Reluctant Warrior

I love Assisi and the Military Veterans Pilgrimage. It’s helped to make me whole. In the spring of 1972 my life was interrupted by a draft notice. I was opposed to war then and now. I think there are better solutions to conflict and quite frankly it frightened me. The thought of a bullet or bomb ending my life wasn’t pleasant. I like to think I’m as patriotic as anyone else and I get tearful and goose bumps when I hear the National Anthem, America the Beautiful or My Country ‘Tis of Thee. In the spring of ‘72 I had a decision to make. Was I going to war or run away to Canada? Was I going to be a conscientious objector? I chose military service. I joined the United States Naval Reserve as a Hospital Corpsman. 

I left for recruit training on August 23, 1972. I was scared. I thought this was the beginning of the end of my young life. Through the rigors of recruit training I found a way to help as I was appointed “Education Petty Officer.” I got the slow learners through. In the process of helping others I helped myself. I formed friendships and became part of the United Stares Navy. I looked handsome in my ‘whites’ and ‘dress blues.’ I fit in as a reluctant warrior. I did well. I carried the National Ensign at graduation from ‘boot camp.’ I was chosen for my military bearing. Imagine that, a reluctant warrior with poise and bearing. 

I went on to Corps School at Great Lakes where I excelled, finishing 8th in a class of 68 other women and men. Upon graduation I left Great Lakes and my shipmates and over the next two years served with honor and distinction at two Naval medical facilities. I worked OB/Gyn and the newborn nursery at a dispensary at a Naval Air Station that no longer exists. I assisted in the delivery of babies, took care of new mom’s and their newborns. I loved what I did. 

In the midst of that my father died. I still remember the senior chief delivering the sad news. I remember walking back to my barracks that night in tears. The chief told me I could go home early but I chose to complete my shift in the newborn nursery. The little people assuaged my grief. Emergency leave followed and then back to duty. Soon after that a Middle East war put us on full alert. DEFCON 3, all leaves and liberty cancelled. I was frightened. The specter of war, combat and death became very real. I spent most of my waking hours in the chapel praying.

Eventually the emergency passed and there was a stand down from the alert. A no cost transfer put me closer to my mother and home. I spent the next year at the Naval Submarine Medical Center in Groton, Connecticut. I worked in the surgical clinic, drove ambulance, made petty officer third class and was named Command Sailor of the Quarter in July 1974. January 1975 I returned to civilian life. I stayed active in the Naval Reserve for two more years and did well their too. Eventually I was honorably discharged in June 1978. Despite my record of service I always felt less than, I’d never been in combat. I answered my country’s call in time of war, but in my own mind I was conflicted. I felt like an impostor. I joined the American Legion briefly a couple of times but didn’t seem to fit. I looked for peace and worked whenever I could to promote it. Few people ever thanked us Vietnam era veterans for our service. In fact the first time I got publicly recognized and thanked was in 1999 at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes dinner in Erie, PA. The speaker was Clebe McClary, a highly decorated double amputee who was the dinner speaker. It felt good to stand and be applauded. 

The Gulf War in 1991 changed that. Americans began demonstrably show their respect for veterans. I was opposed to the War in Iraq and wrote President Bush a number of letters asking him to reconsider. One day I got a reply from the White House stating that the President appreciated my letters but knew what was best for the country. I continued to advocate for peace and took part in a number of prayer vigils to that end. I never disrespected the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who took part. I felt a kinship with them that only veterans can full appreciate. I frequently prayed for young men and women in our community who answered the call to serve.

Then came late April 2018 when a neighbor suggested I join some area veterans who were part of a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. Even though I signed up only two weeks prior to departure I was soon on a plane to Rome where I met the leaders of the Military Pilgrimage for Veterans. I met the leaders, Fr. Conrad Torganski, OFM (a veteran US Navy Chaplain who served with the US Marines. Bill Reese, a Lutheran minister and combat veteran of Vietnam and Greg Masiello a PTSD specialist and combat veteran. I met fellow veterans who served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Still the impostor syndrome persisted until I met a veteran from Maine who said, ‘You got nothing to be ashamed of. You took the same oath of enlistment as the rest of us. You put your life on the line for your country but you just didn’t end up in a war zone.’ Slowly that powerful statement began to change me. Returning home from the pilgrimage last year I read Greg Masiello’s book about PTSD. In the past year I’ve had a number of health challenges and after one of them I became determined to return to Assisi.

