For Veteran’s Day, I am posting to Celestial Lands my Veterans Day sermon from last year… I hope it inspires thought.
This past summer, I had the honor and privilege to attend the retirement ceremony of the senior military chaplain of our Unitarian Universalist faith, Chaplain Colonel, the Reverend Vernon Chandler. After over 32 years as a military Chaplain, with time in Kosovo and in Iraq, Chaplain Chandler was hanging up his uniform, and committing himself full time to his work as a sexual assault crisis counselor and program director in Germany.
Vernon Chandler and I had met before, briefly, when I was a young Sergeant at Ft. Bragg. In fact, as far as I can remember he is the first person to ever say the words “Unitarian Universalism” to me. It was an honor for me to be there at his retirement ceremony, to salute him, and to let him know that, even in his absence, there will be others to carry the presence and saving message of our liberal faith tradition in the Army Chaplaincy.
As Chaplain George Tyger and I were standing in the hot, South Carolina sun, the band began playing a traditional song, whose lyrics said “Old Soldiers never die… they just fade away”. I remembered thinking, “God, I hope not! Vernon has been a friend and mentor to me over these last few years… I hope he neither dies nor fades away.”
As I watched Vernon walk with another senior officer on an inspection of the troops that were assembled, it struck me how much wishful thinking is built into that phrase. It would be so convenient if those we sent off to war returned home and just faded away. It would be so convenient if those we sent off to war returned home and easily re-entered society, found nice productive jobs, and were able to lock the war-torn experiences of their lives nicely and neatly away.
It would be so convenient…. But absolutely nothing about war is ever convenient, including coming home from it.
I believe we have only begun to see the true cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a cost not just in dollars or higher taxes, a cost not just in lives lost, a cost not just in the loss of American prestige and stature in the world, a cost not just in families temporarily and even permanently separated… but a cost that will be measured out for decades to come in the lives of veterans. Indeed, in the lives of us all.
No matter how convenient it might be for some if they did, Veterans never just fade away. Whether we supported the causes and campaigns that the politicians we elected sent our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on, their service demands of all of us that we care for them and their families as they recover from the trauma, the hell of war.
I know that behind this idea lies a very hard thought for many of us who are Unitarian Universalists. It would be so easy for some of us to hold up our hands and say “not my war. I didn’t support it. I didn’t vote for the politicians who sent them. Let those who did pay for the care of our veterans.”
It would be easy, and it would be wrong… for no matter who issued the orders, they were sent to war by “We the People” … and we are the people. It’s a hard thought… I know.
I live in a rather liberal area of Chicago, known as Hyde Park. For those of you who have been there, you know that this is the home neighborhood of the University of Chicago, of the Oriental Museum, of the nation’s top rated documentary theatre. It is an area where students attend lectures almost every night on global warming, or ending the war, or addressing poverty at home and abroad. Most of those who live in Hyde Park are young students, in their late teens and early twenties. The same age group that generally joins the military… if not the same class.
A few blocks North, a few blocks South, or a few blocks West of Hyde Park, and you are deep into the south side of Chicago, into neighborhoods not as economically advantaged or racially integrated as Hyde Park. Hyde Park is an island of wealth and privilege surrounded by some of the worst urban poverty in the United States. Young men and women in those neighborhoods around Hyde Park often join the military to escape… or to earn enough money to attend a state college.
About a month ago, I was asked by a fellow seminary student to preside over the ceremony that swore him into the U.S. Army as a 2nd Lieutenant and Chaplain Candidate. The place of the ceremony was about 5 blocks from my apartment, a route I have walked countless times. On this particular day, however, I was walking that route, through the heart of the University of Chicago, in my U.S. Army dress uniform.
As I walked across campus, I noticed something amazing. People would look up, see my uniform with all the medals, airborne wings, shiny buttons and devices… and then quickly avert their eyes. When I walk across campus in my civilian clothes, people meet my gaze, and sometimes even say hello… but not this day. It was almost painfully obvious how their eyes suddenly would become locked on my uniform, and then quickly fascinated by the sidewalk, the grass, the clouds, or whatever book they happened to be carrying.
If the compulsion is that strong, to avert our eyes from a healthy soldier in uniform… how strong will that compulsion be when it is a veteran crossing campus in a wheelchair having lost an arm, an eye, and two legs? How much stronger will our temptation be to have that veteran fade away from our vision, by averting our gaze?
The Veteran’s Administration is reporting that 30 percent of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines returning from the combat actions interestingly named the “Global War on Terror” are reporting mental health problems. Thirty percent. Now, in a military culture in which “suck it up and drive on” is a mantra, I am willing to bet there are many more who are suffering from mental illness and spiritual crisis than are willing to report it to the VA, and have it go on their military records.
