On my 18th birthday, I boarded a plane from Nashville, Tennessee to embark on an entirely new adventure. I remember being absolutely terrified for a couple of reasons. First, this was the first time that I had ever flown on a plane. I grew up poor in a small, rural city in south central Kentucky (sounds like a country song, I know). Because of our financial poverty, we rarely left the city limits of Glasgow and when we did, it was always by automobile.
Second, my anxiousness was on red alert due to the fact that my final destination was Basic Training at Great Lakes, Illinois in the United States Navy. Surprising all my high school friends, I had enlisted for military service the previous winter. I will never forget the boot camp experience mainly because everything (and I mean everything) was such unfamiliar territory for me. From rising early in the morning to do push ups until my arms shook, to experiencing firsthand the effects of tear gas, to meeting people from all across the United States to share these experience with, my basic training time was formative for me for years to come.
After basic training, I entered into a training school at a Naval Air Station in Mississippi. My training prepared me to be a Religious Program Specialist (RPS), informally known as an Assistant Chaplain. Once I received training as an RPS, I remember always thinking that the nature of the position was so paradoxical. For in war time, the RPS was trained as a bodyguard for the Chaplain on the battlefield. (You can visualize an RPS standing guard over a Catholic Chaplain administering the Last Rites to a wounded soldier.) But during peace time, the RPS was charged with assisting the Chaplain in service logistics and maintaining the ship’s library. Bodyguard and librarian – it’s obvious how the two connect, right?
I remember returning home on leave after my training in Mississippi. I surprised everyone by giving them a false date for my return and then arriving one day earlier. I reconnected with my family members, loved ones and friends who were experiencing their first year in college. But out of all the memories of my return, I remember reconnecting with my religious community the most. I can still see the faces of those people approaching me with a handshake or a hug. I’m not sure why, but the encouragement and affirmation of those within that community meant the world to me at the time.
So, why do I share all of this? For two reasons:
One, to remind everyone that soldiers are people – our neighbors, our colleagues, our family members, and our friends. Soldiers are people who grew up down the street from us and enlisted for myriad reasons. Personally, I never considered myself hyper patriotic even when I was enlisted. I never got an American flag tattooed onto my skin like some of my fellow sailors did. But I did think that I was doing my small city and county a service by contributing to the welfare of our nation. But I always perceived of myself, and maybe this was my drill sergeant’s success, as an average person who was doing what I thought was needed.
Second, I share this to remind everyone of the importance of caring for our soldiers who have returned and are returning home. Fortunately, I never saw combat, and I cannot imagine how a combat experience shapes a human emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. The separation anxiety mixed with the responsibility to make quick decisions can take a severe toll on a soldier. I still think that the voluntary commitment of one’s life as a potential sacrifice for others is noble and admirable. And so do many people across the globe who celebrate those in the armed forces.
My military experience has shaped some of my academic research projects. And research (plus personal experiences) have convinced me that communities, including religious communities, play an important role in assimilating our military personnel back into civilian life. For one project, I interviewed soldiers who had returned home after assignment in Iraq or Afghanistan. Repeatedly, the religious communities were identified as playing a pivotal role in the re-assimilation process. Additionally, all of the soldiers indicated that their religious communities provided care and assistance to their families while they were deployed. And this care was treasured because it provided comfort during a highly stressful period of their lives.
There are an overabundance of philosophical questions to discuss as it pertains to religious adherents, the military, and war. National and global conversations regarding just war, pacifism, humanitarian relief, and war alternatives need to be discussed and analyzed thoroughly. Individual questions regarding at what level each of us can justify war, support military efforts, and offer affirmation to our soldiers should be examined. But, in addition, we should also consider our religious communities’ role in these discussions as well. How do our local communities, religious or otherwise, play a role in providing care during deployment, to the families members of our military, and assisting with their return home?
The image is used here , compliments of Wikimedia Commons.