By John Jay Alvaro
Today is Veteran’s Day. Anyone who is a veteran, or who has friends and family who are, doesn’t need to be reminded of the importance of this day. But for those folks with no connection to someone in the armed forced of the United States, this day can easily pass without a sideways glance.
There are an estimated 19.6 million veterans in the United States at this time. Which is a huge number of people. Also a huge number — 242.5 million people. Which is how many people are over the age of 18, and therefore eligible for service. Just over 8 percent of the eligible population of the United States has served in active duty. (Contrast that with the Israeli Defense Force, where 53.5 percent of Israeli men serve, and 37 percent of women.)
These numbers illustrate both the need for such a day of recognition, and the difficulty of the task at hand. For an interesting perspective on the current divide between citizens and soldiers, read “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” written for the New York Times by Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired Army lieutenant general.
We can only tell our own stories, which for me on days like this means telling about a picture that hangs in my living room. My maternal grandfather (hereafter Pops) flew planes in the Air Force. In the last few years, he took on the project of finding everyone on my mom’s side of the family who had served, and framed their pictures. (Pops is in the second row from the bottom, center picture). I received one of the few framed collages he made. I remember every place we have hung this picture in every home where we have lived. On it are family members who served, stretching all the way back to the Civil War.
My own dad was in the Army Corps of Engineers for a decade before going into ministry (bottom row, third from left). I asked him today what his rank was at the end of his military career. His answer moments after my request: “My rank was captain. I had just completed a two-year assignment as company commander, Company C, 34th Engineer Battalion (Combat Heavy). I was working as battalion adjutant for the 588th Engineer Battalion my last year, which is the S-1 or personnel officer managing the administration of about 750 troops. I loved serving God by serving my country!”
It has been 25 years since he served, yet this part of his life will always be on the tip of his memory. He tells me that he remembers watching his friends roll out to active duty during Desert Storm, barely missing his own active duty. As a 5-year-old at the time, I was happy to have my dad on the same side of the ocean as me (224 Army men and women died in that conflict). But I heard in my dad’s voice a conflicted tone. There was his strong sense of duty and loyalty, and there was also surely some small relief. As a kid, you sense these tensions but cannot always name them.
My dad came up through the ROTC program at Southeastern Louisiana University. The Army gave him a community of discipline, and honed the skills that would continue to help him flourish even after his time of service. For his friends who served in the Middle East conflicts, the Army was also a community of risk, and even death.
The Church has always had a complicated relationship with war and the sword. Ideas like “freedom” and “protection” get fleshed out in boots on the ground. And that translation is fraught with tensions, contradictions and consequences. Nations exist (and often thrive) at the end of someone’s sword. The Church is a community seeking the peace of Christ in the midst of the world’s warring. Therefore the Church must always hold a day like this within the stubborn hope that war might end, and these men and women might come home. The Church must be a community of compassion for those who are home in body but whose hearts and minds are in pieces from what we have asked them to do in the name of God and country. The Church must provide a space where the gun and sword may be laid aside so that the cross can be taken up.
Days like Veterans Day give us space to examine ourselves, our nation and our soldiers who have fought (and often died) for this country. It gives us space to say thank you to those who have served for the rest of us. Space to pray for those whose service has cost them hidden wounds, for the families who have lost a loved one to war. On this day, find someone who has served and listen to their stories. Find a way to shrink the distance between citizen and soldier.
And may we as the Church never abdicate our calling to bring peace in the midst of fear, may we fight different battles with different weapons, and may we always bind the wounds of those who have fallen along the way.