Dave Eubank’s Story
by Richard Drebert
“We will always stand with the oppressed.
Not because we are so brave, but because it is right.”
Dave Eubank — Founder, Free Burma Rangers (Speaking to a Tatmadaw Officer)
Helplessly, I watched my squad of paratroopers bouncing across Georgia hardpan like rag dolls.
I drifted above my fellow U.S. Army Rangers swinging like a plumb bob, yanking and finessing my own parachute risers (controls), while treetops lashed the air in a 30-mile-per-hour crosswind.
I weighed 145 pounds, and even with my M-16 and 70-pound combat load, the wind gusts slung me in wide, uncontrollable arcs.
The acronym might easily correspond with my final jump in the Rangers Indoctrination Program. A tech had misread the anemometer (wind-speed gauge), and I was the last Ranger out of the C-130 troop door before a red light warned our jumpmaster to terminate the exercise.
All five paratroopers below me now lay like crushed insects, chutes flapping in unruly surrender.
Landing flat-backed would stun me unconscious. It was likely that my chute would drag me, flaying my body on rocks and brush until some gnarled sapling impaled me.
A few feet above the earth I yanked one capewell (canopy release) on my chest to deflate half my parachute — but a crosswind gathered up every thread of silk, anyway. My flailing chute dragged me the distance of a football field until I jerked the other capewell and freed myself.
I lay on my back, stunned for a while, then gained hands and knees. My rodeo ride had ground my leather jump boots to shreds. Ammo, grenades, canteen and rifle were torn from my ruck, and Fort Benning grit had buffed my helmet to a bright sheen.
Two of my squad lay tangled in a wire fence, and three others rested in heaps of fluttering silk.
Suddenly the wind died to a zephyr. I was about to roll free of my fouled lines when a commanding inner voice overpowered my sensory forces, and I tuned in to Someone speaking quietly, yet cryptically — as when a father kneels before a child, eye to eye.
It’s not your time, David.
I recognized the voice. I hadn’t heard it so plainly in years. I rubbed blood from my eyes and hollered at the nearest injured Rangers, but no one answered. Soon medics arrived to bear away the wounded.
I was the only Ranger who walked away from our macabre drop zone.
While recuperating in my bunk, a scene in Thailand played in my mind — one that I had nearly forgotten. In it, I stood in my yard holding an open pocketknife, declaring to the world: “I’m gonna be a soldier! And then I’m gonna be a missionary!”
I smiled at my childish oracle. Lt. David Eubank would never be a missionary like his gentle, compassionate father.
I was born to be a warrior.
I clung like a hairless white monkey atop my wooden swing set, screaming at a scrawny, pointy-eared dog. The hound leaped for me, snapping at my dangling bare feet, and I felt myself slipping.
Suddenly a black-and-gray cloud of dust swallowed up the red dog.
Duke, my German Shepherd, clamped the hound’s throat in iron jaws, shook him unconscious, then pinned him to the dirt until he stopped breathing. Duke was my protector, patrolling the yard for snakes, and warning our family when anyone approached our home that was situated close to the Thai-Burma border.
I dropped to the ground and hugged my hero, my 5-year-old heart still beating in my ears. Duke sniffed the hound warily. It jerked a bit, and I ran to the house to find Mom or Dad.
But Duke paid a price to rescue his boy. Red flecks drizzled down his fur where the rabid dog’s teeth had nicked his shoulder. My family hoped that Duke might survive, but rabies symptoms developed quickly.
I experienced a sad Old Yeller day in Thailand. Losing Duke was my first lesson in what Mom called “suffering.” She was my schoolteacher, and the Bible was my primer.
My 3-year-old sister, Ruth, my 2-year-old sister, Laurie, my dad, my mom and I lived in a two-story Little House on the Prairie home, about a day’s muddy or dusty drive from Bangkok.
Missionaries Allan and Joan Eubank (Dad and Mom) had moved to the edge of the Thai jungle in 1961, just nine months after I was born.
Dad had been a Texas oilman and my mom a performer in Hollywood and Broadway before they answered God’s call to be missionaries in Thailand.
My mother, Joan Hovis, had been singing with a USO troupe in Korea when she captivated my father with her beauty and Christian character. After sharing a cozy candlelight dinner and a single kiss, they sailed for contrasting destinies — though neither forgot their deeply spiritual connection.
Dad often received letters from London, Hollywood or New York, but he was resigned that Mom’s dream was to become a star with her name in Broadway lights.
After Dad served out his Army commission, a sharply chiseled command from God blindsided him. Allan felt called to “be a missionary.”
“Lord, I’m willing. But let me make a million dollars in the oil business — then I can go all out for you!”
