the airport. Call the airlines.
The taxi service. The FBI. Hire bloodhounds and private investigators. You’d try every possible way to find the person who can’t find her suitcase and is wondering what gooney bird failed to check the nametag.
No one wants to live out of someone else’s bag.
Then why do we? Odds are, someone has urged a force fit into clothes not packed for you.
My friends' kids had different suitcases. My son disliked basketball and preferred building machines and collecting gadgets. His suitcase fit his journey perfectly. Comparing him to others sometimes produced fear. Then I realized that his suitcase wasn't packed for their journey. He was living his own wild and wonderful story.
Joy increased when I embraced our child's unique strengths and watched God develop them.
Not long after the “Main Street Mommy Fail” of 1997 we attended a family dinner on a hot July day. Unfortunately, through no fault of his own, Matt got locked alone inside our Chevy Tahoe strapped in his child seat. He was about 15 months old. He was screaming, crying, and sweating as the car grew dangerously hotter and we pondered the quickest way to get him out. Our keys were locked inside. The temperature was around 100 degrees and rising quickly as the hot summer sun beat through the wind shield and it seemed the only option was to smash out a window or call 911.
That’s when I remembered, wait a minute, Matt was made for this moment!!! Emotion welled up inside me, the switch flipped and I screamed through the window: “Matthew! GET OUT OF YOUR SEATBELT. YOU CAN DO THIS!” I was still incredibly stressed, but I knew he could and would get free.
“Damn right I can, Mom. And when I get out of here I’m gonna need you to pour me a cold bottle of milk and change my diaper.” Well, that’s the look he gave me anyway.
And then, miraculously, he did it! There was a shift. Instead of panic and helplessness he went into “go mode” and his flailing turned to purpose. With the whole family crowded around the SUV, we watched as that little baby went for his shoulder straps and one at a time got them off. I don’t remember how he did it but he did. And once he was out of his carseat he crawled over and unlocked the door and we scooped him out into our arms, relieved and amazed. Then he wiggled free from hugs and snuggles and begged to jump in the swimming pool.
Interestingly, 20 years later, one of the military drills Matt participated in involves strapping the trainees into a seatbelt in the cab of a simulator and plunging them upside down into a swimming pool to simulate a helicopter crash in water. The Marines must hold their breath, get out of their seatbelts, vacate the cabin and swim to safety. Matt was really good at it. Surprise, surprise. Again, pardon the sarcasm Matt, but there could have been something to be said for a desk job. I don’t mean that. Yes I do. I’m so proud of you though.
The “Trapped Toddler Tahoe Inferno” was only one of many more times of stressful adventures in parenting. Stressful for my husband and I who wanted to keep our kids safe and free from pain. God, who knows the whole story, had a different and much bigger perspective. The incident and others like it built a sense of confidence and resilience that makes Matt great at his job.
The challenges kept coming. Matt’s disappearance in middle school one day made the front page of the local newspaper.
A friend of mine took our boys snowboarding at a ski hill about an hour and a half from our house. In the evening, about the time they should have been returning home, I received a concerned call from her husband.
“Sarah, they can’t find Matt. Your son is missing. It is dark and he isn’t wearing his coat. Ski patrol have been looking for him but found nothing. I’m sorry. They are sending out a large search party.”
Instantly a familiar battle raged again inside my heart between calm, persistent strength and sickening, paralyzing fear. Was my baby okay? What should I do? What could I do? Would prayers change anything? Is God real? Does God care? Does God know to be as worried as I am?
We prayed and waited, knowing this could turn out a lot of different ways. For many parents, the news broke your heart and created a crushing, overwhelming sense of loss and despair. For you who have lost a child I am so incredibly sorry. I can’t imagine a greater pain or loss. Parents hurt when our children hurt and I know that many of you have suffered tremendously.
News about an hour later from the ski hill was good; the rescue team had found Matt alive and unharmed. There was a fresh snow that covered up the fallen boundary sign. He followed a trail and couldn’t get back to the slope, so he popped off his snowboard and was making his way through the deep snow toward a road, alone in the dark, with no phone, food or coat. Nobody knew where he was until he was found by the Search & Rescue team of local volunteers with snow mobiles, flashlights, and radios.
When Matt got home and returned safely to us, our conversation was different than I expected. Anticipating that he may have been scared, I asked how he felt about the incident.
“Mom, the newspaper article says I was lost” he marveled with a little frustration. “I wasn’t lost; I knew exactly where I was going!” Some part of Matt wanted the challenge that was taken away. He was relieved by the rescue, but had a shovel in his backpack that he was using to proceed through waist deep snow.
Part of me wanted to strangle the free spirited, independent little boy that had us all so worried. Another part deeply admired his bravery, sense of adventure, and confidence in the ability to meet a challenge. We talked about communication and how, even though he knew where he was, other people did not and were concerned. And hypothermia. And freezing temperatures. And please apologize to Elijah’s parents. And thank goodness for search & rescue. And our actions affect other people, and blah, blah, blah.
