'We Will Never Forget,' Remember?

By a Marian Father of the Immaculate Conception

One of the most poignant memories I have as a retired 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division combat chaplain is when I gave what’s known as the “final brief” to our soldiers getting ready to board the plane for combat in Afghanistan. 

As the soldiers walked single file in their full battle gear to board the plane, they shook the hands of the Brigade Commander and the senior non-commissioned officer leadership who were giving brief words of encouragement. I was last in line to look each soldier in their eyes offering a blessing. That instant was a moment of hard reality, for I saw in their face an array of emotions —stoicism, resoluteness, fear.  Regrettably, 23 of those soldiers never returned home.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that moment as I consider the protests, civil unrest, and polarization that have shaken our nation this year. What I see causes me deep pain for our service members, considering the sacrifices they have made.

When soldiers face death fighting for our country, they’re not necessarily thinking about the First Amendment concerning freedom of speech and the right to protest for a redress of grievances. Nevertheless, these freedoms are precisely why our service members and their families make the sacrifice. 

This is why when I see peaceful protests, I’m encouraged; when I see protests turn destructive, I’m dismayed; and when I see political leaders and opinion makers stoking fear and promoting division for self gain, I’m alarmed.

Indeed, our nation is marching down a dark road. We’re once again hearing that reckless refrain from the Vietnam era: “Our nation: Love it or leave it!” We’re forgetting the ideals for which our men and women in uniform have risked their lives.

The American people learned a very hard lesson during the Vietnam era. In words and actions, many Americans were abusive toward our service members upon their return from Vietnam. To this day, as a chaplain to the Veterans Affairs Hospital, I often speak with Vietnam veterans. All of them, bar none, still feel anger and pain from that turbulent time. 

Fortunately, what we now commonly say to our service members is, “Thank you for your service.” But those words are beginning to ring hollow today, and here’s the reason why. We seem to have forgotten a key element of who we are. 

Remember the words adopted in 1782 on the first Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “Out of many, one”? Do we hear this motto now from those who promote division? Do we hear it from those who forgo 
scrupulousness, integrity, and kind-heartedness in favor of winning at all costs?

Entrenched polarization blinds us to our many shared ideals. It weakens us. It affects our economic security. It drives our bitter cultural wars. If left unchecked, it will destroy America as we know it. The sacrifices of our men and women in uniform will have been in vain. 

Indeed, we seem to have forgotten that our nation’s strength rests in its diversity. 

As an Army chaplain, one of my responsibilities was to provide for soldiers’ religious needs. Depending on a soldier’s religious affiliation, I may not have been able to perform particular ministries, in which case I was tasked with connecting the soldier with a chaplain who could. If that support was unavailable on post, I was expected to work with religious leaders in the local community to help the soldier. The mandate of all chaplains is to “perform or provide.”

Why is this a mandate? Because the military gives highest priority to what we call “unit cohesion.” Our strength is found in the diversity — racial, religious, cultural — of each soldier. Unit cohesion requires respecting and cherishing our differences. That is the means through which soldiers reliably and effectively join together in common cause. This, too, is how we reflect the legacy of America. 

With that in mind, we must never forget the vision that empowered our Founding Fathers. By means of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, they firmly rooted our nation to the ideals of justice, liberty, tranquility, and the common good. I have no doubt God’s Providence had a hand in the founding of our nation. 

Considering today’s turmoil and division, I believe now is a perfect time to contemplate three questions posed by the Rev. John Flavel Bigelow in 1861 in his book Hand of God in American History: 

To what other nation has God given such a history? To none. Then are we adequately conscious of, and adequately grateful for, the single distinction which has been vouchsafed to us? Do we appreciate the peculiarities of our past history and our present condition?

With our military men and women in mind, these same questions can be asked of us. Do we appreciate their sacrifices? Do we embrace their common cause? Are we forgetting the fundamental principles that make America great among the global community of nations? 

As the United — not “Divided” — States of America, we need to remember the experiment called democracy is not over; it’s still being tested. After 245 years, we still have work to do. That work stretches out before us, across wheat fields and deserts, from the mountains to the prairies, from sea to shining sea.

We therefore need to ask our Merciful Savior for forgiveness and reconciliation with regard to our disrespect for our diversity. We need to seek love and peace, healing and hope in a world made dark by fear, hatred, and brokenness.

Help us, Lord, to rebuild this nation by seeking Your image in the faces of others. Help us to discover the best in all of us that we may serve those who are the least, the lost, and the lonely. Help us that we may have the ability to look into the eyes of a stranger and see our brother and sister. Help us that we may find strength in our diversity and have the courage to live the words “in God we trust.” 

May we again be reminded of the sacrifice of our service members and their ultimate sacrifice so that we may long remain “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

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