Grace United Methodist Church pastor Robert E. Slade called for veterans in the pews to step to the altar, and two dozen men and women, including an elderly man using a walker, stood front and center Sunday.
Robust recordings of “Anchors Aweigh,” then another military marches, blared through the loudspeakers. Women and girls, dressed in liturgical dance uniforms — a violet blouse and flowing white skirt — stood and waved American flags. The choir rose and lifted a soulful rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I noticed sunlight streaming through the rainbow-tinted windows.
Soon enough, however, I would begin to understand that war — and its affects on the individuals who fight them — is anything but pretty.
“We salute, and honor, and give praise for you. We are a proud people today because we stand on your shoulders,” Slade said, as shouts and applause dotted the Fort Washington audience.
The pastor told of his nephew, who served two tours in Afghanistan, and thanked God for his safe return. I thought of the three generations of veterans in my family – my maternal grandfather, who served in World War II; an uncle, who soldiered in the Vietnam War; two young women cousins, who fought in Iraq; and a brother-in-law who was extremely proud to have served a tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan — carrying on the tradition of military service started by his grandfather.
“You have provided safety and security so we can stand here safely,” Slade continued, the two dozen veterans at the front of the church appearing modest. Some may have even been embarrassed by the recognition. “This church is here today because of the security you provided. To God be the glory. Give him a hand-clapping praise.”
Hallelujahs rose from individuals in the congregation. Slade faced the veterans and saluted. I glanced at my father-in-law’s brother among the veterans. He and my father-in-law had fought in Vietnam.
“We know you have given so much, and you did not get the pay you deserved. Even when you return home, you don’t get all you deserve,” Slade said. “But the friends and family at Grace United Methodist Church, we thank God for you.”
I read a patriotic poem by Joanna Fuchs, printed in the church program, and realized my granddad was well into his 80s before he began sharing his wartime stories. My uncles never discussed theirs.
I thought of Veterans Day messages posted on Facebook, including one from a young woman recalling her father’s sacrifice. “Unfortunately, my dad was drafted (against his will) into the Vietnam War as a very young man. He was a point man and stepped on a land mine where he lost his toes and was ravaged by shrapnel. He came home addicted to morphine because of the pain and haunted by the horrible things he was forced to do in that war. He suffered tremendous psychological pain and his return home was the beginning of the demise of his marriage to my mom and our family unit. Although I hate what war represents and its devastation to families and communities both here and abroad, I salute all veterans and their families.”
I was reminded of a Facebook message my cousin Amina had posted on the eve of Veterans Day. “I was a member of the United States Army — a protector of the greatest nation on earth. I may no longer wear the uniform, but my experiences stay with me and my scars are real. War is a dirty business and has forever changed my life,” she wrote.
So much has happened since her mother organized a big send-off celebration in the fellowship hall at their Mormon church a few days before she would deploy. Her return home was quiet. Her husband picked her up at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning, took her home, and because she looked fine, we thought she was. Her mother would die of cancer a couple years later, and my cousin soldiered through the grief with uncommon toughness. I worried that her humanity, her compassion may have been compromised in the war zone. I pray that raising her three sons with her husband will restore what she lost. She has buried herself in busyness, working long hours, knitting, refurbishing furniture, taking her sons to museums on the weekends, anything to keep her mind too busy to consider her life-changing experience in a war zone.
“As we move forward into this Veterans Day, please take a moment,” she posted on Facebook. “Those that bear the scars, both visible and invisible — understand them. Those that answer the call, time and time again — honor them. Those that didn’t make it home, remember them.” Friends and family “liked” her post — our digital applause.
“It is shameful that some patriots that have served their country suffer with homelessness, joblessness, being stigmatized and set aside. Veterans are not charity cases,” Amina added.
She grew up in Clinton and completed her bachelor’s at East Carolina University before enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserve, serving from 1999 to 2004. I especially liked seeing her Veterans Day note because this was one of those experiences we just had not discussed because of its sensitive nature. Another young woman in our family had a mental breakdown in Iraq, and her mother fought hard to bring her home and get her proper help.
Since leaving Grace United Methodist, I have heard — and read — heart-breaking tales from veterans struggling to adjust to civilian life after seeing and smelling death in ways most of us cannot imagine. How does a 25-year-old woman adjust after helping load a body burned to a crisp into the back of a pickup truck? After spending a year on high alert because threats to your life are everywhere you look, how do you adjust to your fears? How do you adjust when that what looks to everyone else like road kill — such as a dead deer on the side of the road — looks to you like an enemy trap? Once you learn that what looks to others like debris — a discarded or unattended box — may be a bomb, how do you unlearn that? If you’ve carried a weapon like other people wear shoes (don’t leave home without them), how do you not feel vulnerable without it? If a mistake in your commander’s judgment cost your unit a couple of lives, how do you trust the judgment of others in authority in the future?
I consider my cousin Amina our sister soldier. Her plea on Veterans Day is that we do better by our veterans. “They are individuals that stood before God and country and swore to protect it from enemies, foreign and domestic. They deserve support. They should not have to fight for the benefits that they have earned.”
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