As a US Marine, Snipers are trained to overcome many extreme challenges and give their life if necessary. Many other guys would not have the drive, strength or tenacity for Sniper School. To be dropped into unfamiliar territory and navigate your destination is a skill called Land Navigation. Marines must master the ability to read a map, use a compass and other tools. All his life, in the times when I was fretting and worrying and dealing with fear, Matt was being prepared for his future by a loving God who doesn’t need to worry. The day “Lost at Ski” also prepared him for later challenges.
And so, as I reminisce about all I have learned over the years, I am reminded that my worry and fear never accomplished anything and neither will yours. Matt was never really alone and neither are we. He will continue to go through hard times. We all will. There will be things so hard they take our breath away and break our heart and hurt our bodies. We may question if God is good and wish circumstances were different. It does not seem that we will survive the pain or conquer the fear. I will still have to battle worry on his next deployment, his next leave, the weekends, every time he drives his Camaro, and almost anything he does.
In those times when we are under pressure and feel alone, we are never alone. The sweat is pouring down our face, we’re in unfamiliar territory or unsafe wilderness or toxic gas chambers. The flood waters have engulfed us, we’re overwhelmed and not in control. We may recover or we may breathe our last breath.
Jesus tells us, “I will never leave or forsake you.” “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”
Jesus said, “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” Even death cannot win.
In the meantime we have a compass and a map. There are times when, like Matt, we need to stop panicking and stop letting our fear cripple us from the action we must take. We will not be overwhelmed by evil, but can overcome evil with good. We are not alone and we have many tools we can use.
David said, "Your Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Jesus told us, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He is the map. His Word is the compass. And He is with us. He told us not to be afraid— He is FOR us.
In an interview with Commandant General Robert Neller of the Marine Corps about Sniper training, he discussed the keen ability of US adversaries to jam the GPS, radar and communications equipment. It becomes critical that Snipers can function well unplugged with just an old fashioned map and compass. Neller tells the Scout Snipers: “Get out your map and your compass.” This is good advice for all of us. In the Message version, King David said, "By your words I can see where I'm going; they throw a beam of light on my dark path."
We can meditate on the Words of Jesus so that we can access them in times of need, even if pain, fear, or crisis temporarily give way to panic. When I’m in the middle of crisis the last thing I want to do is try to find my Bible or depend on google. Like a Sniper, I want to function well unplugged. There may not be time for looking something up on my phone. Truth is in my mind and in my heart and I’m ready all the time.
Thoughts of faith given to us by God sound like this: I have no need to fear. I will rejoice always! I am anxious for NOTHING. If God is for me, who could be against me? I am forgiven, free, and loved. Through Jesus we are more than conquerors. I expect to have trouble in this life, but I am growing in perseverance and we are just passing through. This is not our home! I know you see me. Lord, have mercy on us and help us! You are with me!
I recommend having dozens of truths that you can access at any time. The word of God is powerful. The spoken word of God is likened to an offensive weapon in the Bible. This is the weapon Jesus relied on when approached at a most vulnerable time by Satan in the wilderness. If Jesus used the word of God to defeat lies and temptation, so should we.
This kind of thinking and belief system has taken me years to develop and I’m still a work in progress. I have spent countless hours to train my mind, take my thoughts captive, absorb the Word of God, learn from others who have walked this journey before me. Walking by faith is not easy or naive. It requires focus, discipline and prayer to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus in the middle of a storm. Being afraid is normal. Trusting God takes faith and practice.
Fear and doubt sound more like this: What if people judge me? I can’t see God and I don’t believe He exists. How could God be good if he let my loved one die or get hurt? I am not strong enough. I need to be in control or something bad will happen. I don’t want to live anymore. I’m not enough. Trusting God is the last thing that will help me. If God were good, all these bad things would not have happened. God doesn’t even care about me. The Bible is irrelevant to my situation.
That logic comes naturally but does not come from God. Your pain could not be more real, but God loves you and wants to help you through it.
These days I am trying to embrace the adversity. In education we talk to kids about the growth mindset. I can tell you that it is much easier to talk about the growth mindset than to practice the growth mindset. I fail all the time, but I’m working on it. I want to relax and look beyond the pain and struggle in my life and those I care about to be mindful of what I will learn from the struggle. I would not change the story, even the hard parts, because it was in the pain and struggle that some of us learned that we were not alone and we grew stronger. We developed our confidence. We learned to use our map and our compass. We embraced our failures as an opportunity to learn and grow, love others, and trust God more. We had to say goodbye for now to a loved one, but we trusted that we will see them again one day.
We must believe in each other, in our kids and friends and family, and remind each other to trust that God is good when situations are not. Our loved ones have skills and gifts the world needs and their character is developed through storms. How tragic to think that we could miss the gifts God meant us to enjoy in those we love if we allow fear or regret to invade our thinking and paralyze our joy. The storms are necessary preparation.
A painful challenge or tragedy does not make a bad God. This is a God who went through the ultimate sacrifice, spilling his own blood and letting his own heart be broken at the cross to change our future. He understands pain. By his wounds we are healed and given the opportunity by faith to be ushered into an eternal destiny where suffering and pain are no more.
I love you. Jesus loves you more.