One Day in Iraq

Two years after missionary Carrie McDonnall lost her husband in an insurgent attack, she reflects on God's grace and her continued passion for missions—abroad and at home.
March 15, 2004—Iraq: Traffic. It was Carrie McDonnall's worst nightmare. She and her fellow relief and development workers—a five-person team including her husband of almost two years, David—were anxious to get out of downtown Mosul and back into the safe zone in Kurdish-held territory before nightfall. All around their vehicle, stuck at a busy intersection, people milled about on sidewalks. Suddenly, Carrie felt something sting her. "Ow!" she yelled. A split second later, she heard the gunfire, realized they were under attack, then passed out.

Carrie and David met in Bethlehem's West Bank on New Year's Day 2000, at a gathering of young people working as missionaries in and around the Middle East. Their paths continued to cross over the following months during which Carrie worked at a foster home for Arab children in Israel and David traveled around the Middle East on short-term assignments. An e-mail conversation ensued, and by the fall of 2001, both were back in the States studying at a seminary in Texas, where they fell in love.

They married in June 2002 and celebrated their first anniversary while leading a short-term mission trip into the newly liberated Iraq. It was during that trip that a team leader from a Christian organization (nameless due to ongoing safety concerns in the region) first presented Carrie and David with the idea of working in Iraq long term. Saddam Hussein's overthrow presented new opportunities for teams to go into the country on relief and development missions, but they needed people on the ground to coordinate their efforts.

The couple returned home to fast and pray about the possibility. "We wanted to be back in the Middle East," Carrie says, "but Iraq was very unstable. Still, the call on our lives was so clear. We knew we were supposed to go."

Life in a War Zone

Four months later—with the emotional support of their families and the financial support of a conglomeration of churches—the two made their home in northern Iraq and soon were busy with a constant flow of volunteer teams, distribution projects, and local outreach efforts. David came home one day to find the living room full of scraps of paper and ink after Carrie and two other relief workers spent the day teaching widows how to stamp and make greeting cards to generate income.

"Arab women are beautiful—but very straightforward," says Carrie. "They'll invade your personal space without hesitation. But it's their hospitality I love—if you talk for five minutes, they invite you in for tea, and you're their friend for life."

Within the context of these relationships, Carrie looked for opportunities to share her faith. "It's like living anywhere. You ask the Holy Spirit to lead you in what to say and do," says Carrie. "We wanted our love for Christ to overflow into our neighbors' lives."

But even as they established relationships and a sense of normalcy, the sounds of war were always present. David joked, "You might be in Iraq if … you've ever had a prayer meeting interrupted by gunfire." Saddam Hussein's capture was a cause for celebration, but it soon became clear insurgent activity was intensifying.

The Day Everything Changed

On the morning of March 15, 2004—four months after they'd moved to the country—David and Carrie worked with three veteran missionaries, Larry and Jean Elliott and Karen Watson, to assess the needs at an isolated camp of internal refugees. The missionaries left that afternoon in order to get back to Kurdish-held territory by nightfall. But on that fateful afternoon, six gunmen fired on their truck. Shrapnel ricocheted off the floors and walls of the bullet-riddled vehicle, leaving in its wake bloodied bodies and shattered glass. Larry was dead; David was unconscious at the wheel; Jean's dead body slumped against Carrie; Karen struggled to breathe.

"I wanted to take Karen's pulse, but my arms wouldn't budge," says Carrie. "I felt encased in mud." Then she caught sight of her hand—drenched in blood, fingers missing, bones visible.

Carrie started to call for help in Arabic, but her voice was too weak. Then David suddenly sat straight up in his seat and asked Carrie if she'd been hit. "David looked me straight in the eyes with such compassion—I'll never forget it," says Carrie. Then he turned around and bellowed, "Help us!" in Arabic. Carrie felt Karen's breathing stop, and in the next moment, a man pulled her out of the truck and into a nearby taxi. She felt searing pain, but in the middle of her agony, one of the men David mustered to help bent down and covered Carrie's ankles—a Middle Eastern gesture of love reserved for wives, sisters, or mothers. "At that moment, I needed to see good in people," says Carrie. "That act was a direct gift from above."

After a harrowing journey to the local US Army Hospital, Carrie and David were prepped for surgery.

Eight days later, Carrie awoke in Dallas, Texas, after undergoing several surgeries.With her mother and sister standing nearby, Carrie's father broke the news: David had suffered fatal injuries. Carrie was the only survivor.

Finding God in the Aftermath

Almost two years later, Carrie's wounds have healed as much as they ever will—she's missing three fingers on her left hand, and shrapnel remains in her body. Likewise, the emotional trauma still lingers. "You never quit grieving," Carrie, 29, says today. "You learn to live with grief. This time last year I couldn't say David's name without bawling. There definitely are days when I'm like that now, but my grief isn't as all consuming."

While she recovered in the hospital, Carrie felt buoyed by a palpable sense of God's presence. Bible teacher Beth Moore, a fellow Texan whom she'd met while serving in Israel, came to visit and helped remind Carrie that God didn't abandon her with David's death, that he has a purpose in everything.

But Carrie struggled intensely with God's sovereignty when she was discharged. Simple things like having coffee alone in the morning were reminders David wasn't coming back. "I have no doubt David and I were supposed to be in Iraq," says Carrie. "And yet I wondered, What if we'd taken a different route home? What if we'd left the camp earlier?"

Carrie poured herself into the Bible as she wrestled with a sense of God's silence. "There were times when it felt like I was knocking on God's door, yelling Hello! Where are you?" says Carrie.

Carrying On

During those times she learned to trust that God's promises never fail—promises such as "Seek and you will find" (Matthew 7:7). It was during those difficult months that the idea for Carrie's current endeavor—Carry On Ministries—was planted. She travels to different events to share her story, which she also tells in her 2005 book Facing Terror (Integrity), and to spread her ongoing passion for missions.

"God's will is for his name to be known throughout the nations. Our lives must include that heartbeat," says Carrie. But she's quick to add that having this heartbeat doesn't require moving overseas. "As a Christian, you should be sharing Christ through your gifts and your talents wherever you are. So many women come up to me and say, 'I'd like to do missions, but I can't go overseas. I've got kids,' or 'My job is here.' And I say 'Great! Do that here and do that well. If you're seeking Christ, he'll open your eyes to people here whom he wants to reach.'"

Carrie recently told a family interested in missions that if they're not reaching out to people here, it doesn't get easier in a foreign land. If anything, it's harder because of language and cultural differences. "So don't put off being a missionary because you're not in a foreign land," she encourages. "You can share God's love in your own neighborhood."

That's what Carrie and David McDonnall were doing on March 15, 2004—developing relationships with their neighbors, looking for ways to serve them. "I think sometimes we underestimate what we can do for Christ here at home," she says. "Even if it's cleaning out the closet and donating old clothes, Christ doesn't think that's small. He says, 'When you give a cup of cold water to someone in my name, I notice.'"

Carrie continues to have a heart for Arab Muslims—many sent condolences and apologies in the wake of the attack—and she'd like to go back to the Middle East if God directs her steps there. For now, her travels take her mostly to Europe, South America, and across North America, as she shares David's story in the hopes his love and sacrifice for Muslims will spur others on to missions—whether at home or abroad.

And while Carrie doesn't have all the answers to her "what if?" questions, she's come to a deeper appreciation of God's faithfulness, love, and yes, even sovereignty. "I've come face to face with his tender mercies," she says, "and I continue to walk in amazement at the way he's wielded his power and his grace in my life."

For information about Carrie McDonnall, visit www.carryonministries.org.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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