Another Look: Thoughts on Veterans Day

Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis (Nov 2018)

Another Look: Thoughts on Veterans Day

Men go to war for a hundred reasons,
But they all come back with the same demons.

• Slaid Cleaves

• • •

None of us who have escaped our nation’s veterans’ experiences on the battlefields can ever truly relate to what they’ve seen and known. We pin medals on their chests, honor them with annual holidays, put them on public display at ballgames, and wax poetic about their sacrifices. No doubt many of them are proud of their service and grateful for the recognition. However, I wonder if they think the rest of us are just spouting a lot of public patriotic bullshit when we so often forget about them in private, where such a great number of vets are homeless, jobless, fighting PTSD and countless other war-related debilities, going through divorces, battling alcohol and drug abuse, and at high risk for suicide. It must make a person feel freakish when he or she can’t attend a patriotic fireworks display because the explosions are too jarring, too upsetting.

I have so many mixed feelings on Veterans Day.

First of all, I have little personal experience with the military. My father and my father’s father and I were lucky. Our lives fell right in the cracks between wars in the 20th century, and though they performed military service in peacetime, I did not.

I turned 18 in 1974, barely missing Vietnam and the draft. Some of you know what that time was like in the U.S., and I was one who was not in favor of the war, to put it mildly. I had no interest in the military in those days.

My sons and daughters now live in the age of the all-volunteer military, and none of them enlisted. I’m glad, especially given the extended wars we have fought over the past twelve years.

Second, I have made the acquaintance of many who have served, and who are veterans of wars. One of our churches was near Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago. We had military personnel and families in and out of our congregation, and I visited patients in the VA hospital there. Since becoming a hospice chaplain, I have had the privilege of conversing with many veterans, especially from World War II. Most are loathe to speak of their war experiences in specific terms, and for good reason. I’ve met people who fought in most of the great battles of that war, which is to say, they have seen horror and human suffering on a scale and in detail that I can scarcely imagine. I have gained great respect for these G.I. Joes. In fact, I admire them, like them, and have grown to treasure learning from them. But it sickens my stomach to think of my sons or daughters or grandchildren going through what they endured.

Third, I am not a proponent of civil religion. I do believe that love of country is natural and good, a gift of common grace. I consider it a duty to show appreciation for those who sacrificed to make our lives better. I am also proud to honor the symbols of our nation and embrace the notions of liberty and representative democracy that they represent. But I do not give them ultimate value or worship them. The national flag does not belong in the sanctuaries of our churches — they are foreign embassies of a different Kingdom. I pray “God bless America” as a part of my intercessions “for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1Tim. 2:1). A friend of mine has a bumper sticker that says, “God bless all nations,” and I concur. Veterans Day is not a holy day on the church calendar, though at the same time, such remembrances do (and should) play a role as we think about our faith.

Fourth, all my life I have heard, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” What I’ve seen is that remembering doesn’t seem to help much either. We continue to fight wars, thinking they will bring peace. In fact, we are just wrapping up the two longest wars the U.S. has ever fought, and the possibility of future wars lies just beyond the horizon. The amount of resources we have expended to defeat our enemies over the past twelve years boggles the mind. The human cost has been and remains staggering on all sides. For generations, families will suffer because this generation felt it necessary to go to war. “Remembering” on Veteran’s Day must not only involve rituals of honor, but also a renewed commitment to care for those whose lives have been disrupted and devastated by war. And above all, we must pursue determined, diligent efforts to promote liberty and justice for all, the things that make for peace.

Fifth, when thinking about these things, I try to take my cues from the Bible and the best of Christian tradition. Scripture reflects the violence and conflict that is pervasive in a sinful world, even among the religious. Church history likewise. However, from both we also hear prophets’ voices above the din, bringing words from God, proclaiming and promoting shalom — human flourishing in a renewed and reconciled world. The ultimate vision of Christianity is a new creation in which the Tree of Life provides healing for all nations. Veterans Day provides yet another opportunity for the Church to proclaim this hope-filled Gospel, this message of the peace that was won when Jesus absorbed violence rather than exercising it. Losing the war, he won shalom for all. Eagerly, we now long for its consummation.

