By Michael Ashcraft —
That explosion wasn’t an incoming mortar shell, but a fellow American soldier in Vietnam who killed himself and injured others in a nearby platoon. He had been playing with munitions and tapped together two 40 mm grenade rounds.
“It was about as hellish as a scene as you could imagine here on Earth,” remembers Bill Cox. “I remember that day very distinctly. I remember my friend and I drank some whisky and we were smoking some weed. I remember saying very clearly, ‘There is no God.’”
Bill’s life as a drifter who dropped acid changed radically only after he was witnessed to by multiple people. Today he is a pastor who helps drug addicts in Louisville, Kentucky.
His childhood and youth were wasted getting wasted.
Born into an alcoholic family in the “beat-down factory town” of Niagara Falls, New York, Bill got into alcohol at age 14 and drugs soon after. His father had been abandoned at birth and so he passed on the spirit of rejection.
“I was kind of raising myself with a lot of truancy, a lot of trouble. I never paid attention in school,” Bill says. “One of the things that really characterized me was I always felt like an outcast, like I never really fit in.”
With two friends, he tried acid (LSD).
“We thought we discovered this new way of living,” he says.
His father died of industrial cancer in 1967 and Bill was called up for a draft physical and subsequently sent to Vietnam in 1968. He served in the 25th Infantry Division.
“I had a very fatalistic, pessimistic view of life. I figured I’d just die” in Vietnam,” Bill says. “I felt I was just being swept along by forces beyond my control.”
Two weeks after arriving in Vietnam, Bill was flown to northwest Vietnam, into a hot LZ (landing zone) where communist soldiers had a very strong presence. A helicopter pilot and four soldiers were killed in the landing.
“After that, I just felt pretty hopeless. There was no hope for survival,” he recounts. “So when I wasn’t in the field in danger’s way, we got high a lot. We drank. The morale in the Army was very bad at the time.”
It was a dark, rainy Christmas Day 1968 at a Fire Support Base and they were all complaining when Bill and his buddies heard an explosion.
“Everybody thought it was incoming and we all went into shelter. When we came out we realized there were no more explosions. It turned out a guy in another platoon, playing, tapped together two 40 mm grenade rounds. It killed him. It blinded a couple guys. It really horribly wounded a bunch of people.”
The scene was surreal and sapped from his soul any vestige of hope in the existence of God.
“Whatever childhood notions I had of God kind of died that day,” he says.
After several months in the field, Bill was assigned to a base job. His drug use, instead of improving now that he was out of danger, only worsened in the rear.
On an extended leave, he visited New York and most his old friends were heroin addicts and used other hard drugs.
“I really kind of plunged into that lifestyle,” he recalls.
Released from military service, he drifted as a hippie between New York and California.
“I was what they call a poly-substance abuser,” he says. “I was taking in any kind of drug. But the problem was not the drugs. It was because I was so broken and wounded by life.
“Eventually my mind started unraveling.”
Then Bill started hearing the Gospel. The first time was at the infamous druggy hangout of Venice Beach, CA. A group of Christians rescuing runaways off the beach evangelized him. Strung out on drugs, he didn’t accept Jesus that day, but the memory impacted him.
“I always wondered what their motivation might be,” he says. “I’d never really seen real Christians before.”
After a bad drug experience, he had a breakdown and looked to stabilize his life. He started working — until a friend persuaded him to quit and go to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras, where he lived on the streets, got pneumonia and got beaten up.
Again some Christians confronted him with the message of salvation. Again he demurred.
Bill and his friend hitchhiked through Texas to Colorado, where the friend was arrested for breaking into a drug store.
Bill, mentally frayed, continued to have breakdowns. He hitchhiked to San Francisco and the California Coast. In a “red-neck” bar in Petaluma, CA, he said something “stupid,” and a patron told him to wait for him outside at his truck.
The guy took him to a Christian commune, where “this guy very clearly presented the Gospel to me.” Bill was still not ready to accept Jesus
“I went completely insane,” he says. “I completely lost my mind.”
He returned to New York, where at a music festival in Watkins Glen, NY, he was taking all kinds of hallucinogens, but they had no effect on him because he was insane.
“I was in total madness,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what was real and what was not.”
