After a dangerous and brave tour of duty in Viet Nam, Mike Lester arrived home to realize that things were not the same as he had left them. At age 20, he had been forced into maturing as a man, but the friends who he had grown up with were involved in life’s more important things, such as having pantie raids, drinking and eating gold fish. His family loved him, but didn’t understand who he had become. His country, that he had risked his life for, and had been wounded twice for, did not appreciate him. (Most of us remember the slanderous accusations that Viet Nam vets were welcomed with in the 1960’s.)
“They didn’t know what to do with us,” Mike remembers. Today, as we certainly should do, we honor our heroes that come back from war and welcome them home. Mike witnesses those young warriors being provided rides and congratulations of all kinds, even houses are built for them. “When we came back, we got crap. The only thing that was free was jail time,” he says. “So, for the next three years, I bummed around the United States.” It was interesting that he emphasized, “I still had short hair, though. I wasn’t a hippie. I didn’t smoke dope…Drank a lot of beer, though!”
Constantly struggling with the rejection, he felt purposelessness and believed that God could never forgive him for the things that they had to do in Viet Nam. He could have easily become another statistic. But by the grace of God, things changed.
After a night of drinking, Mike lay asleep the next morning, “still half drunk,” as he puts it. A knock on the door finally irritated him enough that he got up and went to the door. It was the pastor of a local Baptist church. He was simply making his way through the neighborhood and meeting and encouraging those he could meet. As Mike opened the door the preacher said, “I just have one thing to tell you.” Uninterested, Mike drowsily says, “Yeah… OK. Go ahead.” The faithful pastor said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”
Now, that’s certainly is not the verse most would pick to introduce or even encourage others in the faith. But that’s what he quoted. Mike was polite & just said, “Oh, OK. I got it. Bye.” Then he closed the door and thought he would go back to his normal life. But he says that verse worked on him overnight and helped him with the problem he had.
Mike said, “I was taught by my mom and dad that life is sacred, and that you don’t just take but that you also give back in life. In Viet Nam, it was nothing to take a life. It was an everyday normal occurrence. And I had a problem trying to figure out how God could forgive me.” Mike kept reading that verse over and over and says, “I finally realized that what I did was for Caesar, (Caesar is equated to our US government, because the government asked us to enlist to serve our country) and not for God.”
When he came to that understanding, it changed him. Mike says, “I drank steadily for three years and overnight I quit cold turkey.” That was 1972 and he has not had a drop of alcohol for 44 years. “This was a problem that only God and I could fix,” he said.
“I thought, ‘Why am I like I am – unhappy, blaming myself?’ But when I took my eyes off myself and put them on all the men and women that died in Viet Nam, that didn’t have a chance at life…and I’m throwing mine away by drinking, getting arrested, fighting and being a bum… I should do something and make something of myself for those people. Out of those 58,000 who died in Viet Nam, there could have been a great man of God or a guy that cured cancer…and I’m throwing my life away when they would definitely have changed places with me.”
Mike now began to get into the Bible and started living for things that really matter. He believed that he should go back into the Army. So, in 1972, he reenlisted back into the airborne infantry. Mike says, “To be in an airborne unit, you have to be a little crazy and you had to love it. Of course, I loved the extra $55.00 each month, tax free, that we received for being airborne qualified.”
He went back on jump status and was with the 101st Airborne for a time then it was a transfer to the 25th Infantry in Hawaii. (Tough duty!) But then he was transferred to Korea and the assignment was the DMZ. He would continue his career as a Drill Sergeant at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he met his wife, Gail.
From Fort Jackson Mike taught high school at New York Military Academy, a private school that President-elect Donald Trump graduated from. He said NYMA was for, “kids from rich families and for some kids with disciplinary issues that could have landed them in jail rather than military school. They gave them a choice in those days to go to military school or jail.” The next 10 years were at Fort Hood, Texas and then it was back to Korea as a First Sergeant for the Joint Security Area at P’anmunjom, working for an Admiral under the United Nations command. In all, Mike’s Army career totaled 23 years and 4 months, an illustrious career indeed.
Mike says, “It was a miracle that my life turned out the way it did, with a family and all…Now that I’m retired, I’m working harder than ever volunteering at church and spending time with the grandchildren.”
Mike and Gail have served the Lord for the past 25 years at Church in the City in Rowlett, Texas. She is the Executive Assistant to the pastors and Mike provides security for the pastors and generally is a “Jack-of-all trades” there. He says, “I love it. It is great being a servant.”
Serving is what Mike’s life has been about. Under fire in the rice paddies and on Hill 875 in the fiercest of battles, he was a servant of an ungrateful, outspoken and confused country that was in the flux of change. And now, he loves to serve the unchanging God who brought him through those dreadful early years.