College trained as an engineer and geologist, Allan Eubank worked for oil companies in Texas for a few years. He drilled ambitiously, but never felt God’s endorsement on his plan to be a rich philanthropist. Dad tossed his dreams of wealth to the Texas winds and chose to follow Jesus without qualification. He entered Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, to prepare for missions work in Thailand.
“I was 28 years old and finally knew why I was born,” Dad writes in his book God! If You Are Really God!
Then, in my father’s third year at Brite seminary, Broadway star Joan Hovis danced into his life again. She “happened” to be performing at the Casa Mañana Theater, a mile away from where he lived. She starred in the musical Oklahoma!
Mom had been chosen for a Theatre World Award as one of the 10 most “Promising Personalities” on Broadway. But more than anything else, my mother wanted to serve God fully.
When she felt God speaking very plainly to her, “No one can serve two masters, Joan,” my mother knew she needed to make some life-altering choices.
In her season of renewed commitment to Jesus, Dad began attending her performances at the Casa Mañana — and within weeks he won her heart.
Mom finished up her road shows with renowned playwright and composer Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein) to become a bride and missionary.
In 1959, Dad discovered the gusher he had always hoped for: Mom joined him in the adventure of a lifetime! With actors, soldiers and oilmen in attendance, Allan Eubank and Joan Hovis became husband and wife. After mission studies, in 1961, Dad and Mom were ordained as ministers with the Christian Church Disciples of Christ.
Circling over Bangkok rice paddies, my father took my mother’s hand and said, “I feel like we’re coming home.”
Mom smiled down at me in her arms and replied, “That’s exactly how I feel, too.”
At a village called Sam Yaek, about 50 miles west of Bangkok, my parents settled down to help plant churches in Thailand. Our first home was nestled in a valley of rice paddies, where years earlier, farmers had carved fields from lush forests of teak and bamboo. Sam Yaek served as my childhood FOB (forward operating base), and the miles of agricultural land became my “big game” hunting grounds.
“Look what I got, Mom!”
Exciting creatures crawled and flew everywhere, like centipedes longer than hotdogs, spiders with legs the length of my forearm and beetles that bounced off rafters like baseballs. Chickens, dogs, pigs and cattle scurried and wandered along worn footpaths, sleeping under the bamboo houses at night.
Villagers’ homes around us were constructed with woven bamboo walls set solidly upon teak posts. To guard against flooding in the rainy season, each two- or three-room house perched about 6 feet or more off the ground. A set of teak ladder-stairs welcomed sandals or bare feet, and above it all, a family slept under a roof of thatch, palm fronds or tin.
Only one of Thailand’s local denizens sent shivers up my boyhood spine. Bats flew into my loft bedroom from an opening in the roof. I recall their scrabbling claws on the ceiling and their flapping “capes.” I spent restless nights worrying that they might drain my blood while I slept.
Although my family appeared typically American with conveniences like plumbing, the Eubanks’ hearts grew more Asian year by year. Dad and Mom immersed themselves in our neighbors’ culture and, for my sisters and me, English became our second language after Thai.
Along with schooling us kids, Mom included the local women and children in the chores and the challenges of her daily life. Her trained voice had serenaded thousands in Europe and the United States, but now she sang at humble gatherings of villagers, teaching them hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Dad mentored me in the traditions of his father, a Christian man of integrity, a veteran of World War I and a Texan through and through. Grandpa taught Dad to shoot a .22 rifle before he was 6 years old, and I hunted lizards, snakes and squirrels at a young age as well.
I learned to swim like a jungle perch, and Dad nurtured my adventure cravings — Mom juggled evangelism work, keeping up with wash, dinners and chores, plus homeschooling a boy who daydreamed of killing tigers. Finally, my parents decided that I needed a structured academic environment.
Make-believe commando patrols at Sam Yaek ended when I was 7 years old. Dad and Mom enrolled me at the Chiang Mai Coeducational Center (CCC — later called the Chiang Mai International School), and loneliness for my family nearly broke my heart.
Jungle Boy in the City
Seeing Dad’s wide smile and feeling his bear hug at CCC hurt worse now than waving from my train seat two months earlier.
I lay on a sweaty double bed with my father, staring at his thick chest rising and falling in the half light. Dad wasn’t sleeping, either. He had driven to Bangkok and flown hundreds of miles to attend a meeting and see how I fared at boarding school.
My new home housed 27 students whose fathers were diplomats, oil company employees, missionaries and military liaisons.
The school building had been headquarters for the Japanese 7th Cavalry (an occupying force during World War II), and my first weeks at CCC were as close to torture as I could have imagined. I had buried my face in a thin pillow to keep anyone from hearing me cry myself to sleep.