And how, on Veterans Day, shall we be messengers of that peace?

21 thoughts on “Another Look: Thoughts on Veterans Day

  1. I am so glad I came back here today on a whim to see what others might’ve written. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I can’t even imagine. Blessings to you, T.S.


  2. ‘The tumult and the shouting dies, the Captains and the Kings depart.’

    Rudyard Kipling

    Lest we forget ……

    and instead do we honour someone who leads us and the world astray with false promises.



  3. Trying long story short. I was drafted in the late sixties. I evaded in southern California. But my mother freaked out( one husband died flying over the Himalayas and my father was sunk as Coast Guard in North Atlantic). I hitchhiked back to eastern Pennsylvania. Vividly remember on the bridge over the Allegheny river( just west of Oakmont Country Club) in agony of whether to go north to Canada or east to induction. I went east. I thought I would go to jail for being late, but was shipped off by train to NC Bragg. There they gave several different sort of tests. One was for helicopters. They asked if I wanted to go to flight school. Believe me when I tell you they must have sorely needed them. So I went off to Louisiana for boot camp( all WOC(Warrant Officer Candidates) went there. I caught pneumonia . Was recycled. Got a perfect PT score for which the drill sergeant fed me breakfast in bed. He didn’t like it, and at graduation when I smiled at him he and I rolled on the ground fighting. I went off to Ft Wolters TX. First day, dumped duffel bag on ground and low crawled it in my teeth to our room on second floor. Every day we got up at 4 AM for PT. Then back for shower and break starch. Then breakfast. Then either morning out to desert in trainer( Hughes Tool made and that’s a funny story) or in school learning ) or vice versa. I soloed after 11 hours. That’s hilarious. 23 in my flight. 8 of us graduated 9 months later. We had to be at our desks at 6PM exactly, in bed at 9PM exactly. 7 hours sleep isn’t enough. I slept on every bus ride to the helicopter. Then off to Alabama for 5 more months of helicopter, especially flying by instruments. Then I was off to Ft Meade MD where I flew the kind of helicopter you see on MASH to Walter Reade Army hospital. Then off to Sam Houston in TX to learn Air Ambulance. Then off to Viet-nam. I flew DUSTOFF( dedicated unhesitating service to our fighting forces), the air ambulance with the red crosses you occasionally see. ! year, 1600 hours cranked, 2453 missions, over 8000 people flown to med pads, 17 hours on Christmas eve( just one example). You basically were given an air medal with a V( for valor) if your plane took a round( or more) I have the V 22 times. I was asked to re-up indefinitely or get out. GET OUT. After the freedom flight back to the states I was given a commercial flight back to Philadelphia. I puked ,locked in the john most of the way. Got off the flight to be spit on in the airport. My mother fed me powdered eggs the next morning. People who love you, let alone others, really have no idea. I swam alone every morning in a neighbors pool for I think 4 months. The water was so crystal clear, the bubbles glistening off you when diving in. Still doesn’t really wash it all off. I learned how to race into an LZ( 140 knots) in southeast Asia and plant a machine so hard on the ground the skids stretch. And I swear it’s true I could look at the wounded and tell you if they still had spirit within or it was gone. Yes I still duck if a car backfires, but at an incident where all hell breaks loose I’m calm and able to direct others for benefit. In the helicopter the crew was all in one internal headset (so to speak), and if the helicopter commander( Me ) wavered in tone, it’s possible the entire mission falls apart. Eventually went to college on the GI bill, became a teacher. People think teaching is stressful. To this day, no bad dreams. But intensity is what makes you never forget. I could take you to Ex-ray Tango 432, 657 in Viet-nam still today. And any other coordinate from YS or ES east of 500 and YT north off 666 and any XS.
    Dustoff 20, Wide Minnow I have a job for you. Wide Minnow, Dustoff 20, send it
    Dustoff, 2 US with gunshot at XS 268, 533, contact 140, purple on call at FM 690. Fat Fish, Dustoff, 2us gunshot XS268,533, 140 bad, purple after FM 690…..ETA 15. We landed at thatpurple smoke, threw those two in, hightailed it out the same way we came in( in that instance at 320N) and had those two at the 90th EVAC hospital in Long Bin ten minutes later.


