I am pretty sure I never actually finished a blog in the year 2013. I started this one last week with the hopes of at least getting one in before the New Year was upon us. But like most things in life, good intentions must count for something. So I guess instead of being the only blog of 2013, it is the first blog of 2014! Happy New Year! Jim and I have been working pretty hard on our book instead of the blog lately. Writing blogs are fairly easy and cathartic. However, writing an entire book is a serious labor of love. Blogs do seem to morph into chapters so maybe this one will make the cut. Regardless I did not want to neglect jotting down some signigicant moments the Lord has been merciful enough to let me witness over the last month of 2013. Like the wise men, I have been given three gifts during the season of our Lord’s birth.
As you know from reading past blogs, we have prayed continually for the 7 years since Troy was killed and taken by Iraqi insurgents that his body would one day be recovered. For the first couple of months, I felt that any moment I might get another knock at my front door with news of his recovery. As the months turned into years, I never gave up hope. When the war in Iraq ended and our troops were all sent home, the hopeful light grew dim as I weighed the odds and knew without American military access the search woud be far more difficult. Then in the early winter of 2012 we learned the Air Force might not ever resume recovery missions because in the “accounting” system of the Department of Missing Persons, Troy was considered body accounted for (due to the small of amount of his undeniable fatal DNA found at the crash site). So his family and I would enter another battle, one to give him the status of continued recovery efforts. The battle was swift but victorious. We won. But I knew it was ultimately the Lord that bestowed us the favor, because He knew how much it mattered to us. For the almost two years since that action was overturned, I have remained hopeful but realistically always knew that finding Troy’s remains was akin to finding a needle in a haystack. A grain of sand at the beach.
But our God specializes in the minutest of details, the one in a billion, the David in a room full of Goliaths. By the outpouring of His mercy, on the morning of November 22,, 2013, just one month ago and almost 7 years to the day of his November 27th crash, we received notification that a small portion of Troy’s remains had been found in Iraq and turned into the U.S. embassy via the country of Jordan. As I sat and listened to what was being told to me, I felt myself struggling to listen because I could scarcely take it all in. Even if it was only some small foot bones, it was nothing short of a miracle to have them returned to us. The Lord held out His mighty hand to me, opened His palm and there I saw that glistening grain of sand. My first gift.
Because of classified details I was not told the journey those tiny bones made to get from where they were to the U.S. But I have no doubt there were a million miracles along the way - God working IN and THROUGH people to achieve majestic moments. As I wept, all I could feel was thankfulness. I knew in my heart God always heard my prayers for Troy to be found but what a gift to see it in the physical world, too.
There is so much that could be said about the inner workings of the Holy Spirit in mine and the kids lives that has happened over the last 7 years. Our book will hopefully tell a more complete story of all God has done.
My focus has always been that because I know Biblical truths about death and eternity I must remember that Troy, all of who he was – his very soul- went to be with Jesus the moment his plane hit the ground and he instantly died. I have always explained it to the kids that what makes up who we are is on the inside, the heart and soul. Which as a Christian, belongs to and is the indwelling of Christ. Therefore, what is left is just what we see on the outside, the shell, the covering, what makes up the body. And bodies weren’t made to last or withstand death but souls live forever. And souls that belong to Jesus live forever in heaven. Maybe that is oversimplifying but I don’t think so.
So, as I have striven to avoid the snares of tortured entanglement which can so easily come if my focus shifts to the fact that Troy’s casket has lied virtually empty, because his body was taken by insurgents and only a small amount of DNA was found in his jet. Seven years ago, we buried less than 1% of him. It can drive me crazy and make me angry and want to throw things when I think of the injustices that happened to him after he died. But, if I go down that road then Satan wins. And by the grace of God, I WiLL NOT let Satan win. I have always said I will fight for him to be found. I will never stop praying for it. Hoping for it. Longing for it. But that I still must trust the Lord and accept whatever His will was, regardless if that meant we got him back or not.
I can’t even begin to explain what washed over me as the Mortuary Affairs officer proceeded to describe to me what was recently found. Not just foot bones but toe bones. And not just toe bones but the bones underneath the toenails. Seven years prior the only bone fragments found were of Troy’s skull. Now, let me stop to say I am not morbidly giving details to keep you intrigued and certainly would never share anything private that would distract from God’s message. I am giving you details because the Lord’s ways are magnificient and so extremely personal that I want you to be encouraged in your own journey. We serve a God who knows the numbers of hair of your head, keeps your tears in a bottle and has your name written on the palm of His hand. But back to our story, upon close examination, those skull fragments that were left behind back in 2006 were from the very top of his skull. Just over a month ago, we were informed more were found. Foot bones, specifically toenail bones. I saw clearly what the Lord had given us with this tiny percentage of bones; the top of Troy’s head and the tip of his foot. I began to quietly cry over the phone as the Mortuary Affairs officer soaked in what he had just told me. I then gathered myself and told him thank you and that the Lord had just given me such a gift. The spiritual significance of what was left behind. That God always had Troy, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. He had never forsaken him. He had never forsaken me. He reminded me not to worry that He is leaving something unattended, that He loves me and He is indeed the blessed Controller. My second gift.
