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Augusta Pastor Writes Book about His Loss

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Thomas and Marian Arner, who dealt with the loss of their grandson and serious injury of their daughter 13 years ago Thomas and Marian Arner, who dealt with the loss of their grandson and serious injury of their daughter 13 years ago

There's perhaps no greater test of faith than the loss of a young child, then learning it was the result of an intentional act of violence. An Augusta County pastor has been working through that anger and grief, and has now put his experiences into a new book.

Thomas Arner has spent decades offering comfort and counsel as a pastor and a chaplain at Augusta Health, but he needed his own counseling to pick up the pieces from a fatal arson.

It's been more than 13 years since Thomas and Marian Arner lost their infant grandson, Zachary Ledford, in a fire that gutted his family's apartment in Stuarts Draft.

"Something like this happens that is totally out of the ordinary, totally off the wall, that makes you wonder what you believe in," Thomas said.

And the impact of the fire lingers especially for their daughter Elise, who was badly burned and suffered permanent lung damage.

"They talked about her possibly - not down the road too far - going on oxygen. Her lungs were badly, badly burned. In fact they didn't expect her to live," Marian said.

The sorrow turned to shock and anger, as investigators began to suspect arson at the hands of their son-in-law, Michael Ledford. A weeklong trial in 2000 led to a murder conviction and Ledford is serving a 50-year prison sentence.

That same year, at his counselor's prodding, Thomas began to put his thoughts to paper. His journal has now become a book, "Through the Valley of the Deep Darkness."

"I had a guy in the hospital one time, I don't know what he was there for, but one of the first things he said was, ‘you don't know what you're talking about until you're looking down the barrel of a gun at somebody. But I can say, ‘I can understand,'" said Thomas Arner.

Arner had every intention of looking down the barrel at Michael Ledford, exactly one month after the fire.

"I went into the hospital that day. I had a little .32-caliber pistol. I had my briefcase. I had it in my briefcase and it was loaded. I knew I was breaking the law," Thomas said.

But no murder took place that day. Ledford was not in the hospital because he had just been arrested for the fatal fire.

Now, more than 13 years later, the Arners say they have finally learned how to forgive.

"I think I have because the good Lord will be the one to do the judging. Not me," Marian said.

Thomas says he wrote the book partly for his own healing and partly as a help to others. "Through the Valley of the Deep Darkness" is available from a number of online booksellers.

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