I contacted a fellow veteran who also wanted to go and we began to plan. Returning to Rome and Assisi occupied my focus for most of the winter and early spring. I read more books about Assisi. I traveled to Arizona to visit family and while there read The PTSD Solution which the author believes is not a disorder but an moral and psychic injury. In the process I’ve come to believe that I too have the post traumatic stress injury and that my service was not less than but equal to everyone else. It’s been an epiphany, a homecoming. It took forty-seven years for this reluctant warrior to accept that my service put me on the same footing with everyone else. I owe those insights and liberation to the Veterans of the Military Pilgrimage. I recommend it to you or anyone you know who served in the military.

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The Good Journey

As we parted company this morning my friend John said, ‘Donald, this has been the good journey.’ Indeed it has and in the space of nine days we traveled over ten thousand miles via jet aircraft, taxi, bus and on foot. In the process we became united with a group of American veterans whose ages spanned at least sixty years. The oldest member of our group was an octogenarian and the youngest were in their mid-twenties.

We are veterans of Vietnam and that era, Iraq, Afghanistan and everything in between. Geographically we came from all over the Unites States. We were diverse in every way and yet we shared the common bond of military service. We who have experienced the horrors of war enjoyed moments of peace that were beyond words. People who never met prior to nine days ago are now united by a common experience of pilgrimage in some of the most beautiful areas of Rome, Assisi and its environs.

Already we are planning how we might share this unique pilgrimage experience with others. If you’re a veteran of military service and you are searching for healing then Veterans of the Military Pilgrimage should be on your radar. Peace and all good.

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We Happy Few

As the sun sets on our pilgrimage and on the horizon I’m filled with gratitude for a week of healing and peace. A week ago most of us had never met and now seven days later we are united by the common experience of a journey that took us from Rome to Poggio Bustone, Greccio, St. Mary of the Angels, LaVerna and Assisi and many other villages and hamlets along the way. In June of 1972 my enlistment in the United States Naval Reserve seemed full of uncertainties. It was a disruption or so I thought to my life up to that moment. Little did I realize that I was embarking on a journey that would bring to Rome and Assisi twice in as many years. Nor did I imagine that I was joining a select fraternity of women and men with whom I would feel kinship that transcends time, family and place. As I look across the Spoleto Valley tonight I am grateful for my good fortune and my record of service that has invited me to this sacred place and to relationship with the wonderful folks I’ve been privileged to associate with this week. Frequently friends and relatives thank me for my service but little do they realize what they are saying nor the impact that service has had on our lives. Until you experience the trauma of moral injury and it’s consequences you can’t really appreciate the gravity of military service. Those of us who have worn the uniform of military service and faced a common peril together are bonded forever. We are a band of brothers and sisters

From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered – We few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. – Shakespeare

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A Memorial To Remember

Our morning began with colazione at Casa Papa Giovanni then a short meeting on the rooftop. We walked together along a beautiful trail single file with breathtaking views of Assisi below and to our right. It was a mindful walk of veterans accompanied by Candace Clemens who is a Gold Star mother. We stopped briefly to catch a breath and then on to the precipice of Rocca Maggiore. We stopped here in the shadow of a great fortress.

What followed was the most beautiful Memorial Day service I have ever attended. Fr. Conrad Torganski OFM led us in the singing of “On Eagles Wings” then Michele Trietley read Psalm 91. Michelle introduced Candace Clemens, Gold Star Mother of SSG Shawn Clemens who was killed in Afghanistan in January 29, 2004. It must have been very tough for her to recall the story of her last visit with her son and then recall the memories of his death and the family grief and mourning. Next, Shawn’s battle buddy Francisco Morales recalled his recollection of Shawn their shared service to our country and his death on the battlefield. Frank shared his own story of service and a series of events that led him to St. Bonaventure University and eventually being the guidance counselor Sergeant Clemens son who is now enrolled at St. Bonaventure in the ROTC program. As I looked around I saw many of us blinking back tears.