Jim and I met for the first time on Christmas Day 2007. As I have mentioned before, we didn’t intend to meet ON Christmas Day, it just happened that way. But it makes us smile deep down because without even realizing it, we were given the most incredible gift that year; a chance at a new life. Through the years, Jim and I have taken turns being one another’s rock to stand on, a place to land in times of deep sorrowful grief. There have miraculously been only a couple handfuls of times that we were both hurting so much that we couldn’t be there for one another. But even in those times, the Lord sustained us.
Jim, being a compassionate man and fighter pilot himself, has always grieved with us over Troy’s crash, the circumstances around it and the hole that was left behind in our lives. He understood what Troy was doing on his mission that day, why he was doing it and suddenly found himself taking care of Troy’s wife and children. When Jim first mentioned marriage to me, I told him, “Don’t marry me because you feel sorry for me. Marry me because you love me.” He said he was marrying me not only because he loved me but because that is what God called him to do. Sometimes I joked that that made me feel like I was a third-world mission calling and that didn’t sound very romantic. But, actually, it was the ultimate romance. God loving all of us enough to send His only Son into this harsh and desperate world. Jesus loving all of us enough to die a merciless and tortured death to save us from ourselves. Me loving Jesus enough to trust that that same love for me on the Cross hadn’t stopped the day my earthly world did. Jim loving the Lord enough to trust Him even though Andrea’s life ended far too soon. Jim trusting the Lord to equip him to father not only his two boys but five new children he had never met and love another man’s wife til death do us both part. And, then me, rejoicing that God would send us another man to step in and “take the stick” over from Troy and continue to keep us on course as a family. I have a wall plaque that reads “Every Love Story is Beautiful, Ours is My Favorite”. True words.
Over the years I have watched Jim honor Troy many many times over. Whether it be in how much he continues to seek ways to fill our home and the kids hearts with the knowledge of who their Dad in heaven was. To how he has supported the many tributes across this nation to Troy. To supporting me as I travel and speak for the Folds of Honor Foundation so our family can help other fallen families, etc. Jim often says he knows Troy so well without ever having met him. I feel the same way about Andrea. And I think in part it is because we have both come from such similar places; loving and losing someone til it hurts. The same void, though one where the manner of death was different but the loss was equal. And also, I think it is because we both strive to know really who each others’ spouses were. By knowing Troy better, Jim understands me more. And vice versa.
Since I met Jim, every time he hears the National Anthem played he has prayed for Troy’s remains to be found and brought back to us. When he was active duty, that happened everyday at 5:00 pm on loudspeakers broadcast all of the bases where he was stationed. So, as you can imagine, as I was told the news of Troy’s partial recovery, his heart was overwhelmed as well. As soon as the tears stopped flowing and we walked out of the general’s office, Jim began helping me make plans for Troy’s service. He diligently and swiftly helped me put together the Arlington service in three weeks. So many other people helped me 7 years ago with Troy’s services and I was in such a fog anyway that I had no idea what all was involved in planning a funeral. I had an even deeper appreciation for all of my friends who stepped in and took care of things to honor Troy on those memorial and funeral days.
But, this time, it was up to me and Jim and the kids, much older now and able to be involved, to decide how could we celebrate this miraculous recovery and the man Troy was. Jim made lots of phone calls, logistically planned our trip, meticulously made professional-grade programs, offered loving insight and wisdom and finacially spent whatever it took to make his service and reception a solemn yet joyful occasion. He understood that the service was a chance for the children to fully comprehend what their Daddy being buried in Arlington National Cemetery means. Only Boston remembered the first service. Greyson was just 6 years old and his memories were primarily of the large memorial service in Phoenix. Bella attended but was only 3 years old and the twins, being 9 months didn’t go to Arlington at all. So, in a way, this was the first time they buried their father. And on such a significant day, too, December 11th, 2013, exactly 7 years after buryng his first remains. God’s hand was evident in using His favorite Biblical reference to the number 7; the number of completion. God moved the wintry East Coast storm to allow all of us to be there. The crisp December air was marked by sunshine , melting snow, red and white roses, bagpipes and testimonies from the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Troy’s mentor and former commander General Rand and the chaplain in Iraq who loved Troy’s legacy of service… It was all such a touching day but the most poignant was the kids being able to mark another milestone on their individual journeys to healing - That was sacred to me and to Jim.