Then came the dengue fever. My temperature climbed to 104 degrees, while inside my skull something hammered and poked until I vomited up nothing again and again for days. A nurse checked on me periodically, but most of the time I lay alone in my bunk while classes were in session.
This was the first time in my short life that I turned to God in desperate need. Shivering in afternoon sweats, I whispered to Jesus, “Mom and Dad believe in you, but they aren’t here to pray. So, Jesus, if you’re real, help me.”
The moment I said “Jesus,” a heavy cloud seemed to lift, and the room grew brighter. From outside of me, Someone embraced my sweaty body. His arms felt comforting, like my mother’s, and suddenly I realized that I wasn’t alone. God, whom my dad preached about and my mom sang about, was REAL.
I recovered my strength and began adjusting to living separate from my parents and sisters — when Dad showed up.
Lying with my father, homesickness reclaimed me, like the final act in a tragic play. I scooted against Dad and lay my head on his chest, weeping, missing my childhood in Sam Yaek. Dad came close to bundling me up and taking me home to my mom. But amid my grief and my father’s empathy, God was engraving a detailed map upon our souls for his specific purposes.
For eight years, Mom and Dad had journeyed by foot, and sometimes with an elephant pack train, preaching to remote tribes. They helped build churches, schools and handcraft co-ops and established prayer groups in villages.
Among ethnic tribes, the Eubank integrity and social standing blazed a trail for thousands of bold missionary and relief workers in years to come. And living in boarding schools at a young age tempered me for the mental and physical demands of my own unique calling.
At CCC, it took weeks, but my acute loneliness began to subside. During Thanksgiving break, my parents scraped together the price of a ticket to fly me home to Sam Yaek.
With my family and friends, Dad baptized me, affirming my trust in Jesus Christ, who promised never to forsake me.
In 1971, when I was 11, Mom and Dad, Ruth, 9, Laurie, 8, and my new baby sister, Suewannee, 2, moved to Chiang Mai, where Dad took a position at Payap University teaching New Testament and evangelism. Mom taught music and drama, and the six of us Eubanks were reunited!
I galloped my horse across acres of rice fields or climbed mountain passes around Doi Suthep, a few miles from our home. We filled up a whole restless, happy pew at our Chiang Mai church, and I couldn’t get enough of family: Boy Scout camping, Mom’s scrumptious dinners — and keeping pace with Dad as he visited churches in the hill country.
In Chiang Mai, as in Sam Yaek, the centerpiece of our social lives continued to be a weekly prayer meeting taking place in our living room. Neighbors gathered to petition God for healing sick people. Men or women troubled by evil spirits often asked my parents and their friends to help free them from demons, and my sisters and I often witnessed unexplainable supernatural events in the company of my father and mother.
At every opportunity, when Dad wasn’t teaching at the university, he led groups at a blazing pace into the mountains to evangelize in villages. Dad was at war with the unseen world bent upon ruining the souls of men and women — but as a missionary kid, I shrugged off my powerful Christian heritage.
By my last year at CCC, academics and sports only whetted my appetite for greater challenges, and one day an adversary showed up at school who was carved from the same Thai hardwood as I.
“I hear you think you’re tough, Eubank …” Pete Dawson smirked.
I was, but I was also a lightweight, so I always resorted to the same tactic on beefy opponents: shock and speed. Strike first — hard.
A fight with this new eighth-grader from the States was inevitable (students had been egging us on all day). I figured he would go down with my first strikes, and I could be on his neck with a chokehold in seconds. He would either give up or pass out.
At 14, I was the undisputed stud in my school, and there were several guys who would relish me getting thrashed unconscious. But I’d die before I let that happen. Pete was a wrestler and quarterback — and annoyingly good at talking smack.
I would enjoy this one …
I didn’t answer Pete. I jammed my fist into his throat, and he hunched a bit as I slid behind him like a python. I hugged him to my chest, my arm squeezing against his windpipe. My power came from 20 pull-ups a day, so in cranking his thick neck, I expected him to drop to his knees, and he did.
But somehow he stood up again — with me hanging off his back. No one I ever fought survived my wiry-armed chokehold. Suddenly he lunged backward, slamming me against walls and concrete pillars, trying to break my hold — or my spine.
Pete introduced my head to every sharp edge in the room as his face grew red as betel nut juice, but he wouldn’t give up! I figured if I could just hold on long enough … but I was interrupted. A few skinny teachers and a burly PE coach pried my locked arms loose.
After the usual scoldings and threats from teachers, Pete and I shook hands with iron grips.
You know, I think I like this guy …
And Pete was thinking the same thing. During our last year before graduating from CCC, Pete and I spent most of our free time in mock battles before or after school and on weekends. Our fights cinched a lifelong friendship (and paved the way for Pete to marry my sister Laurie).
