I wore chains just like these for over six years, a burden too great to bear for many like me, who stood ready to do violence in the name of the American people and way of life. In Genesis, Cain was the first person to have killed another human being, and we’ve been doing it ever since. As punishment, Cain was sentenced to a life of wandering, a burden he claimed was too great to bear.
After the towers fell a decade ago, I reenlisted and was deployed overseas with an infantry platoon for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004. Wandering the Mesopotamian wilderness like Cain before me, I saw things nobody should ever have to see. My heart hardened in the desert heat like the mud bricks I watched cure in the Iraqi sun.
After coming home, I found war had infected my mind. Images and memories from Iraq would haunt my dreams and invade my thoughts. Not too different from the suffering endured by American & Iraqi families who have lost someone to war, I too lost someone on the field of battle – myself. I had sacrificed more than I bargained for, a lifetime of mental health and well-being forever crushed by the heavy yolk I bore as a combat soldier.
Not long after I came home, I began experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress. By trading my humanity for nationalism, I had begun down the descending spiral of violence, which threatened to corrode the very fabric of my moral character. The things I did and failed to do were nearly my undoing… and I was not alone in my despair.
Service members are falling on their own swords in greater numbers than are falling to the sword. In July, there were more active duty suicides than there were days in the month. The number of veteran suicides is higher than our nation has ever experienced. They end their own lives at a rate of 17 every day…
Bearing more the mark of Cain, we cry out that our burden is too great, the likeness of God having been tarnished by repeated deployments, moral fragmentation, and the deafening silence that too often greets us upon our return.
BUT… out of the parched soil of my soul sprouted a seed of hope. In the midst of night sweats, hyper-vigilance, and invasive memories, I foud Jesus, or rather, He found me, and issued me a new set of marching orders. As a Christian soldier, I was called to embrace, not eviscerate, my enemies – to lay down my rifle and pick up my cross.
Infantry units have a name for the ceremony performed when an old commander makes way for a new one; it’s known as a “Change of Command.” In the church, when our heavenly Commander replaces our earthly ones, we call it baptism; a time of rebirth in which Saint Peter reminds us, in the book of Acts, that we pledge a new allegiance to obey God rather than men. The Church calls this change of life-direction metanoia, or “repentance,” for which baptism serves as the outward expression.
When I was reborn in 2006 on July 4th, I entered a new kind of company, one that fights not with rifle and sword, but with faith, hope and love. My infantry commander was not happy to hear that I could never again pick up a weapon while I bore my cross, but I had to obey my heavenly Commander rather the officers appointed above me.
My refusal commit violence against my neighbors, however, is not new in the Church. It was a cadence repeated by a number of soldier saints throughout its history, most notably the patron of soldiers and chaplains, Saint Martin of Tours.
Martin was born in 316 CE, named after Mars, the Roman god of war. As a teenager, he was conscripted into the Roman army and served in the elite Praetorian Guard, reporting directly to Caesar. One freezing day in 336, he split the cape that identified his martial prestige in two in order to clothe a freezing beggar. That night, he had a vision of Jesus before the heavenly host, saying, “Here is Martin, who has clothed me.” The next day, he ran off to get baptized. Years later, when he found himself on the eve of war at the Battle of Worms, he told the most powerful man in the world;
“I am a soldier of Christ, I am not allowed to fight!”
Jailed for cowardice, the seditious centurion suggested he be sent to the front lines unarmed, protected by the sign of the cross, not by helmet and shield. Overnight, a peace treaty was reached, and he was discharged as a conscientious objector.
Following the path of enemy love in a world of enemy-fear never goes over well. My infantry captain accused me of helping the enemies of America. My pastor suggested that I was abandoning the women and children I swore to protect as a soldier to militant Muslims. On a mental status evaluation included in my request for status as a conscientious objector, a psychiatrist diagnosed me with “Adjustment disorder;” having failed to adapt to the military (after more than five years on active duty and three combat decorations). Go figure. Jesus didn’t say it’d be easy…
After some time as a priest, our friend Martin was acclaimed Bishop of Tours on July 4th, 370 CE, defending the faith until his death 26 years later. He died and was buried on November 11th, which to this day is not just Veterans Day, but Martinmas, a day to feast this curious conscientious objector to war. His witness is a reminder that the motto of Christian soldiers, like that of the military chaplaincy, is pro deo et patria, “For God & country” … (in that order)
Let us follow this subversive centurion in the way of Jesus, our ultimate Commander and the last, best hope for human kind. There is an entire guild of contemporary centurions marching to the beat of a different drummer, a Prince that grants peace nothing like that of Rome. War has been conquered, it is over, if we want it…