A Hero’s Story at Christmastime: Colonel Roger Ingvalson, USAF-Retired (June 20, 1928—December 24, 2011)

“It’s Christmastime, Poppy, and we want a story!”

“A story? Why don’t you play with your toys?”

“We want a story! We want a story! We want…”

“Okay! Okay.  A story.  All right, then, a story you shall have. What kind of story would you like, my children?”

“We want a real story!”

“A real story?  Well, didn’t you know that all of my stories or true, or could be true?”

“No, Poppy, we want a real Christmas story. We want a story about…a hero! A real hero, Poppy! Do you know any Christmas hero stories, Poppy?”

“Well, I…yes; yes, I do know of such a story. In fact, this hero has been very much on my mind since this past Christmas Eve.”

“ Did we see this hero on Christmas Eve, Poppy?  Was he at church with us when you served Communion?”

“No, my children.  Or, maybe I should say yes, he was with us more than he ever has been before.”

“What do you mean, Poppy?”

“I mean that those who are believers and who have gone before become part of the Church of Jesus Christ  located in heaven, and as we gather to worship we gather not only with Angels and Archangels but, also with the whole company of heaven. And on this past Christmas Eve he ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ and went into the presence of his Master whom he had served so long and so well.”

“You mean to say, Poppy, that this hero died on Christmas Eve?”

“Yes, my children. This hero went to be with his Lord on Christmas Eve. Yet, I could not get him out of my mind.”

“But, I thought we were supposed to have Jesus on our minds at Christmas Eve Communion, Poppy. You say that even as you give us the bread and the cup.  So, is it okay to think about heroes?”

“Yes. It is right to think about heroes if those heroes make us think about Jesus. This hero of mine, this Christmas hero story that I’m about to tell you, has always pointed me to Jesus.”

“Then we want to hear, Poppy. We want to hear the story, the real story, about a Christmas Hero.”

“I had heroes when I was a boy like you. I had heroes who were football players like Bart Starr. There were heroes who were great scientists like Einstein. I had heroes who were like the American astronaut, John Glenn.  I had heroes who were presidents when I was a boy. I loved to read about Abraham Lincoln splitting logs to make fences when he was a strapping lad in Illinois. I guess I had heroes in the movies, too. I loved Jimmy Stewart and all of his Westerns. He was my favorite of all. I was always eager to see the Lone Ranger too. Later, I had other heroes. In my adolescence, I began to enjoy the music of a singer-songwriter and guitarist named Neil Young. I enjoyed the music of others like the Mississippi Delta blues artist Sonny Terry,  the 1960s group, Buffalo Springfield, and the musicianship of such notables  as Dan Fogelberg. But I would wonder later, even as I wonder now, ‘why would any of these be heroes to me?’ Later, when God called me to be a minister of the gospel, I went to seminary. I begin to discover new heroes. These heroes have left a lasting impression upon my life and ministry. You’ve heard me speak of them, I’m sure. Martin Luther’s soul burned with the truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, and to God’s glory alone. It was John Calvin who taught that in Jesus Christ a common man had as much nobility as a prince or the Pope. There were heroes like Thomas Cranmer and John Knox, Charles Spurgeon and J.C. Ryle and so many more. In seminary I became acquainted, as it were, with heroes like Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, great preachers and theologians. I had heroes like Jonathan Edwards and like David Brainerd, the great missionary to the Indians in New England. Oh, these—these, children—are heroes that are true heroes! I should think that you would want to study each of their lives and study them very carefully.”

“We will, Poppy. But we want to hear about the hero, the Christmas hero, that you talked about.”

“Well now, patience, my children—patience. I am getting to him.  You see, when I became the pastor–and several years into my service to Jesus as a pastor–I begin to see that the greatest heroes I had ever known were flesh and blood heroes who were right before me, not necessarily heroes in a book, as great as they may have been. I began to see that the everyday men and women in my congregations were not everyday at all. I started to see that the faith that I preached was lived out right before my eyes in remarkable ways. Being a pastor gives you a front row seat to great men and women. I saw that their lives were as noble or even greater so that my other heroes whose names so many know. And one of those parishioners, one of those members, became like a father to me. He always would’ve preferred that I would call him a brother, but I could not. He was a father to me in so many ways. Yes, he was older than I, but it was more than that; much more. If a father is one who teaches a younger man what it is to be a man, then he was my father. A father, according to the Word of God, is one who shows a younger disciple what it is to be a Christian, and this man was, therefore, my father. But he was also a father, not only in our faith in Jesus, he was a father who showed me how to live for others—for God and Country. He showed me how to serve others, and demonstrated, with all of his life, that boldness and strength is best clothed with humility.”

“Poppy? Could you tell us the story?”