The children all decided they wanted to say something at Troy’s service this time. So to help them decide what specific thing they wanted to talk about, on small pieces of paper I wrote down many of Troy’s characteristics. Not things he liked to do but ways he was. Things like: strong leader, determined, cared about others, funny, loving, etc… and I laid them out on the coffee table and they selected which ones they thought they were like. Their stories began from there. They were all beautiful. And so accurately described the similarities and connection they will have always have with their father. Jim said he would like to introduce the kids at the service and wondered if it would be appropriate for him to say something in honor of Troy. I told him of course it would be, if he felt that is what the Lord wanted him to do. Until Jim got up at the service I didn’t really know exactly what he was going to say beyond leading the children to the front of the crowd at the gravesite. But now I will never forget it.
Jim briefly talked about his unique role in standing in the gap for Troy but never trying to replace Troy as the children’s father. And that he had recently found an old email Troy had sent me from his deployment in Iraq. It was written just weeks before he died. Then Jim said he knew Troy’s words were what he was meant to read on this very momentous day; what we all needed to be reminded of most.
Here is an excerpt from the email dated October 5, 2006 sent to me from Troy. He was referring to the personnel he was deployed with and the time he spent volunteering at the Balad AFB hospital:
“… They have this strong sense of pride just to be able to serve our great nation. It especially hits home when you visit the hospital and realized the real sacrifices made by our soldiers… I tell you not one person who walks through the hospital takes anything for granted anymore. Whenever I go there I have to continually say a prayer to remind myself that I serve a sovereign God who is in control of Everything (sidenote: I find it interesting that this is the ONLY word Troy capitalized in this sentence) and is ever faithful. He is in control and is impacting/touching so many lives for His cause, even in the face of such tragedy/sorrow. That reassurance comes from the good news stories that are generated each and every day at that facility by the men and women who serve outstandingly there. That reassurance does not come from the Blessed (my sidenote: again another interesting choice of capitalization) life He has given me, because I truly understand that can all end in an instant. I’ve truly realized that His sovereignty and power, rather my true belief in it, should have nothing to do with, and doesn’t have anything to do with the Blessed life he has given me. It comes from His word, His Promise, His Son’s Blood – Faith, my dear. Faith, regardless of what happens to me, to you, to our children. Faith in the face of tragedy. I am so thankful I, we as a family, have Him to lean on. Many here do not. For many, the hospital is a place that shakes their Faith (my sidenote: hmmm – capital letter again)… hard to understand at first, til you see it first hand. I am comforted to know that regardless of the outcome, God IS (my sidenote: all caps!) in control.” I believe Troy capitalized the things the Lord told him to emphasize to me for the tragedy that was about to befall us; That God is in control of Everything, that I am not Blessed because of what or who I have but because I have Jesus, that Faith is all that matters and that God IS in control no matter what happens. For all the times, I have wanted to and will wish I could just talk things over with Troy, this is what he would tell me. No matter the circumstance or situation. What a treasure.
After Jim finished reading Troy’s words, he turned and proudly saluted Troy’s small casket of remains. There wasn’t a dry eye. It was a stunningly beautiful moment of God’s provision and the grace He has bestowed upon Jim to fill some pretty big shoes. And do it so well, I might add. Troy’s powerful legacy does not cast a shadow on Jim’s. Their shadows equally stand tall, merging into one great covering for our household.
Along with 125 dear people, one of my mother’s friends attended Troy’s burial on this December 11th. Actually she may have been at his first burial, too, come to think of it. Anyway, last week, after the service and just a few days before Christmas, she sent my mom an email. In it, she said she had just come from their church service where the pastor emphasized the story of Joseph and his unique calling to become Mary’s husband and Christ’s earthly father. She said she was struck with the thought that my Jim was a modern-day Joseph. As I read the short note, tears welled up in my eyes. Why hadn’t I ever thought of that? Joseph loved Mary and committed to her his heart and his devotion even though his family was looking very different than what he himself had already planned. So much alike, Mary’s Joseph and my Jim… And yes, Jim’s full name is James Joseph Ravella. Wow. In every way, a true Biblical servant’s name.
My third gift.
“When I consider Your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?”
I have lost so much but how could I not be thankful. Lord, let me remember in 2014 that You are ever mindful of me. And that is the greatest gift of all.