Looking back to Aug. 17, 2004, the day her husband was shot in Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia republic, Nina Hodge knows one thing for sure—God knew what was happening and did not turn His back for even a second.
In a day when people often wonder where God is, she has no doubt that He was beside her every step in a journey she never imagined.
Eight years later, Nina shares her story with women’s groups, churches and radio programs, including a recent stop by Kristen Sauder’s radio show “Excellent Things.”
Faith shouts through the details of that week in 2004.
Gary Weston was just 20 years old and Nina just 17 when they got married. He worked in corrections for 30 years as they raised their daughters in the small town of Vienna, Ill.
“We didn’t always do right, but God never let go of us,” Nina said.
Their small-town sense of security was shattered by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, as hijacked planes flew into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Retired from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2002, Gary then worked as a consultant with the American Correctional Association, working in various states across the nation.
When Gary was in New York, he heard that the U.S. government needed corrections officers to rebuild the prison system in Iraq.
Gary believed God wanted him to sign up to serve for one year. He hated flying and wasn’t happy at the thought of being away from home and his family for so long, but God was turning Gary’s heart and mind toward helping Muslims, Nina said.
“He fasted and prayed before making the decision and later studied the Koran to understand their faith,” Nina said.
Since Iraq was not secure, officials asked if Gary would be willing to go to Kosovo with a team to rebuild the prison system there.
By then the couple had already pressed into Jesus with a gritty faith that held their marriage together after a yearlong separation years earlier.
“As Gary packed for Kosovo, I felt that God was telling me that it was OK,” Nina said. “He brought Gary home after the separation 10 years ago, and He was taking Gary to Kosovo. Both happened because of obedience.”
The night before he left, Gary put a note in Nina’s Bible that said, “Dear Nina, this is the day I leave. God will watch over you. Love, Gary.”
He hoped to work with children and reach Muslims.
Gary had been away 23 days when Nina heard news on her car radio that there had been a shooting at the prison in Kosovo, claiming the lives of two Americans and one Jordanian.
“I felt the words go through my legs,” Nina said. “I knew immediately it could be Gary.”
At home, messages on the answering machine confirmed what Nina feared. Gary was alive but in critical condition after being shot twice in the face. He remained on life support. Within 30 minutes, her house was filled with family and friends from church.
Nina learned that three American vehicles had been ambushed at the prison gate by a fellow U.N. police officer from Jordan, who approached their vehicle and began circling their convoy as he fired his gun.
Witnesses said the shooting lasted 10 minutes. Gary had not regained consciousness since the attack.
“Every time the phone rang I hit my knees,” Nina said.
Friends and family helped Nina make arrangements to get to Kosovo. Her best friend offered to make the journey with her.
“For a small-town girl, that trip was a big deal,” she said. “It ended up being a prayer journey as I fell to my knees often to pray for Gary, his caregivers, our children and others hurt in the attack.”
Outside the hospital in Kosovo, people lined the walkway as a sign of respect when Nina arrived. The intensive care unit was a small room where Gary lay unresponsive on a ventilator with his head and face bandaged.
His roommates told Nina that he had prayed for all of them that morning before going to the prison to work that day. Others at the scene of the shooting said he was a hero, shielding others from the onslaught.
“As I heard the story of what happened, the Lord impressed on me that the bullets did not take God by surprise,” Nina said. “That was not an ‘oops’ moment with the Lord. What He was doing in Gary’s life began 52 years ago when Gary was born. He had us on a journey, and He never left us.”
By the time Nina arrived in Kosovo, she hadn’t slept for days. She crawled into the hospital bed to be near Gary. She remained near him in the hospital for two days until he was released to be taken back to the United States. Doctors explained that his injuries were so extensive, it was unlikely he would survive.
As Nina went through Gary’s belongings, she saw that he had checked the back of his driver’s license to be an organ donor and plans to help others began to unfold.
“I knew from the beginning that I couldn’t look at this through earthly eyes,” Nina said. “God let His presence be known through the smallest details, and He held me up.”
A week later, surrounded by friends and family, Gary was removed from life support.
Nina leaned into Jesus once again to navigate the new territory of widowhood. In 2008, she took her first mission trip to Romania, where she worked with children in Bible schools and talked to women’s groups about marriage and to teenagers about abstinence. She went back again and again.
On that first mission trip, Nina met Dr. Wayne Hodge, who was also serving with the team. He had recently moved to Louisville to be near his children and grandchildren. Their friendship grew as they stayed in touch between mission trips. The two were married in December 2010. Nina joined Southeast when she moved to Louisville after their wedding.
God continues to use her story to teach about marriage, about commitment, about God’s faithfulness through tough times and about how He redeems and restores.
UNREST IN KOSOVO
Kosovo was volatile in 2004 when Gary Weston arrived in the war-torn country.
Conflict began in 1998 with escalating tension between Serbs and Albanians that spilled over into neighboring countries of Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia. According to the Center for Balkan Development, more than half a million refugees were forced out of Kosovo.
The goal of peacekeeping forces was to ease tension, protect minority citizens and give the nation time to rebuild within a safe environment.
The prison infrastructure was in desperate need of repair.
Dubrava, the largest prison in Kosovo, had been damaged by bombings, and detention centers were in poor condition and overcrowded.
There was an urgent need to train local prison staff in modern correctional practices. After 30 years of working in prison administration in the United States, Weston felt that God had given him that assignment.
Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power complicated peacekeeping efforts.
By the time the war finally ended in June 1999, much of rural Kosovo was destroyed and citizens had to deal with inadequate shelter, a landscape littered with landmines left by both sides and economic hardship.