By Doc Arnett
William J. Allen III grew up dreaming of being a soldier. The small town native of northwest Missouri wore camos as a kid and talked about God and country. Everyone who knew him knew that he would some day enlist in the military. Soon after high school graduation, he joined the Marine Corps.
Still in love with the idea of his dream, boot camp went well, although he didn't like some aspects of the combat training. "They tell us to yell, 'Kill! Kill!'" he wrote his mother. "But I'm not going to be like that." Perhaps William remembered the urging of Moses (Deut 30:19) to the people of Israel to "choose life" and therefore made his own commitment, "I'm going to respect life." That respect took a hard hit when he encountered the harsh-fanged reality of street combat at An Nasiriyah.
The realities of the war there turned his dream into nightmares. Confronted in combat by hostile fighters using women and children as living shields, his training forced him to destroy whatever or whoever was between him and an active enemy. But his training in no way prepared him for the psychological aftermath.
After a dishonorable discharge, repeated jailings and months of begging his mother, "Please, don't think of me as a monster," William ingested a lethal combination of pills and booze in March of this year.
While most do not join in his choice of suicide, this young soldier has many former comrades in arms who struggle to deal with their combat roles and to reconcile what they may have done with their emerging understandings of the teachings of Christ. Our attempts to honor them as veterans may have the opposite of the intended effect.
Parades and flowers, speeches and salutes, patriotic songs and tributes are all intended to convey gratitude and respect. Oddly, in the fervor of these events and our attempts to honor military members, we may find ourselves unintentionally increasing the pain of those who struggle with the aftermath of their participation in combat.
While some may never regret having shed the blood of their enemies, regardless of the circumstances, others are tortured by these memories.
How do they feel when asked to stand up in church and be recognized? Do the accolades of others make some of these men and women feel even more isolated and condemned? Is there ever an invitation for those who feel the burden of conviction for their military actions to come to Jesus for cleansing and healing?
Our patriotic celebrations make no distinctions in individual experience of the uniform. Some soldiers come back with no apparent regrets, no apparent grief, no apparent emotional damage, and no apparent guilt. Others come back racked by all of the above. If we want to honor them as well as the others, we might do better than simply offer the customary clichés of gratitude and congratulations.
We might want to offer them the healing grace of the blood of Christ, reminding them that God's mercy is as abundant and powerful as is his love, removing our sins "as far as the east is from the west." (Psalm 103:11-12) And while teaching them the liberation that comes being forgiven, we might also teach them about the freedom that comes from forgiving your enemies and doing good to those who have despitefully used you.
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Doc Arnett works at Highland Community College in Kansas and lives with Randa, his wife of twenty years. They are pastors currently in between congregations. Visit his Devotion blog at docarnett.wordpress.com
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