Veterans Day – Luke 17:11-19
I am not a veteran. I never served in the military. But I am the father of a veteran, of a combat veteran, and I think of him on this Veterans Day, which also happens to be the memorial of St. Martin of Tours, who was also a soldier.
Our oldest son, John, joined the Army National Guard and then was sent to Iraq and into combat. He and his unit were assigned to patrol the major supply route south of Baghdad, at night, getting shot at by Iraqis and returning fire and capturing those they could. Their base was repeatedly mortared. There were roadside bombs.
John came back more or less in one piece physically, though he has chronic problems with his shoulders and back, but he was a changed man interiorly, deeply changed, and this is what I want to praise today, this deep reorientation.
There are two things we can learn from soldiers, I think, as Christians, as followers of Our Lord, two things we can learn from St. Martin of Tours and my son John and all veterans.
The first is humility.
I’ve noticed that the people who talk about combat are the people who’ve never been in it. The people who’ve been in it talk about it very reluctantly, and when they do they don’t brag and they don’t make themselves into heroes, because they know how random and chaotic and terrible war is, and that good people are killed, and that you just do the best you can second to second, and that the people who come home aren’t better than anyone else or nobler than anyone else. They’re just the ones who survived.
The second thing I admire about soldiers is their devotion to the people around them.
I think people who join the military have all sorts of motives for joining, but there has to be at least an initial willingness to give yourself to something larger, and I think that’s very rare in this selfish culture of ours. And after a while, I’ve learned from John and other veterans, and from reading, this selflessness gets narrowed down, really focused. It’s not about ideas or abstractions. It’s about the person right next to you, and the person behind you. It’s about the people in your unit, in the trenches. You’ve got their back and they’ve got yours. You put them first and they put you first. You cover them. You depend on them.
And these are both Christian virtues, too, humility and devotion to others. We can learn from this in our private battles as believers.
It’s no accident that many of the saints were soldiers, like St. Martin of Tours, who was known for his personal humility, or St. Ignatius Loyola, or many others, and that so much of the language of faith uses metaphors from battle—that scripture itself is grounded in stories of war, and not just because it was written by people who happened to live in warlike cultures, because the Spirit spoke through them and their own particular values, but because at its heart Christianity depends on these soldierly virtues, on humility and self sacrifice, because our Lord himself was in that sense a veteran, in that sense a soldier: a soldier of humility, a soldier of sacrifice.
If you’ve ever talked to a veteran, to someone who has actually been at war, you know they have a different look in their eyes. I never thought I’d see this in my own son, but I have. It’s a sadness. It’s a wisdom.
I think the one leper in the gospel today, the one who thanked Jesus for healing him—he must have had that look in his eyes. He must have been a veteran.
O Lord, thank you for the service of people who have fought in wars. Thank you for their willingness to die to themselves, literally die, as the martyrs were willing to die and did die, and may we learn from them how to be devoted to others, and especially to those around us every day, the people in the passenger seat, the people at the kitchen table or the conference table or the counter at work, the people we know. May we put them first.
And in the face of the chaos we experience, in the face of the terrible and beautiful and complicated mystery of our own lives, may we have the humility of veterans, the wisdom to know what we don’t know, the wisdom to know our own weakness, our own dependence, on You and only You and on your Grace, which is endless, which is constant, in the heat of battle and in life and in death and always, every second of our lives.