A Grief Traversed

Dear Church Family,

On this Memorial Day, I want to share with you a book recommendation, written by the fiancé of a friend of mine who was killed in Iraq in 2003. When I first received my copy of Letters to Ernie by Michelle Blanco (published in 2016), I began to read and couldn’t stop until I had finished the whole book in one sitting. The only thing that slowed my progress through the book was the need to wipe my face and blink through the tears. At first, they were tears of sadness and remembrance, but then as I finished the book they became tears of joy and thankfulness. Let me explain.

An Overtly Christian Man

During my time as an army chaplain in the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC, I was privileged to befriend and get to know Ernie Blanco, a young infantry officer and brother in Christ, who helped co-lead the youth ministry at a local PCA church with me and my wife. He was a great leader of men as well as a wonderful man of God, seeking to honor Christ in all that he did. He was “overtly Christian.” By that I don’t mean that he always wore his faith in Christ on his sleeve. But if you were around him for any amount of time, you felt almost compelled to ask him, “Why are you so joyful and full of life?” And he would have responded, “It is Christ in me, the hope of glory!”

There are many stories that I could tell about Ernie. At the time, Stacie and I had two small children and Ernie was a single young man who spent a lot of time in our home. He would come over for dinner, and we would spend hours talking about life, the army, the Bible, theology, dating, marriage, family. At one point, he even expressed interest in perhaps leaving the army, attending seminary, and becoming an RUF campus minister. In the youth ministry that Stacie and I led, Ernie sometimes led the Bible study, but most often he was playing his guitar and singing praises at the top of his lungs – pretty much drowning everyone else out.

One time while walking with Ernie on post, we passed a soldier from the Puerto Rican National Guard, which was temporarily stationed at Fort Bragg. The soldier’s uniform was a complete mess and he failed to salute us as we passed. Ernie immediately turned on the poor unsuspecting private and began chewing him out in Spanish as he made him fix his uniform and then do pushups as a reminder. Ernie had grown up in Puerto Rico and he apparently took it as a personal affront. I didn’t understand a word that Ernie said to that soldier, but I knew that he was very proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, his Texan heritage, his country, his army – and it showed.

Ernie fell in love with Michelle, a young woman from back home and fellow Aggie from Texas A&M. My wife and I were privileged to be observers and sometimes advisors in their growing relationship. Eventually they were engaged to be married, but Ernie’s unit was called up for a second deployment; he had been to Afghanistan and now he was headed to Iraq.

On the last night before his deployment, Ernie spent the night in our home and he and I went out to dinner to a local restaurant as sort of a ‘last meal’ send-off. As Ernie ate the meat off of his chicken wings, and then – as was his custom – proceeded to bite off and eat the ends of the bones (he said it was the best part!), we talked about his future plans. He had postponed attending his next career-advancing course so that he could deploy with his men (he was loyal like that), but he was looking forward to some down time. He was especially looking forward to marrying Michelle almost immediately upon his return home from war.

That was the last time that I saw Ernie. Instead of officiating at his and Michelle’s wedding in June, I presided at his funeral in January of 2004. You can read Ernie’s official army remembrance and obituary here; personal remembrances and testimonies of his faith, professionalism, and friendship are available here.

Ernie’s death was a sad loss for many people; his death was a sad loss for this world. After Ernie was killed in Iraq, many were asking God why – but none so fervently and despondently as Michelle. I commend to you her book, Letters to Ernie. It’s her story of the love that she and Ernie had, the grief and anger at his death, and the hope and healing that she could only find in Christ, her Savior.

A Tale of Two People’s Love and the Love of Christ

Michelle’s book begins with the story of her and Ernie’s relationship – how it began, how it faltered, how it eventually blossomed. Michelle writes in a very readable and engaging way in describing their relationship such that there is a sense of anticipation throughout their story. Just this part of Michelle’s book – the story of the love between two young people – is compelling and beautiful, giving hope and encouragement. It’s a reminder to those who are in love, or hope to be in love someday, that such things are possible and to cherish every moment that you have.

Then, as Michelle describes hearing the news of Ernie’s death and her grief and subsequent anger, she is incredibly transparent and raw. This was the most difficult part of the book for me to read (for many reasons), yet it was refreshingly honest. Michelle relates how she became numb and hollow inside and spent years trying to cope, to manage, and to assuage her grief and anger – trying to live her life, now without Ernie and all the hopes and plans that they had together.

In the final chapters of Letters to Ernie, Michelle relates how nothing (work, distraction, time) could heal her sense of feeling lost and stuck – stuck in grief, unforgiveness, and anger. But, she eventually did find the answer. She writes with such clarity and wisdom that you really need to read the whole book to fully understand, but let me just give you a glimpse by way of a short section from near the end of the book:

Well-meaning friends, family and even strangers will try to provide an answer sometimes, show us some good thing that came out of the tragedy. But a good thing happening after the bad thing happens does not make the bad thing less bad. They are separate things. What we are really looking for is rest. In an answer. In a thing. In some explanation. We are looking for some place where the pain does not overwhelm us, and we can breathe. I’ve come to learn that the only place that I’m going to find that rest is in Jesus.

His rest is not the rest where you have all the answers and everything else makes sense, but rather, it is rest from having to have all the answers. That is the myth that I think most people believe. The myth that the burden is in not knowing, not understanding. The burden, I have come to believe, would be in knowing, knowing what God sees that we can’t because it is just too much for a human heart and mind. (Letters to Ernie, 130-131)

Psalm 4: Simplicity on the Far Side of Complexity

As I have reflected on my relationship with both Ernie and Michelle, and having read Michelle’s book, I believe that Michelle’s story is a testimony of a life lived in Psalm 4. King David begins by crying out to the Lord in the midst of his distress: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; Be gracious to me and hear my prayer” (Psalm 4:1). As the Psalm proceeds, though, there is no answer from the Lord – no fixing of the problem that is causing David’s distress. Yet, despite not having been relieved from his distress, David concludes with a declaration that He has found peace in the fact that the Lord is enough: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep, For You alone, O LORD, make me to dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

Several years ago, while on vacation, my family and I were able to visit with Michelle in Los Angeles and share a meal one evening. Our two oldest were toddlers when Ernie died and were now teenagers; all four of our children got to meet and get to know the woman that loved Ernie, the woman that Ernie loved. It was obvious that, though she had been through a devastating loss, Michelle had found the healing balm that can only come by resting in Christ.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That is what Michelle’s book is about. It’s the powerful testimony of a woman who was able to return to the simplicity of faith in Christ, on the other side of a terrible loss. I hope you will read the book.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch