heroes

On the calendar of American holidays, I always think of Veterans Day as correlating to All Souls Day on the liturgical calendar, whereas Memorial Day is more akin to the Church’s observance of All Saints Day. On Memorial Day we honor those who gave their lives while serving in military operations; the glorious martyrs, if you will, of our great land. They are part of the “saints” that make up our national pantheon. However, on Veterans Day, as on All Souls Day, we don’t just honor the most heroic among us—the martyrs and saints—but rather, all who ever donned the uniform of our country; whether they served for two, or four, or six years, or made a career of it, and whether they served in peacetime or in war. Just as on All Souls Day we commend to the Lord our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, brothers, sisters, and children, on this day we honor “all” who served our country.

Even though I’m on active duty, I still say “Thank you for your service,” when someone young or old tells me that they were in the military, even if it was only for a short time. I have a pretty good idea of the effort that it required, and the sacrifices that they made. They deserve our thanks.

All three of my father’s brothers served in the military during World War II. His oldest brother John was in the Navy and acted as an aerial U-boat spotter off the coast of Florida and parts of Latin America. His next oldest brother, Bill, spent his entire three-year enlistment Stateside, mostly as a weapons instructor at Lowry Field in Colorado. Meanwhile, his closest brother, Ray, was shot down near the end of the war and held as a P.O.W. for a year. Each had vastly different experiences of the war, but all three served honorably. My own father was in the Army for two years after the Korean War from 1955-1957. To my family, thank you for your service.

When I was stationed in Germany, I would often drive past de-commissioned American military bases and wonder: How many troops stationed here were killed or injured in training accidents? Besides all the fun and culturally enriching experiences that most G.I.s have overseas, how many marriages were wrecked here? How many G.I.s, or their family members, succumbed to alcoholism, or other numbing behaviors, to cope with the stresses and strains of military life? I tried to listen to their ghosts for the answers. To all those Cold War veterans who held the line, thank you for your service.

One day when I was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, outside of Washington, D.C., as all chaplains there did regularly, I went to meet a plane full of wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan. Andrews was their first stop in the U.S. after being treated at Landstuhl Hospital, in Germany. It was Veterans Day weekend, 2009. Prior to the plane’s arrival, the medic in charge handed me a printout of the patients on board, and what their conditions were. These flights always had a few patients who were evacuated from the battlefield for psychological reasons—warriors who bore the wounds that no one could see.

On this particular flight, one of the psych patients was a young, once-strapping Marine lieutenant. Weighing down his physical vitality was that haunted and vacant “thousand yard stare,” which slumped his shoulders and betrayed his crushed spirit. I asked myself, “What happened to him? Did he just see too much?” Approaching him, I put my hand on his shoulder and looked into his desperate eyes and said, “Welcome home.” I pray that one day he will proudly march in a Veterans Day parade. To LT, thank you for your service. (Lieutenants are commonly addressed as “LT.”)

At the risk of appearing self-serving, I want to encourage you to thank a vet today. Those of us still serving stand on the shoulders of giants. To the retired schoolteacher who served for three years as a mechanic on B-52s back in the early ’60s, “Thank you. You did a great job. We’re still flying your planes.” To a mentor of mine, Monsignor Ken Herbster, who bravely served as an Army chaplain for eight years (including two tours in Viet Nam), “Thank you, Sir. You’re an outstanding priest, and an inspiration to many.” To the thousands of my comrades who live each day with the physical or moral injuries sustained in war, “Thank you for your service. May God bless you.” To all of you, or your family members who served, and who were fortunate enough to leave the military without having to leave your name on a memorial in D.C., “Thank you for your service.” All gave some. Some gave all. Today is for the “All” of you.

James A. Hamel is a Catholic priest serving on active duty in the Air Force. He is currently the Deputy Wing Chaplain at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

blog comments powered by Disqus