Sometimes it’s a long way home

Texas veterans join local pilgrimages to aid the journey

[Diocese of Texas] The sanctuary is quiet, empty and dark. The doors open, and veterans of more than five wars slowly walk in and surround the baptismal font. Prayers for light are spoken as the candles and torches are lit. The pilgrimage begins.

Veterans at this Pilgrimages of Remembrance and Reconciliation are gathered from seven Episcopal parishes. The gathering is itself a healing event, since isolation and estrangement are common symptoms among warriors.

When the candles are lit, each veteran finds their place between the font and the altar, between life and death. Just as we start our journey at the font, so we end our earthly journey at the altar. From this vantage point, the pilgrims reflect on their journey, their war and their future. Often very young veterans will take a position near the altar. One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is a “fore-shortened future.” The word “veteran” comes from the Latin, vetus, which means “old.” War ages people. The young have old eyes when they have seen more than their share of horror and suffering.

The pilgrims gather at the front of the sanctuary and share a name and a happy memory of someone who died in war or homecoming. The names are recorded in a book to be read in a roll call before the altar. Relationships forged in combat are the closest ones most veterans ever have. When someone dies, the grief can be overwhelming and silent for years. The grip of grief is lessened as each name is spoken. The men and women laugh out loud at some of the memories. Not all war stories are full of sadness and death.

As the pilgrims move toward the altar, the priest blesses the Episcopal Church Service Crosses and distributes them. This cross dates to WWI and is worn by Episcopal members of the military. Some of the veterans are wearing the crosses they wore in Vietnam. Others receive a cross for the first time.

The pilgrims kneel at the altar rail and pray a Litany of Healing. They pray a prayer for healing, and a prayer from the Prayer Book titled, “For Our Enemies.” They pray this one in unison although some cannot pray it yet. The first task of wartime propaganda is to sub-humanize the enemy. This is not easily undone. Warriors come home from war plagued by memories, regrets, hyper-vigilance, anger and numbness. The survival skills of war rarely fit into a normal American life.

This is the reason these veterans gathered for this pilgrimage, to come home from war. They come to find reconciliation, a sacrament in the Church. So, before the confession, the veterans write down their confessions on small pieces of paper. They write down the memories they cannot get rid of, no matter how much they drink, or how far they run.

The deacon, the Rev. Robert Chambers, collects these crumpled paper confessions in a vessel, takes them outside, and burns them in the “amnesty box.” The box exists in war zones and military training areas. If soldiers forget to turn in a grenade or some live rounds, they can secretly slip them into a special box, no questions asked. The veterans on this night put their emotional grenades in the amnesty box, symbolizing that these memories are now in God’s hands.

Next they pass the peace. Peace, that elusive and strange concept in war. Wars are fought to restore peace, but they rarely bring peace to the women and men who fight in them. “God’s peace,” they say to one another and perhaps, they start to feel it.

Holy Communion is next. An olive drab corporeal is spread out and a chaplain’s field communion kit is assembled from its compact, camouflage case. It is a rugged communion set, more at home on the hood of a Jeep or a Humvee. Here, in the presence of the blessed bread and wine, the roll call is sounded by the senior enlisted man who is present. The names are tolled off followed by silence and the playing of Taps.

Bread and wine are shared as Air Force veteran, Larry Magnuson, plays an Irish war ballad on a concertina. All the names of the dead and all the experiences of combat are lifted up to God.

Liturgy never solves the problems of the world right away. The words take time to find root in the human soul. So, the pilgrims leave the sanctuary for the fellowship hall where they share stories of war and homecoming. Some discover common battles, just as many civilians discover common friends. Some laugh, some cry, others simply listen the stories of others, unable to share their own. All are invited to reconnect at the next pilgrimage or in one of the two groups that meet regularly.

The service ends but the mission of the newly formed Episcopal Veterans Fellowship goes on. The EVF was formed in the summer of 2014, in response to the 2009 Resolution CO-51 of General Convention to “Encourage the establishment of an Episcopal Veterans Fellowship for each diocese.” Thus far, the EVF has held weekly Tuesday night meetings at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, and at Grace Episcopal Church in nearby Georgetown, Texas. Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the country is just up IH 35.

