John 15:12-13; Romans 8:35, 37-39
The Reverend Tom Herbek
November 15, 2015
A few years ago, there was a news report about an Army veteran named John Crabtree who had been receiving VA benefits. He had been wounded in Vietnam and was now on permanent disability. One day, out of the blue, he received an official notification from the government of his own death. Needless to say, this was quite a shock! Mr. Crabtree wrote the VA a letter stating that he was very much alive and would like to continue receiving his benefits. The letter did no good. He then tried calling the VA. The phone calls didn’t change the situation either. Finally, as a last resort, the veteran contacted a local television station, which ran a human-interest story about his situation. During the interview, the reporter asked him, “How do you feel about this whole ordeal?” The veteran chuckled and said, “Well, I feel a little frustrated by it. After all, have you ever tried to prove that you’re alive?”
For anyone who has suffered trauma, and specifically for our veterans who come home wounded – both physically and emotionally – we must help to create opportunities for them to prove to themselves and to society that they are still alive.
Veterans Day was a day ironically chosen because of the day when “the war to end all wars” came to an end, on November 11, 1918. That was 97 years ago. World War I did not end all wars. Sometimes I wonder what our world and our lives would have been like, if it had. Oh well, that is fantasy. The reality is that there are far too many veterans of far too many wars. The reality is that the cost of war is not just the terrible cost of those sons and daughters, spouses and parents, who never came back, but the loss of a part of themselves for those who did come back.
The returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are returning with service injuries to their bodies, their brains, and their psyches. One in five of these veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Many have not been able to find their way back into society. Part of the reason is that so few of our families in this country have been personally touched by this war. Less than 1% have had a relative serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. Unlike WWII, where our entire society welcomed home our vets and supported them, we have no rituals to welcome these veterans home, and our society’s support for them to reenter society has left much to be desired.
In our whole church family, we have only had a handful of people who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, compared with WWII, where there was a long list of men and women from this church family who had been touched by that war. Because our society has not been geared up to reintegrate these returning vets, to specifically say to them that “you are still alive,” there have been individuals who have creatively begun that process themselves.
In an article this past week in Time magazine, Joe Klein writes about such an effort. The article is entitled “Bringing the Good Fight Home.” He says: “90% of returning veterans want to continue their service in their communities back home.” Former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens came home and founded an organization which he called, “The Mission Continues.” It all began for Greitens with a trip to Bethesda Naval Hospital with his friend, Steve Culbertson, CEO of Youth Service America:
Steve Culbertson thought, as they moved from room to room, that if the rest of the parents of America could see the amputee ward, they would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow.
He was amazed that these wounded vets all wanted to return to their units but, because of the severity of their wounds, that wasn’t going to happen. Culbertson wondered what they would want to do if they could not return to active duty:
The question Steve really wanted to ask at this point was: “But what if you can’t go back because of your wounds? What would you do then?” That would be too bald, too cruel, though, so he began to ask them, “What do you want to do after you retire from the military?”
Many –a surprising number- said they wanted to work in the public sector: teach, coach, join the police or firefighters (given their wounds, these latter choices were unlikely). He began to discuss the work he did, getting young people involved in service to solve the problems the country faced– education, poverty, climate change, housing and so forth– and asked if they might be interested in doing something about that. Not one of them said no.
Culbertson and Greitens stayed for an hour or so. There was not a great aha moment, just the accretion of emotion and amazement at the strength of the young sailors and Marines…and the realization that if their strength wasn’t harnessed in some way, it might wither into hopelessness and depression. As he went from bed to bed, talking to men about their futures, Eric found himself saying, “Great. We still need you.”
It was a sledgehammer sentence. He could see it in their eyes. And he knew– he was absolutely convinced– that it was true: the country did need them. Despite their wounds– and because of their wounds– these veterans could come home and be examples, leaders,
After the visit to Bethesda, Eric called his friend Ken Harbaugh who was at Yale Law School, and they developed a plan. “I know what we’re going to do,” he told Ken. They would help wounded veterans to make the transition into civilian life by doing public service in their communities.
Over the next few months, Eric and Ken came up with a plan to offer fellowships- which sounded less academic and slightly more prestigious than scholarships- to wounded veterans who were willing to go out among the civilians and do some of the same sort of publicservice work they had done in the villages of Iraq and Afghanistan. To receive the stipend, they would have to find a local service organization to sponsor them and supervise their work. The core idea was there from the start: if they were helping other people, they might not want to spend so much time fretting about themselves. They might make new friends, make the transition to civilian life more easily, maybe even re-create the same sense of purpose they’d had in the military.
Joe Klein says, as he summarized at the end of the article:
That’s what I’ve learned from veterans I’ve met over the past five years: they thrive on the good feelings that come from helping others. They are a generation of volunteers, every one of them.
The Mission Continues has had more than a thousand fellows, and thousands more are working in local service platoons across the country.
In a time of rampant cynicism, they are a cause for real optimism about our future. And the example they set – of active, rather than passive, citizenship- points the way toward a more robust American democracy in the future. As Eric Greitens said, we thank them for their service. But we really do still need them.
-From Charlie Mike, by Joe Klein
Unless we, individually and as a society, find ways to help these returning vets prove to themselves and to us that they are still alive, then our society is going to lose them, and the depression and the suicides will continue.
Thank goodness for the VA Suicide Hotline, based right here in Canandaigua, that serves vets all over the country. Their expertise, compassion, and willingness to listen has saved thousands of lives. There are other organizations out there, creatively making a difference.
In 2012, Newsweek told the story of Team Rubicon during Hurricane Sandy. Missions to Haiti, Chile, Pakistan, and South Sudan initiated Team Rubicon in 2010. There were 22 missions in 2012 alone, bringing more than 4,500 veterans into the program. But the Sandy response was the biggest of all: 11 teams fanned out across New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, fixing roofs, clearing debris, and quarterbacking the recovery.
They’ve also mobilized for tornados in Alabama, Missouri, Texas, and across the Midwest, as well as hurricanes in Maryland and Louisiana. “This is a new model of veteran integration,” says co-founder William McNulty after the storm, as financial donations poured in. “I cannot tell you how good it feels,” another team member wrote in a letter home. “It’s as therapeutic as any drug the VA prescribed for mental health.”
On Veteran’s Day, we honored our veterans, we remembered their sacrifice, we gave them our thanks, and recognized what they have done for us. But let our honoring them, our remembering them, our thanking them, our recognizing them, not just be words alone on one day. Certainly it is important that we do these things, but let us also act. Let us help at the VA, volunteer with the Blue Star Mothers, write letters and send cards to both veterans and active duty personnel. Let’s have a bake sale for the families of those on active duty. Let’s support the efforts of the American Legion and VFW, and other groups to reach out and care for veterans in this community.
May this not be just a moment to remember. May it also be a moment when we pledge ourselves to some action, in some way, that will make a difference, even if only in the life of one veteran- to really show them our gratitude. Let us help to create programs, like Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues, that are new and different and creative.
Paul said that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” But if there is no one to put hands and feet and voices to that love, how can it be seen, how can it be felt, how can it be known? We live in a unique community. The people of Canandaigua, because of the presence of our VA Medical Center, are much more attuned to the needs of veterans than many communities are. So we need to take the lead.
Let us continue to find creative ways to help the vets in this community, to create opportunities so that they can prove to themselves that they are still alive. May we be the hands and feet and voices of God’s love for these extraordinary members of our society, who have each been willing to lay down their life for their friends. May we honor them and remember, and may we be companions on their journey to show that they are, indeed, still alive!