On Life and Faith
On Life and Faith
Words & Photos / Shawn Atwood
My name is Shawn Atwood and I was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. As a teenager, the party life seemed to be the natural course that everyone, including myself, was taking. During high school, I started noticing that I had developed a dependence on drinking and smoking pot in order to feel normal. At the time, I felt like it was a cool dysfunction to have. Before turning eighteen, I started to realize that the people around me were older in age, had kids, but they were still acting like they were in high school. After that realization, I decided that wasn’t going to be me. So, I joined the marines.
When I enlisted, I had zero patriotic motives or even a political view on anything. I just wanted to play with guns and go to Iraq. Shortly after finishing boot camp and school of infantry, I was assigned to my unit. Everyone was a crazy drunk. Imagine putting a dog in a kennel, beating it and making it generally miserable during the weekdays and then releasing it on the weekend and saying, "you better be perfect on Monday so you can go back to your kennel!” That’s the best way I can describe infantry marines stateside.
All the marines, besides one in our platoon, were heavy partiers. That one guy’s name was Eddie. He was the first legit Christian I had met up to that point. I thought he was a complete d-bag because he never drank and because he was a virgin. I immediately tried to change him and get him to be like us – I thought he was missing out on life. For almost a year, we mocked him, beat him and tried to slip alcohol into his drinks, but he wouldn’t change for nothing. Then, after awhile, I started respecting him. He was consistent and content in who he was. And he was a genuinely good guy. We officially became close friends after I blacked out in an alley in Thailand and he spent the whole night babysitting me. Even after I tried to fight him and a bus driver he still didn’t leave me. That made me curious about his beliefs in life.
Four months before I first went to Iraq, I was promoted to squad leader. I had just turned 21 and was put in charge of thirteen marine lives. All split second decisions were my responsibility while on patrols. I was completely stressed out. I realized I had to grow up fast. The closer we got to deployment, the heavier those responsibilities weighed on my mind. That’s when I started talking to God. I didn’t know what to expect if I got my brains blown out. So, I told Jesus that if He was the real deal that He would show me. In the middle of that deployment I felt like I was reaching a boiling point. Between stressful long patrols, a dysfunctional relationship (mostly my fault) and mild depression, I found myself wanting to give up on life. Until one day after a three day operation a chaplain came and visited our battle position. I remember thinking how I really didn’t like that guy because he reminded me of a Muppet, the one that looks like a pencil with fuzz on top of his head. He approached me with a funny look on his face and just stared for a little bit. Then he said, “hey, do you wanna get baptized?” At that time I was checking out the Bible and I knew there was some importance to being baptized. So I replied “Sure!” What could it hurt? A couple days after, I found myself in the middle of a train station parking lot that was turned into a main battle position. I was sitting in a fiberglass water tank when someone asked me, “why are you here?” As soon as I explained how I felt about God, I started to cry like a baby. I was baptized right then and there in the water tank. When I came out, I really felt like my heart didn’t have that empty sting anymore and all the doubts that I had about the reality of God immediately went away. After that day I was determined to learn more about God, but not become weird.
During my time in Iraq – I served two tours – I would see how God hooked us up. Attacks always seemed to happen before or after we were at a location. One time, in 2009, we were personal security for a human exploitation team. Our job was to protect them while they gathered information. We stopped at a place to chill and ate some bread. Some of us took our gear off. After some time, we had to bring our guy to another spot. As soon as we arrived at our next destination, a suicide bomber came to our previous location and blew up a platoon of Iraqi Special Forces who were marching in formation. The bomber was dressed like he was in the Iraqi army. We had to go back and collect his hand for evidence and take it to another battle position where they would try and get forensics.
In the middle of my second tour in Iraq, I started feeling empty and began slipping into depression. I realized that everything we were doing was going to be for nothing. The more we would turn over battle positions to the Iraqi government, the more mortar fire we would receive. That meant that the bad guys were taking back their territory. It started to make me think about what I should do after finishing my contract in the marines. By this time I fully started to follow God. I thought to myself, “if God was truly real and He meant all the things He said, it would be stupid of me not to try and do the things He is about.” So, as soon as I finished my six years in the marines, I enrolled into a Bible school in Texas. I had high expectations. I expected to learn everything about God. But after my second year of being fully immersed into this Christian thing, I realized that a lot of American beliefs were more focused on doing Christianity rather than having an actual relationship with God. I believe that having a relationship with God is more important, even if this meant that I wouldn’t fit into their mold. All of these thoughts began to point me towards doing work in foreign countries.
After my first year of school, I had an opportunity to go to Swaziland. While in Swaziland I met a missionary that worked in Mozambique. His main goal was to record and deliver audio Bibles to the tribes in the bush. Everything between us seemed to click and so we decided that after I finished school, I would help him for two years in Mozambique.
I met my wife after I came back to school. We got married two weeks after graduation. As soon as our honeymoon was over, we moved to Mozambique. We joined up with the guy I met in Swaziland. We worked with him at his organization in Mozambique called Cross Connection Outreach. Aside from recording and delivering audio Bibles, the goal of the organization is to help the local people help themselves. We did this by developing community projects and helping people in the West become more aware of what's going on in East Africa. Life is rough for many. About 70 percent of people in Mozambique can’t read or write; Many children are still not sent to school because they need to help at home; Many people have medical issues that are left untreated because of insufficient medical personnel.
Through the work of the organization, natives are able to start businesses, children are encouraged to pursue education through simple acts like distributing school uniforms, broken wells are repaired and many sick people are receiving medical treatment. We also worked with existing churches and translated and recorded the Bible into local languages. My wife and I were assigned to develop a second base where we would do all these things in a different part of the country.
As soon as we bought the land, threats of a civil war were rising. The two opposing political parties started attacking each other in the town where the property was purchased. This made it really difficult for us to do any kind of work. However, with the help of the locals, we were able to build more relationships, get supplies for a very simple hut and build it. We used the hut to store our supplies and as cover while we were visiting the village.
There was a language barrier, visa issues, we had to avoid malaria, fleas, and I had about 20 worms in my feet. The worms might sound crazy, but it’s really just a tiny flea that burrows itself in the foot. It is simply removed with a thorn. The really cool part about all this was that I had the opportunity to see my wife face difficult situations and we were able to work it out together. I truly believe that this time set an awesome foundation for our marriage. We learned to love and appreciate the simple things in life.
Towards the end of our second year in Mozambique, my wife and I felt that we wanted start having babies. So, we decided to make our way back to Alaska. We wanted to be close to my immediate family while we start our own family. As we’re in this new chapter in our lives, I plan to implement some of the life lessons I learned in my past. The first lesson is a saying I learned in the marines: “Keep it simple, stupid.” The second is to love and respect everyone around me.