By Friar Ken Bartsch OFM Conv.
Chaplain at the VA Hospital in Louisville, KY
An elderly doctor at the VA, a veteran of Vietnam, remarking about the COVID epidemic, told me he still worked there because, “We lost that war, I’m not going to lose this one.”
Then he asked why I am still there. “I’m atoning for protesting the Vietnam War,” I said.
“You did the right thing!” he replied.
I suppose I am still protesting the war.
The Vietnam War has never ended in the VA. Some Veterans complain they were not allowed to win the war; some are still angry at Jane Fonda and Muhammad Ali. But I have not met many Veterans who thought that the war was worth fighting.
Occasionally a Veteran agonizes with me over what he did, saw, or suffered in the war zone. If it made sense at the time and in that place, it doesn’t anymore. Wars justify themselves while they last, but they don’t last long. The most hardened soldier, surviving, must return to the world of civility.
Does it help when I say, “You did what you were trained to do?” We chose these young men and women to represent us in a conflict. We trained them, armed them, and commissioned them, knowing full-well they were young, immature, and would do foolish things. Very often, they don’t want to tell us what happened, nor do we want to hear it.
One of our chaplains, a scholar who has researched moral injury, told me some Native American peoples created ritual ceremonies for reintegrating their warriors into village life. They not only welcomed and affirmed their braves, but they also accepted full responsibility for the butchery. But some American soldiers serving in Vietnam were back home a week after leaving the jungle.
A chaplain in a Veterans Affairs hospital meets Original Sin every day. There’s no point in protesting war, the military, or national defense. Members of a healing team recognize that their illness didn’t begin when they joined the military. Many were addicted to drugs, alcohol, and violence before they finished high school; many had suffered the divorce and estrangement of their parents; many already acclimated to a racist society. The oldest Veterans were given cigarettes and told to smoke if they expected to take a break. Why would you want a break if you don’t smoke?
The VA chaplain, representing no particular religion, offers spirituality to Veterans. The Catholic chaplain invokes the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. Because Catholics have a First Amendment right to the sacraments, the VA hires priest chaplains. In the rites of Eucharist, Reconciliation, and Anointing of the Sick, we encounter the dark mystery of Original Sin face to face — within COVID range — and the atoning mercy of grace. There is healing in His wings.