When I left for my new boarding school, I was a sturdy 15 year old, about 5 feet, 8 inches, known around Chiang Mai as the farang (white boy) with a rifle. I said a respectful farewell to prayer meetings and church, ready to challenge the world with mind and fists at the International School of Bangkok (ISB).
Even the potheads worked hard to get good grades at my new boarding school. Airline CEOs, generals, ambassadors and diplomats sent their kids to the ISB, expecting sons and daughters to excel later at prestigious universities back in the States.
But at ISB, Pete Dawson and I grew tired of our bloodless battles. In our spare time we mixed with Thai gangs and challenged other young men from school to brawl on Bangkok street corners.
The local thugs were surprised that I spoke their language like a native-born Thai. And at the end of every successful fight, I locked in my memory the most effective, painful moves that weakened and defeated an opponent.
I excelled in sports, too, like basketball, but a love of fighting churned in my soul like Salween River rapids. No sport came close to the challenge and thrill of hand-to-hand combat. As a teenager, I learned that if I never gave up, no matter how bloody or beaten, I most often won in the end.
Confession is good for the soul …
I sat slumped on Mom’s sofa, head hanging like a dejected puppy. I had told Dad everything: my drinking Mekong sours (whiskey) with other farangs at Pop’s Bar in Bangkok; my most recent altercations; skipping church; even my intentional fouls playing Singapore in the Thailand National Basketball Championship (we won).
“Let’s pray about it, David.”
Challenging myself at school or on the streets stole every waking moment and my dreams, too. I spoke to God seldom as a teenager, except when I went to church, but talking over my failings with Dad always seemed the next best thing to prayer when I came home on holidays.
I graduated when I was 18 and decamped to the States with a full ROTC scholarship. I enrolled at Texas A&M University, the same college where my granddad and father received their degrees in engineering.
Since high school, the ambition of leading men in combat had seized my heart, and my university instructors set my flight path toward an Army commission. I lived like a warrior monk, ignoring distractions like girls or parties. During college, I discovered mountain climbing, snow skiing, hunting and distance running. I spun on a breathtaking axis of adventure, with a long-term objective: to wear the green beret of Army Special Forces.
But in my early 20s, on the way to visit my family in Chiang Mai, a question came out of nowhere, like an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade): Will God destroy my map for the future?
Officers had marked me for leadership and chosen me for Army Airborne School. I already wore paratroopers’ wings in my third year of cadet training. But I knew the stories: God had turned my parents’ destinies upside down. I worried about new orders that Jesus might give me.
Mom and Dad’s prayer meetings started out as humdrum as I remembered, but out of respect I didn’t flop on my bed upstairs like I had as a teenager. Instead, I reached deeply for some spiritual maturity — hoping to interact meaningfully with the powerhouse Christians who gathered here.
While mumbling along with the songs, some unsettling thoughts invaded my mind: I’venever asked if it was God’s will that I become a soldier. Have I screwed up?
“Is there anyone here who would like prayer about the future?”
Ian Talbotwas a British missionary and pastor who worked with my parents, and I had known him all my life. I held my breath and lifted my hand.
Reverend Talbot placed his big hands on my shoulders — and gradually a flood of something enveloped me, like electricity reaching down to my toes.
I had heard about this kind of super-spiritual stuff, and I prayed — truly humbled.
“Lord, I’m so sorry that I didn’t talk to you about what I should do. I took the ROTC scholarship because I wanted to be in the Army …”
God had been patient with me. He had allowed me to experience Army life, at least until now.
“Thank you for letting me be a paratrooper! But I give all that up for you, if that’s what you want. I’ll go to Africa as a missionary or wherever you say …”
Reverend Talbot’s voice broke through my whispered prayers, and I knew that God was speaking through him directly to me. I expected God to say that I was forgiven but to trade in my military books for a Bible. But that’s not what God said.
“Keep doing what I have called you to do. I’m preparing you for service. You will face an event that will almost break you, but don’t be afraid — it will not crush you. And, Dave, you’ll always know when I’m speaking to you.”
Nothing so “spiritual” had ever happened to me before. I came away from the Chiang Mai prayer meeting sensing my Commander’s Intent (his overall purpose) and believing that God would unfold my destiny, mission by mission.
I graduated from Texas A&M and U.S. Army Ranger School as a second lieutenant.
I entered the Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, training in tactics, mechanized warfare, aircraft control, weapons systems, communications, heavy weaponry, maps and compass, artillery, maneuvering forces, offensive and defensive movement and war games.