The meetings focus on fellowship and spiritual growth after combat. Relationships are strengthened and the group is growing. In addition to the weekly meetings, the core group of the EVF has been travelling to conduct Pilgrimages of Remembrance and Reconciliation. If you would like such an event to travel to your parish, please contact the Rev. David Peters at asstrector@graceepis.org or 512.571.4124.

Comments

  1. cynthia reynolds says:

    I work for a mental health practice whose primary clients are veterans. Many would not want the “church” opf this, but a similar secularized service would help a lot of them. My now deceased husband was a veteran and an ordained Episcopal priest who counseled survivors of many types of trauma with both spiritual and secular services such as this with great success.

    • mark razook msw LCSW says:

      Our church is keenly sensitive to the needs of Veterans as many of members of our congregation , Saint Mary Magdalene in Coral Springs have served in all branches of the Military . We have vets from the rank of Buck Private to Major General . We honor our Veterans at every turn . We pray for them all individually and as a whole . I want everyone to know that we are not just praying for their safe return home . We are also taking action and moving to create counseling and other support to any Veteran in need .
      I am a Veteran of The Viet Nam Era serving with both the 82nd Airborne Division and the 518th Combat Engineer Company at Ft Kobbe in the formal Panama Canal Zone . I am also a licensed Clinical Social Worker here in Coral Springs Fl . When I came to understand what the Veterans of the this Great Generation have endured , I knew that I had to help them . My first thought was to turn to my Spiritual Advisors and ask them to help me reach out to mu Brother and Sister Veterans . I am a seasoned Mental Health Professional . I have the skills to aid in the inevitable bumps in the road that these Warriors will face . I just needed an Office .
      Mother Cynthia Gill and Father Mark Simms both said yes without hesitation and encouraged me to go ahead . As a result of this unconditional support , I glad to say that we will be offering
      services and support to any Veteran or any Family Member in need .
      I am young as an Episcopalian but I learned from Father Mark on our firist Mission Trip to Panama that ” the last thing you do in offering help Is to open your mouth about your own religious beliefs . The first and most important thing is to act , to help in a concrete way ”

      I understand the poster above concern with some Veterans being wary of asking a Church for help . I myself was that way at one time . It was after I saw 4 of my friends killed in a training accident in the jungles of Panama . I was angry at God for letting that happen and I swore that religion was not for me . I drove past Mary Magdalene on my way to work for more than 15 years- until one day I made a truly right turn and pulled up to the Church . I was welcomed unconditionally , as all are in our Faith . I saw that through their many Ministries , this church had no agenda other than ” Knowing Christ and making him known ” We do this with sacred actions rather than words . Our doors are open to all regardless of any condition what so ever .
      No one will even mention religion . We are prepared to provide Individual , Couples , and Family Therapy at sliding scale which can be as low as 0 depending on the circumstances . We are also able to provide referrals for other needs . We hope to become operational by the end of

      January , 2015 .
      I couldn’t do this without the support of Our Church .
      As a Mental Health Professional , I have both provide and received counseling services . The counseling I ever had came from Mother Cynthia and other members of the congregation . Like Jesus , we cone to serve -not to be served . Some Veterans may find Pastoral Counseling to be helpful . Some may not . That is OK . The counseling being offered is strictly based on Best Mental Health Practices and the experience of our Providers . We are not looking for recruits for our Church . There is no barrier or agenda in our plan other than to provide concrete help to those in need . Come one Come all to our door . Your Confidentiality is strictly respected .
      We thank all who have served and we include the Families and Caregivers in our Outreach .
      Contact me , Mark C Razook LCSW molamark@aol.com for more information or to make an appointment . We are joined by Veterans Counseling Veterans out of Tampa FL in this effort .
      to review my Credentials , go to Mark Razook LCSW on LinkedIn .
      Veterans ! Welcome Home and accept the heartfelt gratitude of your fellow Veterans and Our Community for your Courage and Service to The United States of America . Hope to see you .
      Mark and Jeanne

  2. Arthur Louis Finnell says:

    This is the first I have heard about this and think it would be some thing that could be of use in Minnesota. IT sounds simple enough that it should be easy to organize. IT is needed and could help a lot of men and women out . I am so interested in finding out more

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