For 23 years, I served as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserves. A few times, I was activated for service with the active-duty Army. I was activated for Desert Storm I (1990) and prepared to enter a country that was referred to as the theater of action; however, I never left the United States since the war ended in a week. I did connect with my brothers and sisters in a willingness to sacrifice my life if necessary. I also served in a few special deployments in support of military exercises.
I was proud to serve our country and privileged to be side-by-side with the men and women who were dedicated to protecting our country and the freedoms we enjoy. Rarely does a month go by that I am not contacted by a former member of one of the units I served or a person from Fort Sheridan, Illinois, or Fort McCoy, which made up my congregations that I served.
Therefore, it pained me to see the return of our young men and women from Afghanistan in flag-draped coffins. There is always an understanding by service personnel who are placed in harm’s way that this could mean the loss of their lives. As a chaplain, I remember having to inform a family of the loss of a loved one due to an accident that took place stateside. However, it was gut-wrenching, to say the least, to lose a son or brother or a daughter or sister, which is a terrible tragedy. It was only a sense of faith that offered some consolation to the grieving family. God’s love brings us hope even during the darkest moments of our lives.
Every priest, parish director, pastoral associate, deacon and parish minister knows the challenge of bringing words of hope to a family member who has lost a loved one. They depend on the strength of the words of Jesus, who said, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) This is his promise, and we place ourselves in his embrace during our darkest hour. When someone preaches the importance of staying close to God in worship and personal prayer, it is precisely because our lives can change in an instant — a terrorist bombing, a gang member’s stray bullet or a drunk driver can confront us with an unforeseen loss.
The week of Aug. 23 was a reminder of the men and women who willingly place their lives in the line of fire to protect us. The oldest service member of the 13 that were lost was 31 years of age, their lives still ahead of them — marriage and the raising of families and careers. Their children will never know their fathers or mother, spouses will not grow in their relationships and communities are deprived of their neighbors. This is a cost that many of us will never comprehend. We sometimes can be very cavalier about our lives and the freedoms we enjoy. For those who stand in the breach, whether these men and women are Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force or Coast Guard, they are the deterrent to the enemies that desire to deny our way of life and steal from us our freedoms.
I remember a chaplain telling me of a religious sister that was a catechist instructing the children of the military personnel. She was an avowed pacifist. When asked how she could devote her time to teaching the children of the military personnel who are trained for war, she proudly responded that she knows that Jesus offered his life for her salvation, and it is only in military personnel that she sees also a willingness to lay down their life to protect hers, and she does what she does in gratitude.
I was disturbed by the coffins of those 13 service members. But it also made me proud to know that the spirit that moved them to represent our country was a noble act that demonstrated a willingness to defend and affirm the freedoms of the country we love. No one was burning these flags, and no one was defaming these flags or dragging them in protest. These flags simply draped the coffins of our brothers and sisters as a sign of honor that supported the very best of those among us and served as a reminder of why patriotic men and women get so upset when the flag is abused.
The young men and women of our military took this oath: “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” They fulfilled their duties to the fullest extent possible. I believe it is our duty to honor them and appreciate and support all who defend the laws of our country.
To the hundreds of thousands of the men and women of our military, I entrust their protection to God in my prayers. They have my respect and gratitude. To the 13 brought home, “Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them.” We will do them honor by not taking for granted our country and the freedoms we enjoy. Pray for our nation.