  4. One thing that Catholic and Orthodox soldiers have is the Sacrament of Confession, where they can be completely honest about simply their participation in armed conflict waged by their governments against other human beings – and other sins, if committed. The Sacrament doesn’t replace good counseling, but it is the thing upon which further good and healing counseling is built. (I know there is a rite of personal Confession in the Anglican tradition; is there any such thing in the Lutheran?)

    I think this is a great article. You have to sign in to download, but you can just read it on the site without signing up for anything.



  5. ” Henry the V , St. Crispin Day speech sums up so well how true tip of the spear guys feel.”

    John Barry, you are so right:


  6. The number of flags that fly in my parish would boggle the emotional Baptists here. tha american flag is here, as is the Greek flag, the flag of the Ecumenical patriarchate (which is actually quite pretty), and some yellow double-eagled thing that looks like a Tsarist battle standard but which I have been told represents lost Byzantium and the elusive ideal of symphonia.

    The Greeks have no concept of the separation of Church and State. It looks like the EC is going to ram it down their throats along with giving women access to Mt Athos.

    I wish I could be as blithely universalistic as the majority of you, but my premonition is that if we get rid of our ethnic nation states, they will be replaced by something far worse.


  7. One of my writing partners (the self-educated son of a steelworker with low-end autism) had an uncle who was at Omaha Beach, another uncle who almost lost a leg at Anzio, and still another who was at Saipan and Okinawa (he would talk about Suicide Cliff at Saipan, but not about Okinawa).

    Even when we’re doing MLP fanfics, if there’s a serious battle scene involved, he can write about it (and the aftermath).


  8. Let us know when “the most vocal elements in the congregation” put up a portrait of Trump in Majesty where my church would have the crucifix and altar. (I half expect to see that happen for real.)


  9. The Philippine Insurrection and accompanying Moro Wars after “Yanko-Spanko”.

    The same background that led Mark Twain to write “The War Prayer”.


  10. Hello Robert F.

    I agree in principle with you and with Chaplain Mike, and then I remember my father’s funeral with his casket underneath the flag and the gun salute and the presence of a group of young military men and women who folded the flag only in the way that they can do it . . . . . I did not mind that my father was so honored, as I thought he had earned the ceremony by his service those many years. However, the present ‘union’ of SOME evangelical leaders and the Republican party mocks both our country and the faith, I have no doubt my father would have been horrified by what is happening with that ‘union’.

    As for honoring ‘country’ and ‘church’, maybe it’s a ‘both’ / ‘and’ thing, like in that hymn ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ where both ‘kingdoms’ are mentioned????

    “I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above
    Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
    The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test
    That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
    The love that never falters, the love that pays the price
    The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice

    And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago
    Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
    We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
    Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
    And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase
    And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace”

    How can we honor our war dead and still recognize ‘that other country’ in doing so?
    Is that not different from the horrors planned by those creepy opportunists who want to form a ‘Christian nation’ which will be far from Christian?
    Apples and oranges? I think ‘yes’, as the former is honorable;
    and the latter an ugly slander against both country and church.


  11. I would say those who misinterpret , do not know the who, what, why, when and where , those who use history to fit their cultural, political, social or religious viewpoint and those who shortchange men influencing history are gong to repeat it. Most major events, world changing events in history never happened until they happened. Men shape history, history does not shape man. Sometimes the shoe of history fits, sometimes it does not.


