By Jay Nies
Indian Creek native Captain (CPT)Benedict J. Smith kissed his scapular and prayed an Act of Contrition before turning the key to start the Black Hawk helicopter he was piloting on Nov. 7, 2003.
Shortly thereafter, he and five other U.S. soldiers died instantly when a ground-to-air missile struck their helicopter near Tikrit in north-central Iraq.
“He told me he wasn’t afraid to die,” his mother, Kathy Smith, recently recalled. “He had offered himself up to God. He just hoped that if God took him, it would be while he was in his helicopter. He loved to fly.”
Memories filled Mrs. Smith’s heart and mind as she and her husband watched TV coverage of Pope Francis’s March 5-8 apostolic journey to Iraq, the land where their son entered eternal life.
“I was very excited and happy that the pope would go there and walk in the sand there, just as my son did,” she said.
Places damaged and ruined by war and sectarian violence formed a dramatic backdrop for many of the pope’s activities in the religiously and culturally-diverse Middle Eastern nation.
Again and again, the pontiff’s message was, “We are all one people with one God. Let us show love to our brothers and sisters.”
Mrs. Smith was amazed at the size of the crowds who gathered everywhere the pope stopped, including locales made famous by God’s interactions with His people in the Old Testament.
“It was beautiful that so many people were so excited and happy that he was there,” she said. “My heart was filled with joy as I watched it all unfold on TV.”
She noted that her son loved God, loved his country and loved the people he was sent to help protect in Iraq.
“He pretty much stayed underground in a bunker there most of the time,” said Mrs. Smith. “But every once in a while, he’d come out and play sports with the teenagers from a nearby village and barbecue for them. They’d have a ball.”
Thinking about how the people in Iraq have suffered brings Mrs. Smith to tears.
“I pray for God to give them peace of mind and fill them with a deeper desire for Himself after now being blessed by Pope Francis coming there,” she said.
“A day of peace”
Seventeen-year-old Hussein Al Hraishawi was mesmerized to watch TV images of Pope Francis shaking hands and sitting down for a visit with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s most authoritative leaders.
“This was a peace moment for all people,” said Hussein, who moved from Iraq to Columbia a little over three years ago.
“Trust me, when they sit together, Christian and Muslim, that moment means a lot,” he said.
Born in Basra, Iraq, Hussein moved to central Missouri with his parents and eight siblings when he was 14.
They came to the United States with a special refugee status known as Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which is predominantly for people who helped the U.S. government during the Iraq War or in its aftermath.
They came here with help from Refugee Resettlement Services of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri.
His father had a good job in Iraq, working as an electrical engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Leaving was hard,” said Hussein, “because you’re moving away from your grandma and grandpa and people you know, and going far away from your own country.”
But it was also happy.
“It’s a better life here,” he said. “Where I lived, it was tribes always fighting each other. From morning to night, you’d see the bullets jumping in the sky.”
He hopes the pope’s visit brings greater attention not only to the region’s problems but also the beautiful, hospitable culture of the Iraqi people.
“I’m so proud and grateful to be from Iraq,” he said. “There are a lot of good things to see there and a lot of really good people. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, they welcome you.”
“Let me tell you, in Iraq, there’s more than one culture,” he stated. “But people don’t ask you if you’re Muslim or Christian or Jewish or any other kind of religion in Iraq. They invite you in and offer you something to eat and something to drink.”
Many Iraqis are on edge because of the poverty and instability.
Some feared for the pope’s life when he announced he was going to visit there.
“But if you go there, you see how nice the people are,” said Hussein. “From south to north, people came out to welcome the pope. They were so happy to see him.
“It felt good for me, too, to hear about how good the people of Iraq were to the pope, how they welcomed him, how happy they were to have him there,” he added.
Hussein pointed to messages Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi sent out over Twitter during the pope’s visit, calling for a standing forum for dialogue among the nation’s religious groups.
The pope’s “message of peace, human solidarity with Iraq inspires us to persevere toward a better future for the people of Iraq and the wider region,” the prime minister tweeted.
Hussein believes historians will point to this visit as a major turning point for Iraq.
“Several hundred years from now, people will look back on this time as a moment in history,” said Hussein. “We will remember this as a day of peace.”
That peace must start with helping the people who are most in need.
“When people have their rights and their basic needs met, Iraq will be a truly great nation,” said Hussein. “Until then, we have to do whatever we can to help them.”
He hopes to return to Iraq to visit sometime, “but this is home now. I have a future here.”
He hopes people will join him in praying for the people of Iraq, including members of his own family.
“For peace. No more war,” he said. “That’s what we want.”
“Hope and peace”
Dale and Sandra Deraps, members of Annunciation Parish in California, began praying for Pope Francis’s safety the moment they heard he would be traveling to Iraq.
Their youngest son, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Leon Deraps, died in action in 2006 in the Al Anbar Province, near the height of the Iraq War.
The pope’s visit helped them learn more about the Iraqi people.
“I now realize that the country has many Catholics,” said Mrs. Deraps. “I’m so pleased that our pope was brave enough to visit and encourage the whole country to spread hope and peace.”
She will never forget the images of Pope Francis praying in the restored Baghdad cathedral that had been bombed and desecrated by terrorists who were fixed on eradicating Christianity from the region.
She noted that it is part of the mission of Catholic Christianity to pray for and forgive those who threaten violence in the name of religion.
“Let us pray that the people of Iraq and will follow the pope’s example to live in forgiveness and peace,” she said.
A lamb and a puppy
Several days before CPT Smith’s funeral, his mother received a purple velvet drawstring bag.
It contained the three possessions found on CPT Smith’s person at the time of his death: his wedding ring, a brown scapular and a prayer card with a consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
His mother gave him the holy card nine years before he died.
“I asked him to try to keep it as long as he could,” she said. “He had it in his pocket when he crashed. I can’t believe he still had it with him.”
About two weeks later, Mrs. Smith had a vivid dream.
“Ben came to me and he was just beautiful,” she said. “He was all in white. And he was holding a baby lamb. I knew that it was the Lamb of God.”
The next morning, she called to tell her son’s widow, whom she had sponsored at Confirmation, about the dream.
Before she could say anything, the younger Mrs. Smith told her, “Mom! Ben came to me last night! And he was dressed in white and was holding a white puppy.”
“I said, ‘Maggie, he came to me holding a lamb. But maybe he came to you with a puppy because he knew you like puppies,’” she said.
CPT Smith’s mother has cancer and has received the Last Rites twice in the past six months.
“I was supposed to have died about three years ago, but I didn’t,” she said. “I keep living one day at a time. I know God keeps me alive for some reason.
“I know Ben was not afraid of death,” she said. “I’m not afraid of it, either.”