I wondered how God could ever use war craft in serving him — but I marched on his last orders. Fresh out of training, the Army shipped me to Panama, where I led a platoon of 40 men — my first command. I was 23.
In the Army infantry, extreme feats of strength and endurance get a soldier noticed, and I credit Mom’s DNA from Granddad Hovis for my promotion to scout platoon leader.
In 1929, my granddad, Freeman Hovis, was a short, wiry “strongman” and a popular showman who toured the South as a bare-knuckle boxer, rodeo clown and singer.
My grandmother, Ruth, was a 17-year-old beauty who lived on a Mississippi farm. Ruth had just graduated from high school when my granddad, a charmer, came calling.
They eloped, and Freeman swept Ruth into a cross-country adventure. He performed in rodeos and sideshows before settling in Washington State and finally Texas. Ruth had two sons and a daughter with the strongman: Larry became a writer and movie producer, acting in the hit comedy series Hogan’s Heroes. Michael became a movie producer as well.
But Freeman’s daughter, Joan (my mother), was the star of Freeman’s heart long before she was a stage sensation. The showman recognized talent in his adolescent daughter and drove her to perfection in dance and to near-perfect pitch in her singing. (To this day, Mom credits Granddad Hovis for her love of professionalism in the arts.)
I never met Granddad, but his legacy of endurance and his demand for excellence in all endeavors flows in my veins — as well as his love for all things risky.
In Panama, in a 12-mile road competition, I carried a 40-pound rucksack in abhorrent Canal Zone humidity, breaking all records for speed — and my battalion commander noticed. Then I won the multinational Panama Stud Man Triathlon — and the commander called me to his office.
“Eubank, I want you to take over as reconnaissance commander for the battalion. You’re our eyes and ears now.”
Leading a battalion scout platoon, I applied my own unique strategies in jungle recon and felt the same thrill as street fighting in Bangkok. My hand-picked team dropped inside hot zones to map terrain, measure armed resistance or train local troops in guerrilla warfare.
As an Army infantry commander, I had deployed with my platoon deep into the Peruvian jungle to recon and photograph major narcotics operations. Our extraction had been delayed, and my soldiers slumped against the vibrating fuselage in a C-130 examining toe blisters and dreaming about a bath after a month in the swamps.
But I held a penlight in my teeth, studying a topo map, plotting the next mountain I would summit. I glanced at my men, and no one met my eyes. They knew what I was thinking. They had more pressing engagements than rock climbing the first week back after a hard mission.
My mind tracked off the map for a moment as I thought about a young woman I had begun dating. Trish lived up to my officer’s demand for visual excellence, and she seemed to embrace my Christian ideals. Admittedly, I was green as grass when it came to women. I romanced Trish like conquering a gendarme (mountain spire), ignoring every warning in the Bible about unequal relationships. After a short-range courtship, we tied the knot, and as in all marriages, the real Dave and Trish suddenly showed up. Trish struggled to meet my unrealistic demands, and it irritated me that our union was only a caricature of what my parents enjoyed.
I expected my wife to match my blistering pace in life, and she fell farther and farther behind. Our tempestuous union lasted only three years.
Moments after our divorce was final, I felt relieved because now I could pursue Special Forces action, unhindered.
I followed Trish out of the courthouse after signing the papers — and suddenly she stopped.
She said, “Dave, I’m so angry at you.”
Dumb grunt that I am, I was shocked. “Why are you mad at me?”
Tears welled up in Trish’s eyes. “You were not supposed to let me divorce you.”
An avalanche of remorse buried me as I watched her walk away. I had failed to rescue Trish when she was falling.
Alone in my apartment, the weight of my folly pressed me to my knees.
“Jesus, what have I done? Oh, God …”
Guilt beat me to an emotional pulp. I sobbed like a 7-year-old boy again, then took stock of my position: I had hauled a godless 50-caliber attitude into my marriage, and the knowledge of my shortcomings had arrived too late to rescue our relationship.
Even worse: I had wrecked the integrity of my Eubank name.
I made a new promise to consult Jesus in every decision I made, assuming that prowling jungles in war paint was all I would ever be tasked to do thereafter.
Burma in Brief
The year after my parents and I arrived in Thailand, our neighbors in Burma (now called Myanmar) faced political upheavals that impacted people on both sides of the Thai-Burma boundary line.
During the ’60s, while Allan and Joan Eubank sometimes traveled by pachyderm preaching about a God of peace, a new socialist dictatorship plundered the sovereignty of rice farmers and villagers in Burma. Resistance groups sprouted like bamboo shoots and cobbled together machetes and castoff World War II rifles to defend themselves.