“Yes, my children. Yes, I will tell you the story of Col. Roger Ingvalson. He was one of the greatest men I have ever known in all of my life. I believe that he is a true American hero in every sense of the word and without the slightest suggestion of hyperbole.”

“What is ‘hyper-bo-le,’ Poppy?”

“He was the ‘real deal,’ children—Colonel Roger Ingvalson was the real deal, a true American hero. That is the truth. You can even read about his life in the Library of Congress archives on war heroes.”

“Oh.”

“In these few days since I learned of my friends passing, I thought about his legacy. And so the story of this great Christmas hero is a story about how God uses ordinary men to become great men, how God uses difficult circumstances to create strong men, and how God honors those who honor him.

Col. Roger Ingvalson will go down in history as a brave American Air Force pilot who was shot down on May 28th, 1968 in North Vietnam. He is recalled, even now, in the Library of Congress, as an American hero who was tortured and yet never broke under the sinister and cruel hands of his Vietcong captors. During those five years in that horrible place that became known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ he trusted in God and shared Christ with others there, even his captors. He was, at last, released, and returned to his native land. He would spend the rest of his years giving his life away to others.”

“Poppy, what do you mean that ‘he gave his life away to others?’”

“I mean that he imitated his Savior, Jesus Christ. He did not hold tightly to his privilege as an American hero—though he was one if ever there was one—but, like his Lord, he used his identity to help others. He helped the military. He helped veterans. He helped prisoners, for he knew what it was like to be one, although he was not a prisoner for doing anything wrong—he was a prisoner of war. Yet he knew of the hardships that gnaw at any man’s soul in a prison. So Colonel Ingvalson founded a prison ministry. He used his status as a hero to speak to thousands upon thousands of people about his faith in Jesus Christ. He was one of the greatest evangelists I have ever known. Colonel Ingvalson also served his church, the Presbyterian Church in America, as a ruling elder (he was a true partner in the ministry to me when I was his pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga). He served on the national board of the church in that ministry that seeks to plant new churches and send out chaplains to the military, Mission to North America. I remember how he would go with me to the General Assembly of our church, the ‘PCA,” and I was so honored to just walk beside him.”

“Go back to the Air Force part! Go back to the prisoner of war part! How did that happen?”

“Col. Roger Ingvalson was a great fighter pilot with many missions under his belt. But there came a time when his jet was shot down. He has told me the story many times. He was flying low over the North Vietnamese rice fields and jungles when all of a sudden a shoulder launched, Soviet-made, anti-aircraft missile hit his plane. He tried to climb higher into the air, seeking to find an altitude that would be safe to eject and parachute to the ground. But the plane stalled as he tried to ascend. So, he hit the eject-button and he was catapulted into the air. He thought that perhaps he would be killed by the ejection, for many pilots were killed in the process of ejecting. Well, he realized that he was alive. Then, he realized that he was so low to the ground the parachute might not open in time and he would fall to his death. He told me, personally, that he was absolutely shocked when he floated to the ground in a dried-up rice field and was alive.  He had no time to think about the injuries that he might have sustained because out of the overgrown, green jungles where no light is ever seen, appeared the Vietcong: farmers with shovels and picks, peasants with machetes, and soldiers with machine guns. An enclosing ring of enemies hedged him in. He told me that it was at that moment—that second—that his mind went back to his Minnesota home, to his boyhood years in the Lutheran Church, the only thing about God that would come to him at that moment…”

“What came to him Poppy? What did he think of as those bad guys were coming at him?”

“Col. Ingvalson remembered the words to the Lord’s Prayer and he remembered the Apostles’ Creed (and that is why it is important for us to learn it and to say those familiar words in our Sunday worship). So this courageous Air Force pilot began to recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer even as the enemies in their rags and wide-brim straw hats drew closer and even as Col. Ingvalson drew closer to what he felt was most certainly his last moments on this Earth.”

“Do you mean, Poppy, Col. That Ingvalson thought that they—those Viet…Viet…”

“Vietcong…”

“…that they were going to kill him?”

“Oh yes, children, that is exactly what I mean. And that is what he thought. That is what he felt that he knew! That is exactly what he told me! He resigned himself to his approaching death by the hacking, beating, and shooting of those enemies surrounding him at that very moment. He just knew that he was going to die! So, in that instant, as he was reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed—which, he told me, were the only things he could remember from his childhood days in his church in Minnesota, he cried out to God! He cried out like this, ‘Oh God, come and save me. Save my soul. I am sorry for my sins and I trust in Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ alone I have no one else but you Lord. Save me.’”

“And so Jesus saved Col. Ingvalson?”

“ Oh yes. The Lord saved Col. Ingvalson.  He saved his soul, the way he will save anyone who calls upon his name. That was the message of Col. Ingvalson for the rest of his life.”

