Most of us know someone who has served in the military.

I have two close friends who have served in Iraq, and when they got back to the United States, I imagine it was difficult for them to talk about what they experienced. It also might be hard for us to listen, but that shouldn’t stop the conversation.

For this issue of myFaith, I talked to two soldiers and a military chaplain about their experiences as Catholics in the military. Researching this piece, “Faith in the war zone,” introduced me to people who have lived through horrendous experiences. Without realizing it, we probably regularly encounter people like them, attempting to adapt to life after war.

For example, they might be people in the pew sitting next to us at church, or they might be the individual at the next bar stool. Taking time to learn their stories might help them cope with the horror they experienced, and might help us better appreciate the sacrifices they have made for our country.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas DiMiceli was waiting for me at a Starbucks on 76th Street near Southridge Mall. As soon as I walked in, I recognized him because he was in full U.S. Army fatigues sitting at a table off to the side.

I walked up to him and introduced myself.

For the next hour we sat there talking about his time in the military. I asked him questions and he gave me straight answers.

There was a moment during our conversation, in the midst of happy coffee drinkers, that the conversation went to a very real place. He told me about a tragic sequence of incidents.
DiMiceli had gotten injured on a patrol in Iraq when an IED (improvised explosive device) detonated under his Humvee. After receiving treatment, he went on his mid-tour leave and chose someone to take over for him while he was gone.

“The guy I chose to replace me ended up getting killed,” he said.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say, so I continued to listen.

“So when I came back,” he said, and then took a moment to look down at the table and gather his thoughts. “So when I came back,” he repeated and stopped again.
Starbucks was buzzing, but the silence between us was deafening. He blinked back tears and tried to swallow his grief.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“No, take your time,” I said. “If you don’t want to answer questions right now that’s fine.”

He exhaled.

“I’ve never actually been shaken up about this before,” he said. “I guess I’ve never really recounted the whole picture. I talk about it in pieces, but I never really recount everything that I thought about. I kind of just say, ‘This is how this one happened, this is how this happened.’ But I never really talk about why. I never talk about the path that it started from.”

His story is just one of a few in this issue of myFaith and isn’t unique to those who have served. Hopefully reading about their experiences can help open minds of both returning vets and those of us back home, leading to a better understanding of the issues they face.

Putting up a Facebook status saying, “I support the troops” or tweeting, “Thank a veteran today,” is a kind gesture, but does it really acknowlegde the sacrifice that someone who has been deployed for a year makes? We underestimate, partially because we don’t fully understand, what being deployed for a year does to a person.

“I think about it every day,” DiMiceli said about his deployment. “Whether I’m running or I’m at the office or just driving; my friends and the deployment are thought about in my mind every day. …”

“I bury it every day and I make it because I’m mentally strong and I’ve always had a release. I’m OK,” DiMiceli said to me. “But that is something that I deal with every day.”

We owe it to these men and women who have put their lives on the line for us to be there for them when they return.