A communist general named Ne Win launched a campaign called The Four Cuts, designed to sever supply lines (food, funds, information and recruits) to guerrilla groups who opposed his Army, known as the Tatmadaw. Ne Win’s Tatmadaw officers built permanent jungle camps from which his battalions terrorized families suspected of helping resistance fighters. Villages were systematically ransacked, then burned, the citizens enslaved for work projects.
After Ne Win, the Tatmadaw (Burma Army) steadily gained power under succeeding military generals. Tatmadaw tentacles reached into nearly every state in Burma, giving rise to more and more ragtag resistance armies, some as different in cultures as the monsoon and dry seasons.
In 1988, after quelling a democracy movement including Buddhist monks, college students, farmers and businessmen, the wealthy generals retrofitted their dictatorship, calling themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).
They celebrated their power by renaming the entire nation “Myanmar.” Ethnics in the resistance movements reject the new name, even to this day, refusing to wear the dictators’ brand.
During the ’88 democracy crusade, a few amateur journalists outflanked the junta, exposing the murders of thousands of protesters. And though major television networks were intrigued by dead bodies for a time, media spotlights never really penetrated the jungle warrens where orphans and uprooted families hid like animals from the Tatmadaw.
In the ’90s, the SLORC launched a fresh campaign of terror, burning villages and torturing headmen (mayors). Tatmadaw officers ordered homeowners to relocate to military-controlled settlements — bearing only what personal items a family could carry in a single trip.
A new day was dawning in Burma. Outside interests salivated over Myanmar’s oil and natural gas wealth. Mining companies negotiated with the SLORC for rights to extract precious metals, gems and minerals. Burma Army battalions guarded foreign engineers who built dams to power industry — displacing farmers who had harvested rice there for generations.
China supplied armaments and training for Tatmadaw ground forces that grew to 400,000 strong. An appetite for heroin (chemically processed opium) in Asia and the West set Burma on course to be number two in global poppy production. Opium farmers harvested multiple tons of poppies in the remote Wa region (an area carved from Northeastern Shan State), along the China-Burma border.
The Wa government created its own armed force: the United Wa State Army (UWSA) to guard the sovereignty of their new Wa State. The UWSA negotiated a cease-fire with the Tatmadaw by paying tribute with opium and heroin.
As recently as 1979, Wa tribesmen had been offering demon spirits human sacrifices and performing latou (headhunting). At the same time, Wa Christians (descendents of converts of British missionaries) were building churches and seeing Wa hearts changed.
Only opium production propped up the frail Wa economy — and Wa Christians spoke out about the ruinous effects that narcotics had upon their society. Christians paid for their crusade with blood and imprisonment by secret police, but still they gained seats in the Wa government.
In 1993, the Wa State Foreign Ministry asked the United Nations for agricultural help to wean them off opium dependency. They planned to replace opium with crops like rubber, rice and tea. They also asked the United States to protect them from the Tatmadaw while they made the unpopular transition.
But to those in the region, it seemed the UN ignored their desperate pleas. And despite imposing an economic embargo, the U.S. government did not otherwise publicly get involved. The Wa delegation in Thailand informed Christian leaders in Chiang Mai about the rebuff and advised Wa ethnic leader U Saw Lu to speak to Pastor Allan Eubank.
By praying together in Dad’s living room at Chiang Mai, my father and U Saw Lu shared in God’s blueprint to bond a Special Forces officer and a special education teacher, who forged an alliance of love that would touch a nation.
Uncle Sam had assigned me to command joint exercises with the Thai Special Forces — and I was home.
My altimeter read 20,000 feet as I leaped from a cargo door above our drop zone. I breathed oxygen through my HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) helmet, as well as a quick prayer for the Thai commandos I had been training.
In 1990, I had graduated from the Special Forces Qualification Course in the States, then followed up with elite forces training in survival and evasion tactics, resistance and escape and terrorism awareness. I also completed the Command Language Program and, later, the Command and General Staff College Program.
From a few thousand feet above my Thai team, I unfastened my oxygen mask and watched my trainees. Each soldier had reached terminal velocity and soared for several minutes before opening and navigating canopies for gentle landings in a designated rice field. I circled above them, an eagle guarding fledglings, enjoying the agrarian view: green fields, villages, grazing water buffalo and farmers easing their backs as they waved.
High altitude parachute drops fed my hunger for adventure, and teaching Thai commandos the art of soaring under radar (in my backyard!) was a blessing straight from God.
Yet, even so, during this primo duty assignment, I struggled with God’s direction for my life. I loved my work as a captain, commanding two A teams: one special reconnaissance detachment and my HALO detachment. Our missions were classified and high priority — but I couldn’t shake the feeling that jumping out of planes and tracking down bad guys wasn’t my purpose for living.