  12. Harry Wilmans

    I WAS just turned twenty-one,
    And Henry Phipps, the Sunday-school superintendent,
    Made a speech in Bindle’s Opera House.
    “The honor of the flag must be upheld,” he said,
    “Whether it be assailed by a barbarous tribe of Tagalogs
    Or the greatest power in Europe.”
    And we cheered and cheered the speech and the flag he waved
    As he spoke.
    And I went to the war in spite of my father,
    And followed the flag till I saw it raised
    By our camp in a rice field near Manila,
    And all of us cheered and cheered it.
    But there were flies and poisonous things;
    And there was the deadly water,
    And the cruel heat,
    And the sickening, putrid food;
    And the smell of the trench just back of the tents
    Where the soldiers went to empty themselves;
    And there were the whores who followed us, full of syphilis;
    And beastly acts between ourselves or alone,
    With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,
    And days of loathing and nights of fear
    To the hour of the charge through the steaming swamp,
    Following the flag,
    Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts.
    Now there’s a flag over me in Spoon River!
    A flag! A flag!

    -Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology


  13. Thanks for sharing these things, CM.

    –> “First of all, I have little personal experience with the military. My father and my father’s father and I were lucky. Our lives fell right in the cracks between wars in the 20th century, and though they performed military service in peacetime, I did not.”

    Ditto. I feel fortunate that my dad nor his dad had to fight in any wars. One of my mom’s brothers was a bomber pilot during WWII, though. Interesting stories from him.

    –> “Second, I have made the acquaintance of many who have served, and who are veterans of wars.”

    The husband of the woman who led our adult Sunday school class back in the 90s was in the Navy during WWII. He happened to be on one of the landing craft at Normandy in one of the later waves, after the beaches had been secured. The class once convinced him to tell us some of his war stories . He got in front of the class, briefly told his story about how he’d gotten into the Navy (he’d lied about his age…he was too young to enlist), then began to share his D-Day experience. He started with, “The bodies…” then began crying and had to sit down. We never heard anything more than that.

    –> “Third, I am not a proponent of civil religion…I do not give them ultimate value or worship them.”

    I used to be more of a “America great” kinda guy until I realized how damaging nationalism is (very similar to “bad religion”).

    –> “Fourth, all my life I have heard, ‘Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.’ What I’ve seen is that remembering doesn’t seem to help much either.”

    Yeah, that certainly seems the case, unfortunately.

    –> “And above all, we must pursue determined, diligent efforts to promote liberty and justice for all, the things that make for peace.”

    Amen. IF we calls ourselves Christians and say we are followers of his, I tend to agree.

    –> “Fifth, when thinking about these things, I try to take my cues from the Bible and the best of Christian tradition.”

    I’m not sure about Christian tradition, but I’d agree with you on taking cues from the Bible.

    –> “The ultimate vision of Christianity is a new creation in which the Tree of Life provides healing for all nations.”

    That’s not only NT view, but OT prophetic view, too! I love how the two merge!


  14. “It doesn’t belong there, but there it stands, in one corner of the chancel opposite the “Christian flag” (whatever that is) in the other corner.”

    I don’t disagree about the use of the American Flag in church. Idolatry of the flag is possible (probable in some churches), but I believe the flag is displayed in thanks to God for the blessing of living in America in most cases.

    The Christian Flag you refer to is probably the one designed in the early 20th century and used mostly in protestant churches, predominantly in North America, but also used in South America and Africa.

    As for Europe, the flags may not be displayed in church, but the National Flags of many European Countries and Territories (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, The Faroe Islands, England, Scotland, The UK Union Jack, Switzerland, Greece, Slovakia, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, Portugal, Vatican City, Malta, Montenegro, Lichtenstein, San Marino, Spain and Guernsey) contain various version of crosses or other Christian symbols. You could say Christian Nationalism is alive and well in Europe (tongue firmly in cheek there).