“We mean, ‘did Jesus save Col. Ingles…’”

“Ingvalson…”

“…Ingvalson… Did Jesus saved him from the soldiers and the machine guns and the farmers and their pickaxes and the peasants and their machetes?”

“He was saved. But, my little ones, I cannot begin to tell you how horribly this man was treated. After he was beaten he was taken to the prison. He spent one year in solitary confinement. Do you know what that means?”

“Kind of.”

“It means that Col. Ingvalson lived in absolute darkness and in total isolation from other prisoners (do you remember hearing the name of Senator John McCain who ran for president? He was there too, but they were separated). And yet this man was a new Christian. I remember asking him, ‘how did you grow in your faith?’ Do you know what he told me? He told me that at a certain time of the day the sunlight would find its way through a crack in his cell wall and as the light came filtered through that crack, it would illuminate a particular portion of the cell floor. And then he would begin to study roaches and other such insects. During those moments, those rare moments of mental, visual stimulation each day, he would examine the body of the insect—its head, its thorax, its abdomen—and he would thank God for the miracle of life and the intricacy and details of God’s wondrous creation. This would lead him to think about the parts of his own body. And so he would praise God for his fingernails. He would bless God for the hairs of his nostrils, which would keep out particles that would otherwise damage his sinuses and infect his lungs. He began to see, as a man of science, as a military man, how God had ordered all things—event those small, seemingly insignificant things, so very perfectly to create and sustain life.”

“So he liked bugs a whole lot, Poppy? I like bugs too.”

“I would say that he not only like bugs; he loved the God who created bugs.  His mind and his heart became fixed on the truth of the one true God and of his Son Jesus Christ. And this man grew not only in knowledge of God as the Lord brought to memory Scriptures he had remembered as a child, but he also grew in devotion and love for Jesus of Nazareth. He turned his cell into a church. He turned his prison into a Christian Academy.”

“What do you mean?”

“He said that he was amazed at God’s providence, how God turns all things, even bad things, into good. This faith in God caused him to turn bad things into good things. His prison became a place where he worshipped God. His cell became the place, like a five-year period of study, where he could learn more of Jesus and His Word.”

“Oh.”

“One time, when I was his pastor, I asked Roger to write the introduction to our children’s memory workbook. Roger wrote about how God’s Word which had come into his heart as a boy, a boy from a Norwegian immigrant family from Minnesota, was used by God years later at just the right time to save him and sustain him.  It was important to Roger that the children of our church, just like you, learn the Bible and put the truth of God’s Word in their hearts so that at later times they would know the Scriptures when the Scriptures would be needed most.”

“So do you think that when it was time for Col. Ingvalson to go to heaven he remembered the Scriptures that he needed?”

“Most assuredly. I think that when it was time for Col. Ingvalson to go to heaven, he remembered much more than decades earlier when those Vietcong encircled him. That is for certain. He was a great man of faith, a great man of Scripture. He lived what he taught. But more than this: he was a truly free man. There could no more prisons for that great hero. His last prison was not the North Vietnamese prison, but the prison of the fear of death that he might have had before he was shot down. Once he called out to the Lord and was saved, Roger was a free man. No one could imprison him after that. I have something here that he said. Listen to this:

‘The Lord sustained me through 1,742 days of tragedy; nevertheless, I count my blessings. I was set free by the North Vietnamese Communists but had already been fully liberated by Jesus Christ.’

So death would, therefore, be no prison for him. The very things which sought to destroy him when he was a prisoner of war him made him stronger. And the very things, which would come against his body by his evil captors, would be the very things that would embolden his spirit. And death, thus, became a portal through which he passed on Christmas Eve from this life, which he lived so well, into eternal life with Christ where he worships God face to face.”

“So Colonel Roger Ingvalson is a hero. Should we always remember him?”

“Yes, my children. You must always remember those who remind us of Christ. Remember, also, that heroes have families. Pray for his wife, Booncy, and his children and grandchildren. America lost a hero. Mrs. Ingvalson lost her husband and those children lost a dad and those grandchildren lost a grandfather. But they know that he is with Jesus now.”

“Poppy, did you love him? Did you love this Colonel Ingvalson?”

“Yes, children. I loved Colonel Roger Ingvalson. I loved him like my father, for he was my father in the Lord. He will always be my hero. He came from the Midwest, served his nation, and served his God. He is our hero as Americans and as Christians. And now, since Christ called him home on Christmas Eve, this American hero is also my Christmas hero. I will never have another Christmas without remembering Roger Ingvalson, one of the greatest men I have ever known.”

“That’s the story?”

“That is His story told through the life of Colonel Roger Dean Ingvalson.”