Humbled by my divorce and locked on stand down while the military mopped up after the short Gulf War, I returned to Washington State with two objectives: to serve a stint in the Middle East before the war was history and determine exactly God’s will for my life.
And should I dial back my gung-ho intensity before looking for a relationship with a woman again? One thing I knew: Any woman I dated would be as sold out to Jesus as I was.
Erica was just such a young woman. I had known her since childhood, but after one ill-fated Yosemite trip, she decided that we weren’t a good match.
She let me down easy. “But I know a girl who might actually enjoy this, Dave. You need to meet Karen. I’ll introduce you …”
When Erica pointed me out to Karen Huesby, I had already been studying Karen during the church service like a book on a high shelf. I was still a little untrained in the rules of engagement, so I waited for a proper introduction.
“So. You’re in the Army?” Karen asked me as Erica sauntered away with a self-satisfied look.
I suddenly floated above verdant fields at rice harvest. Karen’s hazel eyes were captivating.
“Actually, I’m in the Special Forces,” I managed to say.
I waited, but the words made no impression — she’d never heard of it.
“I’m a Green Beret. You know …”
Her polite headshake and smile said: Nope. I don’t.
“Were you in the Gulf War?” she asked.
I changed tactics. “No, I was too scared …” Now that was a joke, and surely she would get it.
“You know. It’s really okay to be scared.”
It seldom happened, but I was speechless. The girl was dead serious!
We spent the evening with friends whom we both knew, and when I had interrogated her enough to discover that she was a devout Christian, I asked to see her again for dinner.
Not a chance, soldier.
She didn’t say it that way, but I got the message.
Our odyssey of hearts might have ended that late evening, but I followed up with an invitation that piqued her curiosity. She had graduated from Seattle Pacific University, targeting a job as a special ed teacher, and she was growing to love the outdoors. I happened to be planning a technical ascent of Mount Shuksan in the Northern Cascades.
“You can stay at the base camp with friends while I do the hard stuff, or you can climb with us right to the top. Your choice.”
“Can I bring a friend?”
I agreed, and six of us ended up preparing dinner and heading up the mountain at midnight when the ice was firm. It turned out to be a historic climb — for me. Three climbers quit after several hundred feet of using ice axes.
“You game?” I asked Karen. We stared up at a steep wall of ice luring me to the summit. But what was Karen thinking? Her red face was beaming.
I snapped a climbing rope to the 100-pound blonde and started up, placing ice screws along the route and fastening her line to each one as protection from a slip. Karen emulated my moves, jamming crampons deep into the cold mountain face, until I paused to rest before the last push to the top. Before this final vertical climb I figured I should take stock of her mental state — it wouldn’t be getting any easier, and we had a long descent to consider.
I stared down between my knees.
“So, how’re you doing, Karen?”
Joy in her face lit up the whole mountain as she replied, “I’m diggin’ this!”
I just shook my head. She seemed relaxed on her first technical ascent, like it was her 20th!
On our descent to base camp, I grew reflective. I told Jesus, “I’ll do anything, Lord, if I can marry this woman.”
But romance wasn’t on Karen’s mind — especially with a muscle-bound type like me. Karen had never dated before. She was probably waiting for a spiritual, patient, well-bred urban dweller to fall madly in love with her someday. Our personalities were so different.
I never sauntered anywhere, but marched — even in Walmart — always ordered by some inner mission. I was eight years older than Karen and on a rebound after a divorce. I could be opinionated and intense, but I was learning to be quiet and listen to a woman’s heart.
A man like me might threaten her objectives and confuse her emotions if she let him into her world. At least that’s what she thought before God answered my prayers.
We never called it dating, but our relationship included hours of mountain climbing, skiing and long walks in the Washington forests. We started out inviting people to accompany us, but I whittled down our number of “chaperones,” little by little.
As trust grew stronger, I poured out my heart to Karen, explaining the details of my mistakes with Trish. I bared my soul concerning my inner battle about remaining in the military. I explained how inadequate and tainted I felt when I considered pursuing Christian service.
Karen nurtured my desire to follow Jesus by listening, and without her, I might never have realized God’s plan for my future.
As sudden as a flash flood, one day I decided to end my military career. I yearned for the satisfaction I saw in my father’s eyes — a fulfillment never gained from my most daring Special Forces mission.
At 32 years old, I leaped into the dark to find my purpose for being alive — and I wanted Karen to go with me.
I applied to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, at the same time telling Karen that she was the one I believed God wanted me to marry.
But my adventure wasn’t hers. She had achieved her lifelong dream to serve children as a special ed teacher in Seattle. God was using her gifts of patience, love and unshakeable devotion to help students with learning disabilities succeed.