Then in a nearby farm town, his sanity miraculously was restored. He enrolled in the VA in Buffalo, NY, to receive mental health treatment. After some time in their drug and alcohol ward, he was referred to a therapeutic community in Newburgh, New York, for nine months.
“It probably saved my life because it was really intense treatment,” he says.
Out of treatment, he enrolled in college on the GI bill with rehabilitation. Despite being sober from then on, he still wrestled with inner demons.
“The problem was I was so empty inside. I was so broken inside,” he says. “The program couldn’t help me. It couldn’t reach into where I was.”
On a bus stop in Toledo, Ohio, he again got “a very clear presentation of the Gospel” from another guy. “I shined it on again,” he says.
Living in a farm town in New York, he worked picking grapes. Even though he by and large abstained from drug abuse, he still “didn’t know how to get out of the hole I was in.”
From August to November in 1977, he was in the psychiatric ward of the VA Hospital in Canandaigua, NY. This was the most ironic thing, because a fellow patient presented him the Gospel.
“This is probably going to seem like I’m the last person to tell you this, but the answer of what you really need is Jesus,” the fellow patient said. “I was a Christian, and I backslid, and that’s why I’m here. I got all these mental health problems.”
On a weekend pass, he went to Toronto into a nature presentation in the Canadian National Exhibition. A presenter gave him the gospel. Again, he declined. “It was just getting worse and worse.”
He knew he shouldn’t have smoked marijuana again on a visit to botanical gardens with some buddies, but he did anyhow and felt overwhelmed by thoughts of suicide.
“I never had been suicidal before, and it scared me,” he says. “I never went back to the mental ward, which technically makes me an escaped mental patient.”
Living with some buddies during Christmas 1977, he grew marijuana in a sewage treatment plant. “Friends” gave him some blue valiums “because they were afraid I was going to check myself out.”
“I had no idea how to get out of the hole I was in,” he says. “I was in such a horrible mental, emotional and spiritual place.”
An old drug buddy, Bill Conrad — a former ashram mystic — wrote him about Jesus and invited him to Tucson.
“I went to Tucson. I had nothing going for me. I was broke,” he says. “I was dirty and nasty. I hadn’t showered.”
It was January 1978, and he couldn’t get ahold of his friend Conrad, so he spent a cold night in Santa Rita Park. In the morning, he finally prayed.
“For the first time in my life, I prayed a real prayer,” he says. “I said, ‘God, if you’re real, help me. I can’t do this anymore.’”
Two blocks away, a woman approached him and presented him the Gospel. She took him, gave him a shower and fed him. She gave him money to call Bill, who gave him the address of the Door Church, but Bill didn’t have bus money, so he sat around the Greyhound station.
There another man witnessed to him and gave him the bus money he needed.
As he made his way to the church, a man in some shadows who looked like a dealer beckoned him to come.
“Hey man, come here,” the man said. “I had no concept of Christianity, but I felt like it was the devil trying to lure me back at the last minute. And I said, ‘No!’ I walked away.”
Finally at the church on a music outreach night, Bill responded finally to the altar call.
“About 10 people came and prayed for me; I looked so forlorn,” he says. “I felt this thing just lift off of me like this 9,000-pound backpack. They gave me a New Testament. I began to read it. It was electric. It was alive. I made up my mind.”
After multiple rejections of the Gospel, Bill finally surrendered his heart and life to Jesus Christ and was born again!
He began outreaching immediately. Two years of “getting traction” helped establish him in the ways of God. He began living with brothers and working jobs. He met and married a fellow former hippie who had lived in a tepee.
“Eventually, God started delivering me,” he says. “Over time, God just started healing me. Jesus gave me my life back. It’s a tremendous journey. I’m so grateful.”
He got involved in the evangelistic drama ministry and Bible studies as he grew in the Lord. Eventually, Bill was ordained a pastor in 1990 and took over a church in Huntsville, Alabama, where he pastored for 17 years.
Back in Tucson in 2007, he ran a faith-based substance-abuse program, got a degree in counseling and re-visited Vietnam, this time as a preacher.
In May of 2014, he launched a church in Louisville, a city afflicted with an opiate epidemic. Quickly, he joined up with a drug rehabilitation program. Some of the guys he worked with joined his church.
Michael Ashcraft is the CEO of CuisineNatural selling bamboo steamers to supplement his ministry of writing articles.