Lest We Forget

By Fr. Donald Van Alstyne, MIC

With war veterans, dignitaries, and members of many faiths gathered together this past Sept. 11, a veil was lifted on a 10-year dream of mine.

Gasps and applause resounded at the sight of it — a more than 20-feet-tall bronze statue. The Guardian of Defenders Memorial — that’s “G.O.D.” for short — is the nation’s first memorial honoring those who’ve given their lives in the global war on terrorism. I also pray it will help bring healing to those veterans struggling physically, emotionally, and spiritually following active service. 

I happen to know them and their situations well.

As a United States Army chaplain with multiple deployments to Afghanistan, I’ve often administered Last Rites to fellow service members whom I’ve known. I’ve also seen firsthand how trauma and the tragedy of war affect our surviving service members. Many have been exposed to roadside bombs, improvised 
explosive devices (IEDs), and suicide bombers. Many have witnessed the killing of comrades or have had to handle human remains. And, yes, for the first time in their young lives, many have killed other human beings to protect themselves and their buddies from being killed by the enemy.

For many service members, such trauma marks their first experience with the realities of death. In addition to physical pain, many incur mental wounds in the form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and wounds in the soul, which I call “post spiritual stress disorder.” These venerable warriors deserve proper physical, psychological, and spiritual care — and a proper memorial marking their enormous sacrifice for our nation.

By the grace of God, they’ve got one.

With the help of a fellow military chaplain, Fr. John J. Gayton, the Guardian of Defenders Memorial was installed at Holy Rosary Church in Claymont, Delaware. 

The solid bronze statue, designed by me and sculpted by Julio Sanchez De Alba, sits atop a black granite base. It features the Battlefield Cross (inverted rifle, dog tags, helmet, and boots) and an angel carrying a service member to Heaven. And by the way, those combat boots incorporated into the memorial were mine, worn while I served in Afghanistan. They’ve been bronzed!

The dedication ceremony at the 18th annual Interfaith 9/11 Prayer Service drew all branches of the military, Delaware’s political representatives, many Catholics, a Hindu monk, an Iman, and a rabbi. Seven Gold Star family members surrounded the memorial as it was unveiled. A military color guard then played “Taps.”

Father Gayton and I pray much good will come from this memorial. In serving our nation’s military in combat zones, both of us have witnessed death, despair, and evil, but we’ve also witnessed sacrifice, courage, and transcendence. Together, such experiences can either bring confusion or make things crystal clear. For me, what became crystal clear was that God is real, that He cherishes us, and that He will never allow evil to have the last word.

But for many service members, the trauma of war can damage their sacred beliefs, values, and the very foundation upon which they had previously defined themselves and the world. They need reminders of who we all really are in the eyes of God. 

As I began thinking about a memorial, the question arose in my heart: “How can this message of mercy be seen in sign and symbol?” I immediately thought of the Scripture passage from Numbers 21:5-9 about the serpent of bronze, a story about a devastated people who turn to God for healing.

Since angels are messengers from God, I figured why not facilitate the message of Divine Mercy by means of an angel lifting a dead service member from the battlefield to Heaven? By elevating the service member, the angel directs the thoughts of those who’ve experienced the trauma of war to the mercy of God. That’s how healing can begin.

Not that long ago, through the Providence of God, I received a startling confirmation of my vision. It came from the mouth of a young veteran at the Veterans Administration hospital where I work. He was clearly agitated about a lot of things. He showed signs of suffering from PTSD. 

After I spoke with him about his deployment in Afghanistan, he shared with me how he had lost some close buddies to an IED. He paused. Struggling to get hold of his emotions, he finally burst into angry expletives. He lamented that there is no memorial that gives tribute to those who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve searched parks, libraries, museums, and even went online,” he said. “There is nothing for us!” 
I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I got so excited.

“Stay right here,” I told him. “Don’t go anywhere. I want to show you something.” 

I raced to my office to get my iPhone and returned to him to show him the pictures of the Guardian of Defenders Memorial that was being created at that moment. The veteran was absolutely awed. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. His agitation disappeared, and he became peaceful. 

My vision was confirmed! It became clear to me that we must bless the souls of these venerable warriors now, not years and decades from now! 

We pray that these great warriors find rest and reward for their sacrifice, ever reminded that we who are left behind cherish their spirit, honor their commitment, and value their heroic virtues. 

This memorial, I pray, will be a source of healing through the mercy of God, for those loved ones left behind, all of us chaplains who served with them, and most especially the Gold Star families who continue to grieve. 

May Divine Mercy wash over these families, friends, and comrades in arms and give them strength to continue their lives with steadfastness, courage, and hope, knowing well the bond that can never be broken.

Jesus, I trust in You! May this memorial always be a reminder so that we will never forget.

Major Donald Van Alstyne, MIC, has served as a U.S. Army chaplain in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and South Korea. He serves at Holy Rosary Parish and the Wilmington VA Medical Center in Wilmington, Delaware.

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