No one knows how many Iraqis have been killed, but the number has to be in the hundreds of thousands, if you include combat operations, sectarian warfare, and disease.
4,325 American service members have been killed in the combat actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. That number went up by two while I was writing this sermon. Several of those killed have been my friends, including Captain Travis Patriquin, a native of Lockport Illinois and my roommate when we were both privates in the Army, in the early 90’s. Last night, I spoke at a benefit dinner to raise money for his family.
As disturbing as this number is, as deep as the need for care of their families is, that number pales in comparison with another.
Almost 30,000 American service members have been wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 9,000 service members have been injured seriously enough to require evacuation from Iraq, many with lost limbs or severe head trauma. It is wonderful that due to the miracles of modern medicine more servicemembers are surviving combat wounds, but the miracle of their living means that we must care for them after they have come home.
I believe, however, that the crisis we are seeing in how we care for the physical needs of veterans is the lesser of our problems… that the mental and indeed spiritual crisis we will see in the lives of veterans over the coming decades will be much more profound.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought about a new phenomena in the history of modern warfare, and that is the cycle of repeated deployments. Dr. Jeanie Douglas, a psychologist who is the director of the Veteran’s Center in Oak Park, made this complication clear to me. In prior wars, when a servicemember came home, they were home… they were not likely to be sent back. That allowed the person to begin the spiritual work of recovering from the horrific sights, sounds, and smells of war. They were able to begin the process of re-integrating with society, with their families, of forgiving themselves, and beginning the long road to feeling “normal” once again.
Today, when a service member comes home, there is no guarantee they are going to be able to stay home. For the first time in living memory, servicemembers are spending more time deployed then they are at home. When a servicemember returns to their home and family, it is likely that around a year later they will be re-deployed back to a combat zone.
There is a certain mental mindset that someone needs to survive in combat. The military calls this mindset “battlemind”. It is a hyper sensitivity, an ability to change emotional states very quickly, a kind of task-orientated focus that does not translate well into the civilian world.
The kind of attention to authority that combat requires does not relate well to raising children. The kind of task orientated relationship building that combat requires does not make for healthy marriages. The kind of constant awareness of threats that combat requires does not make for safe drivers on I-94. The kind of swift, brutal, and efficient reaction to threats that combat survival requires does not have a place when someone pushes you in a crowded bar on Michigan Avenue.
Not being able to make this switch from battlemind to civilian mind is one way to understand post traumatic stress disorder… but even for those of us able to make this switch, it takes time. For me, upon returning from Bosnia, it was about twelve months before I quit looking for land mines in the road, quit yelling out my window at fellow drivers, quit driving like I was in NASCAR, and quit getting into fights for no apparent reason.
Now, imagine if when I came home, I knew that I would be heading back in 12 months. It took me that long to begin acting like a civilian again, and my experience of war was light compared to those who have seen the real combat and horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Douglas told me that it would be irresponsible for psychologists to begin the real work of helping our servicemembers to mentally come home, if in the middle of that work, when they are at their most vulnerable, we order them to put their uniforms back on and go back into combat.
I am painting this picture, because I want you to understand what I mean when I say that I believe that the National spiritual crisis we are going to encounter in the wake of this war will be unlike anything we have ever seen. I believe it will be far worse than Vietnam, far worse than WWII, and far worse than Desert Storm.
As traumatic as the effects of repeated deployments are on service members, imagine the hell they create in the lives of families, in the upbringing of children. Families that barely survive one deployment, only to have the servicemember come home and be unable to connect, unable to break out of battlemind to the point they can re-form relationships with their wives and children, often do not survive the subsequent deployment. The rate of divorce in the military is rising, along with rates of suicide, among service members and their families.
All of this does not include the anxiety of fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, friends and classmates that is beginning to affect all of American society. Whether you know it or not, we are all connected by no more than one or two degrees of separation from someone who is serving or has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We see this anxiety in the increase of violent shows on television, in the increasing wear of camouflage clothing by civilians, in the increasing popularity of huge SUV’s even in light of rising gas prices. We are trying, sometimes obviously, sometimes sub-consciously, to find ways to feel safe in an increasingly unsafe feeling world.
Even if we could turn our eyes away from the physically wounded veterans returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, and indeed around the world, there is no way that the affect of the spiritually wounded veterans and their families will just “fade away”. The effects of this war so far away are felt by all of us, on the streets of Chicago as well as the streets of Paducah Kentucky. The effects of this war is felt in the anxiety that so many of us feel for the state and future of our world.
