This War

J. L. Precup

Editorial Note: Chaplain J. L. Precup graduated from Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, in 1972.  After ordination he served a parish in Chicago, Illinois, and then took a call to a congregation in Mexico City, Mexico.  While in Mexico he was commissioned at our embassy as a chaplain in the Naval Reserves.  After two years as a reservist, he entered active duty as a Navy chaplain.  He has served with Navy and Marine Corps units around the world for the last twenty-five years.

Then he [David] called for his son Solomon and charged him to build a house for the Lord, the God of Israel. David said to Solomon, ‘My son, I had planned to build a house to the name of the Lord my God. But the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth. See, a son shall be born to you; he shall be a man of peace. I will give him peace from all his enemies on every side; for his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days.”(1 Chronicles 22:6–9)

Many years ago in my first year of parish ministry a man whom I had never met asked if he could speak with me. I quickly agreed. As we were walking to my office, he asked if he could speak to me as a chaplain. I had always been interested in the military, and so I knew what he was asking but wondered why. As he spoke, he stated several times that he was speaking to me as a chaplain. That remained puzzling to me as did his rather long stories that seemed to go nowhere. It was only years afterward and from my own experience in the military that I understood what the man was trying to tell me. He was a Viet Nam veteran, and he was attempting to tell me, and to understand himself, what was bothering him, namely, that he had changed. He wanted to speak to me as a chaplain, that is to say, as someone who could appreciate how his life was now different, and how those changes were difficult to understand.

It seems that David was aware of those changes too and never questioned the Lord regarding who should build the temple. God did not exclude David because David was a warrior and had seen much combat, but God perhaps also knew how combat had altered David’s life to such an extent that the warrior might have difficulty in building an edifice of worship and peace.

I now serve as a chaplain at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. Almost every Friday a new company of recruits graduates as United States Marines. Many parents attend the graduation ceremony. They have not seen their sons (it’s a male only base) during thirteen weeks of the most intensive military training that our country conducts. The reunions are joyful, and invariably father or mother will exclaim: “I could hardly recognize you. You’ve changed so much!” Yes, the positive changes of new-found strength, maturity and purpose are there, but there are other changes slightly below the surface on that happy day. I know because the recruits share their stories with me daily. During their first phase of training, a bit of apprehension sets in: “This is really serious. I wonder if I can do it.” During second-phase training, which concentrates on weapons training, the apprehensions are tinged with a bit of fear when recruits ask me: “Chaplain, what does God think about killing?” During third-phase training a new fearful reality surfaces: “I don’t know if I can kill someone or not, but I sure don’t want to be killed. What are the chances of my going to Iraq?”

They probably forgot what I told them in a class about values that I conduct for all recruits during their first phase of training. Yes, I teach the curriculum of honor, courage and commitment that the military wishes me to conduct, but with some free time at the end of the class I ask these recruits why they enlisted. There are different good answers, and most center on serving and protecting the country. I then ask how many signed up to fight in Iraq. Many do. I then tell them that it will probably be about six to nine months before any of them are shipped over there but that they also have to know that there is at least one person, me, who prays nightly that when it is their turn to go to Iraq, there will be no more war. I further tell them that if they joined to fight, and when they are ready to fight, and then there is no war, they can blame me, and thank God.

If the military begins to change a person, then combat certainly and profoundly changes people. When I first arrived at this Marine Corps depot, I presented myself in front of my Executive Officer’s open office door and correctly rapped on it once to announce my presence. The Executive Officer bolted from his chair as if he had heard a gunshot. Actually, that is exactly what he heard after multiple tours in Iraq. I have learned to approach him more gently. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome is the extreme example of this change. What are we doing about it? The awareness is present, but the help is sadly lacking. Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, California, has added one psychologist to the staff at its hospital for a total of one to serve the 40,000 Marines stationed there. Balboa Naval Hospital, San Diego, wants to contract a civilian pastoral counselor to augment the chaplains there who deal with war casualties, and the position remains unfilled after two years.

The doctors and medical staffs within the military are wonderful, competent people. Today they, like the Veteran’s Administration, are understaffed. The reason is funds. Congress has recently passed a defense authorization bill larger than even at the height of the Viet Nam conflict. Where is all the money going? Who can account for the six billion dollars a month in Iraq and the billion and a half each month for Afghanistan? Good question. Please let me know if you have the answer. I can tell you where it is not going. Both the Marines and the Army have had requests for more personnel turned down. Equipment is wearing out at an alarming pace. (The Army estimates it needs 40 billion dollars simply to replace and repair its equipment in Iraq, and that is not even in the present funding.) In order to save some money the government is cutting Navy and Air Force personnel. It is also giving out the lowest pay raise next year in the last thirteen (2.2%) and curtailing Air Force training flights and Navy fuel budgets.