My Eubank intensity frightened Karen, and she needed space to think about the whole situation.
“We need to stop seeing each other, Dave.”
The heartbreak drove me to my knees. “Lord, if you want me to go to the mission field somewhere as a single man, I will,” I prayed, but I hoped Karen would change her mind.
Months passed, and we spent time together at Christmas. I asked if we might start over. She said no.
I loved my Biblical studies in my first year at Fuller, but looked forward to spring break when I hoped to jumpstart Karen’s interest. But during my visit to Seattle, I couldn’t ignite a single positive spark.
Finally, I offered to chauffeur her to Los Angeles to see family, since it was on my way back to Fuller. She accepted the offer and busily packed her suitcases. We had one hour left before our drive. Soon Karen might ignore me for hundreds of miles with her nose in a book.
I wasn’t going to waste a second of critical alone time.
I told her roommate, “I don’t care who calls, I don’t want to be disturbed …” Then I reconsidered. “The only person I’ll talk to is my father …”
Dad never called me unless it was an emergency.
I took a deep breath and prayed one more time silently that Karen would have a change of heart — and the telephone rang.
My father didn’t dillydally. “Dave, U Saw Lu, who serves in the Wa Foreign Ministry, is visiting with me. He is here in Chiang Mai trying to get international support for a plan to transform the Wa economy. He wants the UN and our government to help them replace opium with crops like rubber and tea. They have refused, I’m afraid.
“He’s asking for missionaries to come to the Wa State. He believes that only Jesus can change the hearts of the Wa.
“U Saw Lu noticed your picture on our wall — the one with your green beret. He asked if you were a Christian, and I explained that you were my son, studying at seminary. He asked if you would go to Burma and help the Wa people. I told Lu that we should pray about it, and we did — then we called you.”
No mission from any commander ever gripped my soul with such authority. My answer can only be described as pure inner worship.
“Dad, how soon do they want me?”
I would be one of the first Western men to enter the Wa State in 30 years.
I hung up the phone.
“Karen, I need to talk to you …” I poured out my heart one last time. “I want you to marry me and come to Burma. I understand if you don’t want to, but I really need you. One way or another, I have to go.”
“When will you come back?”
I tried to keep my excitement in check when I sensed a crack in Karen’s resolve. She never made snap decisions, and we were both caught in an emotional freefall.
“Three months. I’ll be back for the new semester at Fuller. But if God has other plans, I may never come back.”
I might be a celibate, single, lonely missionary in the jungle, for God only knows how long.
Like a check on ammo before a firefight, I breathed my commitment one last time.
I barely remember a single mile of our drive through Washington, Oregon and California. A quiet thrill stirred our hearts, like when Karen and I stared up at a pristine peak before a climb. As we approached Carmel, I suggested that we rest at the home of a sniper friend. He wasn’t at the house when we arrived, so we killed time walking on the beach — and suddenly all of Karen’s heart spilled out for the first time.
Her words tasted so sweet to my soul: “Dave, I don’t want you to leave me, and I don’t want you to ‘never’ come back!”
“Well, you’ve told me what you don’t want. Tell me what you do want, Karen.”
“I want you to follow God, Dave.”
“Do you want to marry me?”
“Yes, but … can you let me sleep on it?”
For the first time during our remarkable courtship, I knew that Karen was mine. God confirmed it to me on the white sands of Carmel by the sea. By morning, God had cleared any clouds of uncertainty in Karen’s heart.
I finished out my semester at Fuller in Pasadena, and Karen resigned her position as teacher in Seattle. Three months later, on a beautiful beach, my mother’s powerful voice echoed in the cliffs of Malibu singing “Let Me Be Your Servant.” My father performed our June wedding ceremony, and we celebrated with friends and family — the same month that the Wa leaders expected us to arrive in Burma.
We honeymooned twice — once in Malibu, and again in Chiang Mai — before traveling by plane to the lawless Wa State in Northeastern Burma. After landing at an airfield, we hefted rucksacks loaded with medical supplies and Bible teaching material, then traveled by foot and 4×4 truck (if available) to remote Wa villages.
With the help of Wa leaders, we silently skirted battalions of the brutal Tatmadaw and camps of the unpredictable United Wa State Army soldiers.
For three months of each year, from 1993 to 1995, Karen and I lived with Christian, Buddhist, Communist and Animist villagers desperate for medical and economic relief.
After our three summer trips, we carried back the dream expressed by Christian Wa heads of state: They prayed for the moral and financial backing from the nations affected by the scourge of narcotics. That was more than 20 years ago, and the Wa people are still praying for help.
And within this violent jungle frontier, the seeds of the Free Burma Rangers began to grow roots.