  15. In most churches if you removed the American flag and did not make a big deal of it, most people would not notice until a special patriotic holiday. The changing culture, the demographics of the nation, lost of knowledge and respect for our institutions coupled with the generational religious changing of the guard will make the question of national flags , moot, as the majority will not really care or be strongly opposed , the flag will be gone in one or two more generations.

    Veterans in the USA are treated extremely well. If you meet a legitimate homeless veteran , who is hooked on drugs, booze and is mentally unbalanced , then take him to the nearest VA facility or call the VA. Even if his condition,, is not service related, they will help him. Lack of concern is not lacking and efforts to help veterans is a viable cottage industry. Veterans have problems just like the general population but they have the advantage they can fall back and play the veteran card.
    I only add this fact so no one thinks I am anti military vet, anti strong military or against taking care of our veterans who truly have service connected issues, I am a combat vet and know the terrible cost of battle. I have seen and heard far too many “posers” who spread BS , outright lies about their exploits in Vietnam. I am not confrontational, except in two cases since 1970. They are like the stolen valor scum who wear purchased medals and wear the trappings of a proud veteran Henry the V , St. Crispin Day speech sums up so well how true tip of the spear guys feel. I feel somewhat sad for the guys my age who for whatever reason did not serve, I cannot not imagine my life any other way but I know that is just me, not making a broad social statement.

    I feel so lucky, so fortunate that I was able to do what I did as a young man and pay no emotional or physical price for experiencing such intense, desperate and life changing events. My experiences and memories were life changing and for me ,and most that I know well, positive and as Visa says priceless. We quit our five year reunions as we did not want to see each other with glasses, hearing aids, have family problems, balding, bad knees, health issues, in other words growing old. We wanted to keep our memories untainted by present reality I do not wear the hats or any id that a lot of Nam guys wear as I do not want to talk about it except to a very select few, if they ask a question.

    If you want to thank a vet, go to Arlington , Flanders Field, Normandy, Iwo Jima and any military graveyard, and find a KIA grave. When people do “thank me ” for my service , I tell the truth, I got far more being a vet than I ever hoped for. I would say thanks America.

    I am not in favor of a mercenary , all volunteer, military that allows the vast majority to have no skin in the game. When I meet a person who “supports” our troops in Middle East, I ask how. Do they pay additional taxes, do they have a loved one in front lines, exactly what support , other that a slogan , what is the price and depth of their support. President G. Bush made probably the worst foreign policy decisions, getting USA into Middle East war and refusing to fight it to win or get out. Terrible.

    To get back on track, in all my life , I do not recall any church goer , I know of , who had any trouble separating their religion from their pride and love of being American, as represented by the flag. No missionary I know of took the American flag along with them to the mission field. As Christianity is losing its influence so is patriotism. It will be a brave new world.

    And finally to Robert F. Does not the EO have churches in Europe and I would say they are quite nationalistic . At least they do not fly the American flag


  16. The national flag does not belong in the sanctuaries of our churches — they are foreign embassies of a different Kingdom.

    It doesn’t belong there, but there it stands, in one corner of the chancel opposite the “Christian flag” (whatever that is) in the other corner. I wish I had the courage to challenge its presence, but I know exactly how that challenge would be received: with extraordinary and vigorous anger by the most vocal elements in the congregation, the ones who already complain when enough patriotic music is not included in the hymn choices on national holidays, and who view flying the flag and singing the music as integral to honoring the sacrifices of American soldiers. In their view, removing the flag from the sanctuary would be almost treason. The fact that national symbols hold such sacral power in the U.S. (I’ve heard it is not so in Europe and many other places around the world) is indicative of the degree of nationalism, which is a form of idolatry, that is common in American psychology. It is deeply rooted.


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