Thursday, November 11, 2010

With Thanks to Our Soldiers on Veteran's Day

Nine years ago when the war started, I felt gratified to be part of a community that believed in taking a moment each week to think of the brave men and women fighting so far away. At my church in the Oakland hills, during the Prayers for the People, after we’ve prayed for world leaders to seek justice and peace, after we’ve prayed for those who are alone and suffering, after we’ve prayed for the just and proper use of God’s creation, the reader says, “And we pray for these soldiers killed in the Middle East in recent days.” Then the reader pronounces the name of each departed soldier, slowly, with gravitas, a long pause between each name.

Those first months and years, on the Sundays when they read seven or eight or twelve names, it was sad. But I assumed it would be temporary; that this litany of the dead would fade away and we could return to praying for large and ephemeral and hard-to-picture things: forgiveness, compassion, understanding. 

A person who has died in the desert fighting is the opposite of hard-to-picture. A name conjures up an ethnic background, perhaps a hometown, an age. When the name ends with a “Junior” or “IV” the image pulls into even sharper focus, this young person who was the growing branch of a deeply rooted family tree. Each of those names represents not just a dead soldier, but a shattered family and a community of friends reeling from the tragic news. It’s hard to imagine prayers big and strong enough to cover and comfort all the people affected when one single name is read.

One day a name read out was the exact same as a nephew of mine who is in his twenties. As a little boy he couldn't see a fire engine at a distance because "red" was just a fuzzy concept to him. His colorblindness prevented him from even considering the armed services. I found myself thanking God for monochromacy during the meditation that day.

The ritualistic reading of the names continued, all through the end of the Bush presidency when the coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base were still unloaded in secrecy, when the first reports of substandard health care for veterans of the Iraqi war began to trickle out, when the WMD claims were well and truly refuted. They continued after Obama took office, his promise to end the war taking far longer to fulfill than anyone who voted for him would have hoped or believed. The prayer was amended to include “the unnamed and unnumbered civilian casualties of war.” I guess reading off 100,000 names would prove unmanageable.

And then one day the list was particularly long, and my mind began to wander – what time was it? Do I still have time to stop at the market on the way home? Can’t this reader go any faster? 

I'm convinced it was a Godly bitch-slap that pulled me up short in the pew that day. I stood there with my cheeks burning, paranoid that the old ladies kneeling ahead and behind me – young women during World War II – would know my shameful thoughts. I’m not asked to leave my family for months or years at a time, travel to a distant place where I will be perceived as an enemy and threatened from all sides. I’m not even asked to plant a victory garden. All I’m asked to do is stand still and bear witness to those who have lost their lives fighting.

The next week began a ritual that has now gone on for about four years. As each name is called, I close my eyes and press a nail into the soft uncalloused pads of my fingers. That tiny bite of pain keeps me present in those short seconds between names, to picture Sergeant Brandon Maggart or Specialist Morganne McBeth or Major Ronald Culver Jr. I whisper aloud, “I’m sorry" after each. But the next name comes fast, like gunfire. Some weeks my fingers are still red when we begin to greet each other in peace "which surpasses all understanding."

Mine are hands that will never hold a gun, in wartime or peace, nor will they help to carry a comrade wounded or killed in battle. But my hands can do other things: they can write a check to one of the organizations helping soldiers and their families during and after deployment. They can sign a card of gratitude to send to a man or woman serving. They can pack up kits of toiletries and other necessities that make daily life for a soldier just a tiny bit less daunting.

In honor of our veterans and the soldiers on active duty, check out some of the links to the Charity Navigator rated four-star charities below. Make your hands to do a little something extra for the troops today.


  1. A very thoughtful piece -- thanks for putting this one out there. It's a good reminder.

  2. Thank you. I have been a wife of a Marine for the past 15 years--my husband went to war in Iraq twice. He and I just got back from marching in the Veteran's Day Parade in NYC this morning. While stationed here in Brooklyn (yes, there is a duty station here ;]), we have noticed how New Yorkers continue to sincerely and tenaciously support the military. It's nice to know they are not alone. Semper fidelis.

  3. Hi Kimberlee - thank YOU, and your husband. I crack when Andrew's gone for more than 4 days of business travel; don't know how you cope with absence months at a time. I'm grateful to you both, and glad for the chance to publicize these organizations.

  4. Thank you Nancy and Kimberlee - your passion and attention to the sacrifice of so many is greatly appreciated [and Kimi will be part of the shabbocktail crowd next summer!].


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...