Thursday, November 9, 2017

America will celebrate one of its high civic holy days--Veteran's Day


A Catholic veteran searches for meaning after war

"The world seemed so certain that being a veteran meant knowing something, but I was convinced my own military experience hadn't taught me anything."

In the beginning, there was the word. And the word was with God, and the word was God. My faith journey has taken me around the globe. From the
Catholic town of St. Louis, to Guantanamo Bay, to Spain, to the Holy Land, to Bahrain, Afghanistan, and back home again. Through eschatological excitation, fervent hope, doubt, despair, agnosticism, grief, resignation, and cautious belief, what brings me back to Mass are the words, the familiar words.

Sometimes I repeat the old words, a stubbornness that was hardened in me during my time in the Marine Corps. Kyrie eleison. One in being with the Father. Agnus Dei. Peace be with you, and also with you. Wherever I have been in the world, and wherever I may go, the universal words, the catholic words, are the same.

In a few days, America will celebrate one of its high civic holy days--Veteran's Day. I'll get free food at restaurants, text messages from friends thanking me for my service, posts on my Facebook wall. I represent something that is honored in America--military service and sacrifice.

Americans try to find the sacred in military service members, in military virtue. We struggle to perfect that ritual. I've been watching it play out in the debate over the president's phone calls to a Gold Star family, in John Kelly's speech in front of the White House Press Corps, and over Bowe Bergdahl's sentencing. Americans are desperate for military service members to act as the nation's priests, to guide the country to patriotic grace and to be a conduit of American sacraments, bestowing civic spirit. It is this search for the sacred that elevates debate on these issues to fever pitch.

But as one of those veterans in whom America vests its patriotic hopes, I haven't been able to find for myself the peace which Americans seek. I looked for it in the Marine Corps. I prayed it would come to me in Afghanistan. Now I'm searching for it out in the mountains of Montana, and I'm still looking.  That journey started nine years ago, in 2008, when I left my home in St. Louis as an idealistic, rash 19-year-old for Marine Corps Recruit Training in San Diego.  

Faith sustained me during my first years in the Marine Corps. At boot camp, services were the single escape from the constant oversight of our intense drill instructors. When I got in trouble in Guantanamo Bay and was placed on restriction, I was still allowed to go to Mass unaccompanied. I remember that Christmas in 2009; the Filipino people who worked on the base sang Christmas carols in Tagalog.

But as I clung to the familiarity of the Mass, the comfort of the words, I was also being indoctrinated deeper and deeper into the faith of the Marine Corps, the near religious fervor of brotherhood and violence. I came to love the Marine Corps, the institution complete with its own rituals and rich history of martyrs and heroes. John Basilone and Chesty Puller became as familiar to me as Paul of Tarsus or Ignatius of Loyola.

A young infantryman, I grew to believe in the redemptive, transformative power of violence as deeply as I believed in my own Catholic faith. The two intermingled with one another, each amplifying the other. I wanted to be born again, not just in Christ, but in kill.

I prayed for the opportunity to prove myself in combat, to fully join the brotherhood of the Marine Corps. Just as the grace conferred in baptism had to be affirmed at confirmation, I was baptized into the Marine Corps during boot camp, but it would take my conduct in war to confirm that identity.

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