When Mark Gee went AWOL from the Spanish Foreign Legion, he was sent to their notorious penal work section as a punishment. There, a dramatic encounter with an effigy of Jesus turned his life around
I didn’t have the best start in life. My father was a violent alcoholic and it affected me profoundly. I was being brought home by the police when I was four or five years old for throwing rocks at cars and shoplifting. I was pretty messed up.
My mother remarried and I didn’t get along with my stepfather. I made his life a misery and was constantly in trouble. At 13, I won a scholarship to a public school. I grafted hard because it meant I could leave home. Trinity House Navigation School trained boys for a career in the merchant navy. It was very disciplined and I got expelled, but not before I’d landed myself a job. I joined my first ship in Pakistan when I was 16.
I loved the merchant navy, but it wasn’t the best environment for me. I took to drinking a lot, and excessive alcohol doesn’t do anyone any good. As a young teenager, I didn’t feel I had a place in the world. Everybody else had a purpose, and I felt like I was adrift.
I was made redundant when I was 20. I went home and, once again, couldn’t find a purpose. I took off on my motorbike, ended up homeless and decided to kill myself. I got a bottle of scotch and two bottles of paracetamol, but some Hari Krishnas found me and invited me back to their temple. I spent a bit of time with them and they opened my eyes to the fact that there could be a spiritual dimension to life.
I’ve always believed in God – that’s one reason why I didn’t kill myself. My mum and stepdad took me to church – I think they were searching as well – but it wasn’t very lively. I think part of me was seeking God subconsciously. That’s when I made the decision to go to Israel, but I didn’t get that far. Hitchhiking and taking whatever bus or train came along first, I somehow ended up in Spain. I’d lost my passport, spent my last bit of money on some hashish and I needed a job. I got chatting to a guy who told me that I could join the Spanish Foreign Legion. I turned up at their barracks with less than a penny in my pocket and the clothes I was standing up in.
The Legion was very brutal. Their motto is: Viva la Muerte or “long live death”, which is a crazy oxymoron. I was a natural soldier, but I fell in with some others who were very disaffected. We went AWOL, stole a yacht and sailed it to Lanzarote. Unfortunately, we hit some rocks and it sank. The military police caught us and we got beaten to within an inch of our lives, before being sent to the work section, Peloton. Normally the punishment was 15 to 30 days hard labour, but I ended up doing five months.
I had my 21st birthday in Peloton, and I reached rock bottom. I was working 18 to 20 hours a day smashing rocks and building cesspits. You were never allowed to sit down; you even had to eat standing up. It’s really, really tough. My mum had started going to a different church back in the UK, and she wrote to me saying: “Mark, I’ve been born again.” I thought: What’s all that about? I got angry with God and challenged him. I said: “If you’re real, you’ve got to prove it to me, because otherwise I don’t want to live.”
As prisoners, we had to tidy the barracks. For the Easter parade, we had to move the life-size plaster-cast effigy of Christ on the cross from the chapel to the parade ground. I was on a ladder, putting it on a plinth, when I had an epiphany.
I said: ‘Lord, I’m sorry.’ It’s a pathetic thing to say when you realise you would have killed the Son of God
In my head, I thought that I was a Christian because I’d been to a Church of England school and had been baptised, but I was not a good man at all. Being imprisoned and having to fight for stuff, you learn to look after number one. I was a brutal man. I realised I was speaking Spanish, which is a form of Latin, I was a legionnaire and, if I’d been one of those Roman soldiers at the cross, I would have done exactly as they did. I was just as bad as the guys who crucified Christ.
It was a terrible realisation. I started to cry. I said: “Lord, I’m sorry.” It’s a pathetic thing to say when you realise you would have killed the Son of God. I’ve never heard the Lord speak to me audibly before or after, but I heard him say: “Mark, I love you and I forgive you.” I felt the power of those words reach into the part of me that I’d kept everybody away from. I vowed to devote my life to Christ, no matter what.
My mum sent me a Bible and I devoured it. I read about how the disciples were baptised in the Holy Spirit and I thought: I want that. I went into the shower and I baptised myself in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It was audacious of me really, but it worked! I hit the floor like a sack of spuds! I came out of the shower and the next day I was telling everybody that God loved them.
After my release papers came, I knew it was time to go home. My stepdad had also now become a Christian and we were reconciled. I met my wife and got married. We’ve got two grown-up kids now.
Looking back, I can only see God’s purposes in everything I’ve been through. Souls are a bit like fruit: some are nice and squishy and God doesn’t have to do much to make himself known. Other fruits, like a coconut, have to be smashed open. I wasn’t letting anybody in, but God came to me, and it was a beautiful thing.
Mark Gee was speaking to Emma Fowle. Read more of Mark’s story in his book, The Spanish Foreign Legion: My time as a ‘Bridegroom of Death’ . All profits go to Mercy Ministries India (Registered Charity: 1184823)