What followed at the invitation of Fr. Conrad was a litany of friends and family who had paid the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield. As each person shared I was struck by the solemnity and sacred nature of the moment. I will never forget this special morning on the mountainside overlooking the Spoleto Valley in Assisi, Italy where a Gold Star Mother and American veterans paid tribute to our fallen comrades.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” He. will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. – Psalm 91

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On the road to Assisi

The day began at 5:30 am as I rose to pack my bags and get ready for the bus. Then Eucharist in the chapel at Casa Tra Nois with Fr. Conrad celebrating. Then a quick colazione (breakfast) and boarding the bus. We left Rome and headed north stopping first at Poggio Bostone. Fr. Conrad shared the story of St. Francis and his journey to self forgiveness which is why he was attracted to Poggio Bustone and the Rieti Valley. Then he explained the significance of the Franciscan Tau Cross and invited each of us to come forward to receive our own crosses and the acceptance of ourselves symbolized by the cross. It was a poignant ceremony. Fr. Conrad and Rev. Bill Reese were available to hear those who needed to speak their truth and claim that forgiveness. There was a lot of healing on thst mountain this morning.

After a 90 minute visit we were on our way to Greccio and the site of the first celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. I love the chapel at Greccio. A sumptuous lunch followed in the nearby village. We ate a rich meal and the conversation flowed. Now we’re on the road to the Spoleto Valley and Assisi.

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Gratitude for the journey

It’s been only three days since our pilgrimage began and yet so much has happened. Thirty-five people who were only names on a roster have become formed together in a beautiful group with a shared memory. Our common bond as sisters and brothers of a shared experience of soldiers, sailors and marines has been the catalyst. Already there’s a kinship kindled and this unique group have become a band of sisters and brothers. There have been some highlights already for me. Yesterday at St. Peter’s I was overcome with the joy of the journey. Standing near the tomb of St. Peter and gazing as sunlight streamed through the windows I was overcome with a sense of awe and beauty. I knelt at “Peter’s Pence” facing the main altar and remembered our grandson Theo in prayer as well as his parents. I prayed for my brothers and sisters and their families as well as all creation. I wondered in the presence of the Holy Spirit that filled this place whether it would allow the destruction of our world with the climate crisis. I prayed for peace and felt a sense of hope and peace that surpassed my understanding. Perhaps my experience was more poignant having survived a pulmonary embolism last year. That’s certainly been on my mind. I’m grateful we got to share the Eucharist in this holy place. Pilgrimage is much different than a vacation. It’s been a time of restful, peaceful solitude. It’s been a balm for my soul.

Today we begin the day with Eucharist here at Casa Tra Nois in Rome and then we’re off to Assisi wandering through the Rieti Valley with stops in Poggio Bustone and Greccio I’ll have many wonderful memories of Rome among them our shared moments of peace, reflection and laughter. This has been the bona venture, the good journey of peace

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Next stop Rome

Next week I’ll be in Rome for the second time in my life. Last year I was able to attend a wonderful pilgrimage for veterans that took us to Rome and Assisi. I’d never visited either before and it was incredibly fulfilling to see Pope Francis, tour Rome, get lost in the Roman hills, see the Lateran Basilica and much more. It was the trip of a lifetime. When I looked out over the Spoleto Valley on the morning of May 21, 2019 I took a mental picture and one with my iPhone too. I was grateful to have spent the last week visiting Italy and trekking on this sacred ground once walked on by the apostles in Rome and St. Francis and his early companions in the Assisi and Tuscany.

While I was there last year I called a fellow veteran and long time friend and told him that he should go on this pilgrimage. He told me then. “I’ll go if you go Donald.” I filed that conversation away and it lay dormant for about six months. In late November of last year I survived another pulmonary embolism and atrial fibrillation. That first night in the hospital I said to myself, “I’m going back to Assisi.” I’m fortunate to have survived not one but two pulmonary embolisms in my life. I called my friend while still in the hospital and said, “I’m gong back to Assisi.” He replied, “I’ll join you.’ In the past six months we’ve been planning and anticipating and next week we’ll be there.

I’m filled with anticipation, excitement and gratitude. I’m praying that my friend John will have a blessed time on this pilgrimage. While I’m looking forward to Rome I’m really excited to be returning to Assisi and returning to Casa Papa Giovanni where we stayed last year. I’m longing to walk again the footsteps of St. Francis, St. Clare and the early Franciscans. Last year’s pilgrimage was deeply moving and sparked a spiritual and emotional transformation. I came to understand St. Francis not only as the seraphic father of the Franciscan order of which I am a part, but also as a fellow veteran and person who suffered from post traumatic stress.

I’m looking forward to meeting the many other veterans and their spouses who will be joining us. I’m eager to renew relationships with the leaders of the pilgrimage and with the wonderful hosts and people of Rome and Assisi. I’m eager to greet my companions with Buongiorno buona gente.

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