This June, CT drew attention to veterans’ experiences in the cover story “Formed by War.” To continue the discourse sparked by that story, alongside the Centurions Guild, CT is hosting an online series called Ponder Christian Soldiers. (Read the introduction to the series here, and the following installments here, here, here, and here.) The following essay is from Zachary Moon, a military chaplain currently serving with the Marines and author of Coming Home: Ministry That Matters with Veterans and Military Families (Chalice).
We were back at Camp Wilson, deep inside Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, Southern California. With its rudimentary structures for sleeping, eating, hygiene, and church services, it was not civilization, but it was more than we’d had in a while. We sat on metal benches waiting for hamburgers, sipping on sodas, and sucking in the conditioned-cool air. We wore the dusty grime and smells of desert living, and a real shower was still three days away.
Working together in the same battalion, we had known each other for more than two years—an eternity in an ever-rotating military. He was a junior officer with multiple deployments, and I was the chaplain. He was different from other officers I had known: always smiling his big goofy grin, persistently willing to risk his own neck for every Marine in his charge, and wanting to collaborate and learn from others.
I had seen him almost every day as I moved from position to position, visiting different units. He had recently taken command of one of the artillery batteries, and now more than 150 Marines were his responsibility. It was not his first command, but leading a new unit always takes adjustment, and he was figuring it out.
Right now, though, something else was going on; some burden was weighing on him. He was on edge. Over burgers, we talked. The officer confided:
When I got back from Afghanistan I was all right. I mean, I had seen a lot, been through some things over there. A little PTSD when I got back, but nothing too serious. But I don’t know what happened. Those Marines who died in that helicopter crash while training—I knew some of those guys.
Then a week before we came out here, I was driving, and there was a crash up ahead. I got out and ran up to the vehicle. I got the driver out and cleared his airway. He was making this gurgling sound, from his throat. The blood was in there and ... just this gurgling. The smell of the wrecked vehicles, burned metal and melted tires. His blood was on me. Some of it got in my mouth. I can still taste it. That taste and the smells. I was right back in the s--- of battle. Why did his blood get in my mouth?!
The accident that had taken eight Marines' lives, combined with the officer's role in rescuing a motorist, had awakened his compartmentalized pain and deferred grief from his previous deployments in Afghanistan.
Then, within the first 24 hours out in the field, a 7-ton truck rolled over the foot and leg of one of his Marines. It could have been much worse; the soft desert sand gave way just enough to save the limb. But it didn’t matter that it could have been worse. These Marines were under his care, his protection. Training is dangerous. And Marines are mortal.
Courage, Compassion, and Creativity
I am grateful that he entrusted his story to me and that we know each other as friends. As a military chaplain I have accompanied some of the most extraordinary human beings I will ever meet in some of the worst possible circumstances. This ministry is deeply humbling.
Both Christian theologians and military officials have doctrine: a guiding principle or set of beliefs that organize and define how things are or ought to be. My doctrine in this ministry is to meet service members where they are, treating their struggles with respect, and discerning with them their strengths and resources in responding to those struggles.
In order to do this faithfully, I need to pay particular attention to three innate human capacities: courage, compassion, and creativity. Many servicemembers don’t have an active relationship with a church, but I have seen how God is present and working in their lives. In bearing witness to their resilience, we recognize that God is present with us in the face of suffering and desires to make us whole.
Too often, society is divided in its vision of veterans. One side organizes parades for the “heroes,” while the other pities the “head-cases” as victims of their combat experience. Neither of these narratives allows for the full story to be told. Those who have served in the military are not one or the other; to say a military veteran is a hero or a head-case is to say that they are not like me—which increases distance and isolation from non-servicemembers. No matter the motivation for the branding, it sets veterans apart and intensifies the challenges facing many of us who have served.
But the Christian tradition offers other frameworks that retain servicemembers' dignity and deserving. Christians can meet each person where they are, respect their struggles even when they aren’t our own, and hear their stories as accounts of survival and resilience even when they are rough around the edges or seem to be spoken in a foreign language. We can listen for evidence of their courage, compassion, and creativity. And we can witness how God is calling us into relationships not bound by our understanding, familiarity, or comfort—but made possible because with God all things are possible.
That afternoon at Camp Wilson, and more times than I can count, I have seen God in the faces of these Marines. The stress of traumatic events rattles vulnerable humans. But the resilience of the junior officer who shared his experiences with me over burgers and sodas was obvious and inspiring. His leadership and actions beyond the field made visible his courage, compassion, creativity. My responsibility was to meet those in kind and to bolster his moral foundations. He needed to be accompanied with steadfast love and patience, with grace-filled compassion and mercy, and with trustworthy resolve and gentle humor. Such ministry does not require perfect knowledge or technique, but authenticity and lasting friendship.
We want to invite conversation about the experiences of veterans. If you have a story to share, or a question to ask, direct those to Centurions Guild founder Logan Isaac at logan[at]centurionsguild.org.