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At Last a Welcome Home: The Long Journey Back

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On Veterans Day this year we are commemorating a very significant anniversary, in fact two anniversaries. We are marking the fact that 50 years ago the United States entered into combat operations in Vietnam, and 40 years ago those combat operations came to an official conclusion.

To be quite honest I am more than a little conflicted over the historic significance of these anniversaries. You see, as a Vietnam combat veteran I have learned that not everyone is all that eager to reopen a national, or even a local, conversation about this rather dark period of our nation's history. Many of us who fought in that war do not want it to be known that we that we were even there. Yet, there is another side of the story as well. Though we aren't all that eager to "come out" and admit to our Vietnam service, many Vietnam vets are bitter over the way they were treated when they came home.

During the Vietnam conflict a significant segment of the population were of the opinion that service men and women who served in the war were morally deficient and perhaps as a result were psychologically broken. It was not only the general population who embraced this notion, but also members of the religious faith community, to include my own Episcopal Church.

For many this attitude originates in such Bible stories as the New Testament account of Jesus' pre-crucifixion arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane when one of Jesus' followers used a sword to attack a servant of the arresting officials. Jesus' chastisement of the follower was this: "....all who take to the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52b)." For many, Jesus' words of rebuke, recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew, became the rallying cry to condemn all who engage in military service while overlooking Jesus' other words of kindness and respect for centurions and other soldiers. For example, it is recorded that a centurion was held up as Godly example who exhibited the highest level of faith: "Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith (Matthew 8:5-13)."

Though I do not want to minimize the tension between Jesus' recorded words in response to these two events, I have been impressed that our selective attention to one over the other is an easy way to find just the right proof text in the Bible to validate our own prejudices.

Today, after more than 12 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are beginning to see some shifts in the public attitude toward current-day service members and veterans. It is not at all unusual for there to be displays of positive regard for them. Though you may not be aware of it, many Vietnam veterans view this shift toward public "thanksgiving" with more than just a little puzzlement and suspicion. The puzzlement arises over the surprise they experience when citizens want to give positive public acclaim to current day combat veterans. Some vets are suspicious when they see total strangers approach uniformed service men and women offering a public, "Thank you for your service." The Vietnam veteran, after years of learning to be cynical, may find it difficult to understand the nature and meaning of this unique greeting.

In my work as the Bishop for Armed Forces and Federal Ministries, I've been spending a good deal of time with Vietnam veterans who often experience this greeting as vapid and condescending. Recently I was in a mid-western city visiting a storefront "Vet Center," one of many Department of Veterans Affairs enterprises that cater to veterans who are reluctant to seek assistance at a VA Medical Center. The conversation among the vets frequently centered on the lack of understanding in our society regarding the emotional, moral, and sometimes physical sacrifices made by many Vietnam veterans.

I want to tell you a story that has challenged my preconceived notions about what our fellow citizens think about Vietnam veterans. At the end of the summer my wife and I were in the small southern town where both of us grew up. We were attending an end of summer community parade which culminated with a celebration for the county's apple harvest, a major agricultural crop in that region. Everything you would expect to be in such a parade was there: high school bands complete with student athletes and cheerleaders, waving and smiling political candidates campaigning for votes in the next election, tractor-drawn floats that bore evidence of unlimited paper mache and creative license, classic and collector cars that were polished so well that a direct stare might cause temporary blindness, fire trucks with lights flashing and sirens screaming, and an abundance of horses and dogs. I should add that the perch from which we were viewing the parade was the lawn of the parish church in which I had grown up and from which I left to enter the military for the first time in the 1960s. The truth be known, I love these parades. They do more for my community spirit than any other activity in which I participate throughout the year. I've been watching this particular parade on and off for most of my life.

Just when I thought I had seen and experienced everything that could be a part of this parade, I was caught off guard by a totally disequilibrating and unsettling parade entry. Directly behind one of the local high school bands was a tractor-drawn float on which were a number of men and a sign. As I saw it coming I noticed that it was causing quite a bit of commotion in the crowd. I knew that the state governor was to be in the parade, but thought that certainly he would be in a late model convertible and not on a farm trailer. I strained my eyes to read the sign hanging on the side of the trailer but couldn't because as the float came toward us people arose to applaud the men on the trailer and thus blocked my view. Not to be one out of step with the crowd, I too stood up, more so to see than anything else. Then I saw what was causing the commotion. On the trailer were 20-25 men, all about my age, wearing various fragments of military clothing. Some of the men were even wearing their military medals. On the side of the trailer was a simple sign that said "Vet Center." In the fashion of a crowd wave, people were standing and applauding the men as if they were "passing in review." When the trailer got close enough I saw that the men from the Vet Center were standing and returning the applause with a military salute. Reflexively, my nearly 30 years of active military service took over, and I returned their salute. But that was about the last I saw of the men from the Vet Center for tears of joy and thanksgiving clouded my eyes as I realized that these men and I had been welcomed home.

Though I have no way of knowing whether or not what I experienced at that parade is a universal experience, I do know that something incredibly spiritual occurred during that parade. I know that the experience was not just for the Vietnam vets on the parade trailer. I believe that what happened was a transcendent moment of clarity for the people in the crowd who stood and applauded. I believe that in that passing moment all of us stepped out beyond what we had believed and had been taught about Vietnam veterans. We came to realize that those vets, most of whom had been drafted into service, had made sacrifices that needed to be recognized. As a person grounded in a community of faith, I understand that sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of a few for the benefit of the larger society, is a significant virtue that leads to spiritual growth and maturity. The recognition of such sacrifice is the act that brings together all our citizens on Veterans Day. One significant mark of spiritual maturity is the ability to shed the light of truth on the wrongs that have and are being done while simultaneously recognizing and giving thanks for the virtues of personal and corporate sacrifice. In so doing I believe that citizens and people of faith will journey together toward the perfect freedom which the founders of this country envisioned.

Bishop James "Jay" Magness is Bishop Suffragan for Federal Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Based in Washington DC, he is responsible for the pastoral care and oversight for armed forces chaplains, military personnel and families as well as oversight of federal hospitals, prisons, and correctional facilities. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2003 in the rank of Captain, serving as command chaplain of U.S. Joint Forces Command and fleet chaplain for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Prior to those assignments, from 1997 to 2000 he was on the Navy Chief of Chaplains' staff as personnel manager of the Navy Chaplain Corps.