An administration determined to stay the course is not funding the course. Truth be told, it cannot, given the massive deficits it has already achieved (about a half a trillion dollars for this war to date with no end in sight). Lowering taxes is a good idea except when it comes at the expense of turning our country into a debtor nation. It is at the same time heartening and sad that private citizens are attempting to help. Parents buy body armor for their sons and daughters in the military; school children raise funds to buy helmet inserts to better protect soldiers and Marines from head injuries; various organizations send packages of food treats and reading materials, including Bibles.

How can you help the troops and be a Christian citizen? Pray! Yes indeed, and also elect responsible government officials who will utilize the military responsibly. Is that not a confusion of the left hand (God’s reign through secular government to curb evil) and right hand (God’s reign through his called people to announce the Good News) of God’s Kingdom? Those two hands are indeed different, but they are not exclusive. Hands do work together on what needs to be done. Am I anti-war? Am I pro-war? It depends. Let’s be careful in labeling people. Any country, including ours, which invokes the just war theory for going to war begins with an assumption, namely, that it is just. All Christians are called upon to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Sober reflection on your Christian calling will assist you in knowing and supporting the best employment of our troops and the direction of the country.

Recall Martin Luther’s reaction when the Turks (Suleiman and a Moslem army) were at the gates of Vienna in 1529. Luther did not preach and encourage a European army to be gathered in defense of Vienna. Rather, he wrote that the real enemy outside Vienna was God Himself, who was using Suleiman for his own purposes. Luther’s answer to the problem was to repent. A turn toward God is always a turn toward the good. That is what Luther and his family did at the dinner table one evening. Suleiman retreated. Was that a coincidence, or was Luther on to something?

I recently met a Marine sergeant at lunch. We both were in uniforms that made it necessary to wear the ribbons for our military decorations. I noticed he wore the ribbon for a Purple Heart (wounded in combat—the one award no one seeks). I also noticed that he wore two gold stars on his Purple Heart, meaning that he had been awarded the Purple Heart two additional times for a total of three. I had the good sense not to ask indelicate questions. As we spoke, he indicated that he was really facing a problem. He had been to Iraq three times (many Marines and army soldiers have; some have been there for two and half of the last four years), and he will be facing going back for a fourth time in the near future. He is also facing the decision of whether or not to reenlist. With typical military gallows humor, he said that he was either the unluckiest Marine he knew, or he was a real bullet magnet. Then, more seriously, he told me that he was praying about it because he cares deeply about his country and the Marine Corps, but he also has a family and does not want him to be wounded, or worse, a fourth time.

He is not alone. Many fine experienced soldiers and Marines are beginning to vote with their feet. The Marine Corps is intended to be the ultimate assault unit. When it has to return anywhere a third and a fourth time, they and we as a nation have a real problem. Marines tell me that they have always accomplished their missions: clear this town or that, but then they leave only to have to return to do the same thing again and again. The fear becomes palpable. Like Viet Nam, there is no uniformed enemy to fight. One is constantly on guard for her or his own life and the lives of comrades. The language and customs of Iraq are so foreign that they are beyond the understanding of most American troops. Always nagging thoughts abound like: will that teen-age boy who waved at me this afternoon be the one who lobs a grenade at me tonight? Living in that atmosphere of elevated adrenalin and fear does not make for lasting, happy homecomings.

Occasionally, the death notices of troops killed glances off of our awareness. Unless that news hits some place close to home, it has degenerated simply into easily forgettable numbers. Eight killed yesterday; six today; some almost every day (to say nothing of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who are killed); and we call this winning? Occasionally, the news of the wounded also briefly enters our busy days soon to be forgotten. What is never heard is those who come back with wounded spirits. Many of the homeless on our streets today are veterans of past wars. They have never been able to come home in spirit, to integrate back into society and a “normal” life. Yes, some of them have turned to alcohol and drugs, attempting to cope with what eye was never intended to see, nor ear to hear.

One sixth of all the casualties in Iraq are reservists. These are your national guard neighbors—people who have been dropped off in Iraq with little more than the two weeks training they receive annually. Even pastors have been called up to leave their congregations for a year at a time (some of them, twice), and we expect them all to pick up their lives where they left off and live as if nothing had happened. An administration that has labeled its critics as the party of “cut and run” appears to be doing exactly that when it comes to the employment, funding and care of the people in its military.

We look to the One who has come to bind up the broken-hearted and to announce good news to the poor in spirit. We pray for the day when peaceful leaders can lead us in thanks to God, who is able to give us peace from all our enemies so that we may live our lives in quiet praise. We may never have leaders with the wisdom of Solomon, but we can hope for leaders who are people of peace. We work for that day as if everything and everyone in the world depended upon us, and we pray for that day as if everything and everyone in the world depended upon God. Because it does.


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