It was that same anxiety, and the guilt that goes along with it, that caused all of those students to look away from me when they saw me crossing campus in my uniform.
I know I feel that anxiety. I know some others of you do as well. If we are feeling it, imagine how strongly those among us who have family members in Iraq are feeling it. Imagine the anxiety of those who are facing being sent back to Iraq.
And yet, I believe there is hope. There is always hope, because try as we might to ruin it, this world still abounds with compassion, this world still abounds with good people with good hearts who have learned that love, not romantic love, but the kind of love meant by the word agape, still exists within the relationships we build as human beings. It is that kind of love we speak of in our covenant, as the spirit of this church.
It is that kind of love that calls us not to look away, but to look in the eyes of a veteran, no matter what their relationship to you, no matter what you think about whatever war they fought in… to look in their eyes and say “Thank you”. I have been on both sides of that kind of thanks, both giving and receiving, and in both my heart swelled up and tears entered my eyes… as two people connect on a level not of anxiety and fear, but of love and hope. It is the kind of love that then lets them talk, with their preconceptions down, and truly learn from one another. Those who have been to war have much to teach us.
There are tons of things that can, should, and must be done politically and socially in light of this spiritual crisis in our nation… but we as a church are called to more than that kind of political work. We are called to re-define once again our movement in light of our commitment to be welcoming… our commitment to a radical kind of hospitality.
Our religious movement has learned to be welcoming before, when we opened our movement and our ministry to those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. Many thought doing so was a dangerous idea, because it meant that, what it meant to be a Unitarian Universalist, would change… and they were right. We did change. We are a different movement today then we were when Rev. Barbara Pescan and Rev. Ann Tyndall and others fought their way into our ministry, and many others worked to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons into our congregations. I believe that because they have joined us and made us a deeper, richer, and better movement than we were before, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons have found a greater acceptance in all of society as well as in our churches.
In the coming spiritual crisis, I believe we Unitarian Universalists must learn to be welcoming all over again. I believe that we must learn to listen to veterans, not just from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from all wars, in the way we learned to listen to the experiences of those who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. I believe we need to empower the veterans who have already fought their way into our congregations, and often sit quietly in our pews, rarely talking about their military service, I believe we need to empower these UU veterans to their own ministries of outreach among the veterans coming home from these wars. I believe that our churches need to find ways to reach out with our saving message of hope to those who serve… but also with listening ears and open hearts… and listen without our own preconceptions about war and peace to those veterans, their stories, their wisdom. Who knows war better than they… and who can help us better know how to create peace?
Doing so will change us as a religious movement. But without the kind of change that comes from adding new experiences to who we are, we cease to be a religious movement, and we become a religious stagnant.
Our church, the Unitarian Church of Evanston has already begun this kind of welcoming ministry, and is, I believe, an example congregation to the rest of our religious movement. By supporting the Great Lakes Military Ministry project, this congregation is helping young navy recruits know of our saving message of hope, interconnection, and human worth at the beginning of their time in the military. We have also begun to listen with open hearts to the UU veterans already within our congregation, and empower them to their own ministries.
I believe this church has also begun the path towards being a military welcoming congregation by welcoming me, a military chaplain candidate, as your ministerial intern and student for this year. For as our congregations begin building these welcoming bridges to physically and spiritually wounded veterans, our movement’s military chaplains do the same work with servicemembers before they leave the service… spreading a gospel of hope, of universal love, of human dignity… and most importantly, the idea that we can all find personally transforming power in beloved community. That no matter who you are, or what you have done, or what guilt you carry… you still have inherent worth, you are still interconnected with all, and you can become more than you were before. That, as Chaplain George Tyger says, we are all “perfectly imperfect”.
It is my hope that when the time comes for Chaplain Cynthia Kane, Chaplain Rebekah Montgomery, Chaplain George Tyger, soon to be Chaplain Seanan Holland, Chaplain Candidate Kelly Cummins, Chaplain Candidate Luke Leonard, myself, and all of the UU ministers who will serve as Military Chaplains in the years to come… when the time comes for us to take off our uniforms, as Chaplain Vernon Chandler did this summer, the religious movement of Unitarian Universalism will welcome us as veterans, will hear our stories, will share our pains, trials, and tribulations, and will allow us to find healing and hope in this, our beloved community.
As our beloved community will have, by then, learned to do the same for all the veterans who walk through our doors.
So may it be, blessed be, and amen.
They Just Fade Away: Veteran’s Day Sermon
November 11th, 2007
Presented at the Unitarian Church of Evanston
To read the whole sermon, and see the service elements (readings, chalice lighting, etc).
Yours in Faith,