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Thursday, Mar 13 2014 11:01 PM

LEANNE KNUDSEN: These 'soldiers' deserve honor

By The Bakersfield Californian

Memorials are important for many reasons. We don't want to forget special people, services or sacrifices. Some are celebrated privately, and some with great fanfare. Some heroes braved foreign wars and hellholes, and some served tirelessly in our communities. We are honoring heroes from both categories Saturday: Karen D. Watson, a Christian relief worker to war-torn Iraqis, and Allen D. Wagner, a public servant and tireless community advocate. They will be honored at the Watson-Wagner 5K Memorial Run.

No one wants to dig into the fresh pain of untimely death -- not when you've dealt with the finality, moved through the grief process, mourned your loss and come out on the other side intact. But by the grace of God, many prefer to dwell in reality and function to help others. And very often, there are heroes among us who go back into that world of pain and loss to rescue other souls sinking in the abyss of war, persecution, imprisonment and addiction. Some are doctors, military, advocates or faithful loved ones. But all are soldiers -- unsung, brave, scared and devoted. All are on a mission. Not all return to us, but all who went knew the risks and counted the costs.

Ten years ago this week, our community lost a dedicated servant -- a fighter for and lover of humanity: Karen Denice Watson. Karen had worked for the Kern County Sheriff's Office as a detention deputy and she loved her job. It was tough, and so was she. But she was also compassionate and conscientious. After the painful deaths of her grandparents, father and her fiance within a short period, Karen found spiritual rescue and peace in Jesus. She never looked back, but she never forgot the need to care for others and offered them the rescue she had experienced. She excitedly went on several short mission trips (Mexico, El Salvador, Kosovo), and that's where she saw the deep needs of God's children. She sold her new house and car and surprised everyone after eight years of diligent training that she was headed to war-ravaged countries to bring humanitarian aid "and the love of Jesus."

"When God calls there are no regrets," she wrote to her pastors at Valley Baptist Church. "I wasn't called to a place, I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward ..."

She celebrated her 38th birthday there, joyful to help restore water systems, deliver food and supplies, work with non-literate Iraqi widows in training programs and love everyone she could. On March 15, 2004 — one year after she left our town — insurgents surrounded Karen’s vehicle and emptied their bullets into five Southern Baptist humanitarian aid workers as they returned in heavy traffic to a terse Mosul. Helping an unscheduled, but desperate, northern village restore water caused them to arrive late in the dreaded jam. Four team members died, though Carrie McDonnall survived to write her memoir, “Facing Terror,” in which she echoed Karen’s and her team members’ commitment of no regret.

Our community lost another dear soldier and advocate 18 months ago when Al Wagner's compassionate heart beat for the last time. Al grew up in Shafter and served this community, local politicians and churches with impeccable devotion and integrity. He loved helping people around the word and traveled to Kosovo, Romania, Brazil, Central America. He also served the people of Guatemala for eight years as a missionary and community liaison. He was a friend and advisor to many, but he always challenged and encouraged us to try short-term mission trips to areas of deep needs. "I just cannot see retiring to live at the golf course when there is so much more joy in serving the Lord's people in the streets and shelters of life." Al worked to support the Karen Watson Memorial Run for many years because he wanted other "soldiers" to have the opportunity to serve their God on whatever field he called them to.

Join us Saturday, March 15, at Valley Baptist Church to run, walk or cheer on the participants. Proceeds go to Global Missions and those hungry to experience the joy that Karen and Al first tasted on their mission trips. They found their "Missionary Hearts" there, but they served wherever they could be God's soldiers in time of rescue. "The Missionary Heart cares more than some think is wise, risks more than some think is safe, dreams more than some think is practical, expects more than some think is possible." God's soldiers are always on mission with him, far or near.

Leanne Knudsen of Bakersfield is a housewife and mother who is active in church, community and humanitarian issues.

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