Faith on the front lines
By Edward Grinnan
At present there are 10 federal holidays in the year, all of them fine, solid reasons to commemorate something significant and historical, usually with a picnic or a parade or a mammoth sales event. Yet Memorial Day--it was originally called Decoration Day--stands out in high relief. It commemorates the men and women who have given their lives in the service of our country. And since we are a country at war right now it is quite possible that American service personnel will die while we are celebrating this Memorial Day, amplifying its very meaning. It is not, alas, a static holiday.
The combat soldier's is the only job description that includes dying. Cops and firefighters and rescue workers routinely and bravely risk their lives protecting others. There is not, however, the expectation of death necessarily. War is about killing. For soldiers sent into battle, death is one logical and often inevitable outcome of the work. Veterans Day honors all those who have served. Memorial Day honors those who have died, who made the ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice that is virtually incomprehensible yet has been made by more than a million Americans.
I tried to think of someone I knew personally who fell in battle and was shocked to realize I couldn't name anyone. In my parents' generation, the Greatest Generation, everyone knew someone who died in World War II or Korea. Every family was touched by war in some way. Even the generation of editors who hired me at Guideposts would talk about the war, who was lost and who survived, and who was never the same. They wrote about it for the magazine. I was a little too young for Vietnam and a little old for the Persian Gulf, so it never really felt that the heavy hand of war had touched me in the way it touched so many other generations of Americans. Even our current wars seem compartmentalized. Despite the fact that digital technology obliterates time and distance, there is something oddly distant about the wars we fight today. The fighting feels removed from the lives of ordinary Americans, as if it's taking place in foreign dimension. Yet a soldier's ultimate sacrifice is as absolute as ever. It is as real and as heartbreaking and as tragic as it has been for millennia. It feels as if the rest of us will never do enough or ever repay them and their families. A three-day weekend doesn't cut it.
Frankly it is through Guideposts that I have been able to forge my strongest connection to our women and men in uniform. Our military outreach program supplies hundreds of thousands of free inspirational books and magazines stateside and overseas, both to military personnel and to their families. We work primarily with the chaplain corps who make these materials available to those who want them. We don't proselytize or try to convert anyone to anything.
There has been debate lately about chaplains and their proper role, with some critics going so far as to say that the military chaplaincy is a First Amendment violation of church and state. Frankly, I've met very few soldiers who want to kick the chaplains out of the service (by the way there is a very good DVD out on the subject called Chaplains Under Fire). Chaplains are there to give support to members of their own faith group and to speak with anyone who might have questions about faith. They give comfort and reassurance; they are soldiers themselves though they don't carry weapons.
I wonder who a soldier would call for if he had just one choice, if he was mortally wounded and bleeding out quickly, too quickly to be saved...a medic or a chaplain. My friend and our liaison to military, G.T. Gunhus, a retired chaplain and U.S. Army general himself, told me this: "The chaplain in combat is a symbol of hope when there is little hope. He is the symbol of courage when the soldier is beset with doubt. He is the symbol of grace to the soldier when the surroundings of combat seem unforgiving."
This Memorial Day I will remember the soldiers who serve our country and the chaplains who serve their spirits.
Edward Grinnan is Editor-in-Chief of Guideposts Publications.
Posted by: eileenflemingWAWABLOG | June 1, 2010 8:54 PM
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