Reflection: The Men and Women Who Serve

John Heffernan, OFM Features


For Veterans Day, Nov. 11, a chaplain at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., recounts his experience with military personnel, praying for those who continue to suffer the effects of conflict, as well as for those protected by the military, that they may not squander veterans’ generous sacrifices.

Adam Makos has written a book called “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship and Sacrifice.” It is a story about two U.S. Navy pilots who became friends across the racial divide during the Korean War. The story relates in moving drama their unlikely bond, the battles they fought together, and a daring rescue mission that changed their lives.

The two men in the story belong to what we call the Greatest Generation. They are members of the august veterans of the Second World War and Korean War era. Theirs is an inspiring drama. One would be hard pressed to read it and not be envious of the personal demands and rewards of this way of life. I know that I was deeply moved.

At present, I serve as a contract chaplain at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, arguably the foremost military health facility in the country. While ministering there for more than three years, I have come to know veterans and their family members who have been associated with various conflicts over the past 60 or even 70 years. I also meet many who served in what would be called a peacetime era.

In this reflection, it is worth noting that our society has developed particular impressions and has made various associations about veterans from these recent eras of military conflict. These have been both positive and negative judgments. Generally, I describe those eras as the Second World War and the Korean War, the Vietnam War and, by skipping over Cold War conflicts and events, arrive at the two most recent Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

Each of these periods of war is surrounded by vastly different circumstances and outcomes. Those who served in them have been affected uniquely and differently from those who served in others. As a result, it is no surprise that our society looks upon the veterans of these various wars with distinct glasses, whose lenses may recognize varying degrees of success, failure, valor, disillusionment and patriotism. These lenses have, at times, contributed to the distress of the returning veteran and at other times mitigated, however slightly, the damaging effects of conflict.

The Damaging Effects of Conflict
We have learned, as a people, many things about war and its effects on those who serve in them. An incomplete list of these effects would include folks like my own father, who returned from combat duty in the Second World War and the Korean War and did not speak of them. Other veterans from those eras responded in any number of manners to the shock of death, torture or imprisonment that is part of all conflict.

That generation was recognized as being heroic and super patriotic while serving for a common cause. Surely this public welcome contributed to a particular sense of one’s self on return.

Regrettably, those women and men who returned from Vietnam experienced not only physical harm, but environmental contamination, psychological damage and the tragic sadness of being misunderstood and judged by society post combat. This cohort may have been the most tragically treated group of veterans since the Civil War.

The men and women who return from the latest and current conflicts have experienced tremendous personal physical injury, controversial opinions on strategy and tactics, and an ever-broadening quantity and quality of psychological trauma.

Indeed, this last cohort is the beneficiary of the public’s unjustly harsh treatment of Vietnam War era veterans and has been welcomed home in a manner that many find patronizing and, at times, misplaced. Nevertheless, today’s public has come to learn something of the power of the sacrificial service of women and men offer in the military.

A Generous Gift
I have learned various things visiting patients at Walter Reed, which I wish to offer as personal reflection. Some of the patients I visit are active duty military personnel, but most are retired veterans and their family members.

On occasion, I have had the heavy responsibility of attempting to alleviate the post-combat guilt of a service person. This is typically a serious sense of culpability not easily unburdened. Hearing another tell a story of being in the grip of combat, the necessary responsibility toward comrades, responsibility to the rules of engagement and of an acutely aware moral compass has led me more than once to feel my own personal complicity in this conflict.

I — we — have sent others off to guard our nation and our national interest. All of us presume to continue to enjoy the way of life we have grown to treasure. If I don’t go myself, I am sending another who takes on my own and my country’s burden of combat. This is our war, whether we signed the orders or given that authority to another.

I do not know how to be an effective political activist in regard to these matters. Therefore, I pray that compassion may bring new life and hope to the sister or brother who is bent low under the hellishness of war and its brutal suffering. I pray that I, and we, do not squander this generous gift that others have given.

Military Culture and Religious Life
Another reflection I more gladly behold is the recognition of the many ways that military culture bears a striking resemblance to religious life. The service (which alone would be sufficient), dedication and sacrifice, brotherhood, commitment, sense of duty, responsibility, and trust in God are some of the numerous characteristics of both organizations. Military service personnel are imbued with a sense of responsibility for fellow members of their squad or crew, and in a sense, their larger assigned unit or ship. All effort and care is expended for the other, for God, and for the service corps, in that order. As religious brothers, we may change the hierarchy of that motivation, but we would be hard pressed to surpass the passion.

In closing, I wish to add passion to Adam Makos’ subtitle characteristics of “heroism, friendship and sacrifice.” These traits describe well the life and work of a friar. I thank these brothers and sisters for these marks of humanity that they proudly embody. May God keep them safe and enlighten us all with understanding of the gift they have shared at great abandon.

john-heffernenFr. John, a chaplain at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, has been a friar for 30 years. He is currently stationed in Silver Spring, Md.

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a current event, holiday, holy day, or other seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at

Related Links