A Catholic veteran searches for meaning after war
“The world seemed so certain that being a veteran meant knowing something, but I was convinced my own military experience hadn’t taught me anything.”
In the beginning, there was the word. And the word was with God, and the word was God. My faith journey has taken me around the globe. From the Catholic town of St. Louis, to Guantanamo Bay, to Spain, to the Holy Land, to Bahrain, Afghanistan, and back home again. Through eschatological excitation, fervent hope, doubt, despair, agnosticism, grief, resignation, and cautious belief, what brings me back to Mass are the words, the familiar words.
Sometimes I repeat the old words, a stubbornness that was hardened in me during my time in the Marine Corps. Kyrie eleison. One in being with the Father. Agnus Dei. Peace be with you, and also with you. Wherever I have been in the world, and wherever I may go, the universal words, the catholic words, are the same.
In a few days, America will celebrate one of its high civic holy days—Veteran’s Day. I’ll get free food at restaurants, text messages from friends thanking me for my service, posts on my Facebook wall. I represent something that is honored in America—military service and sacrifice.
Americans try to find the sacred in military service members, in military virtue. We struggle to perfect that ritual. I’ve been watching it play out in the debate over the president’s phone calls to a Gold Star family, in John Kelly’s speech in front of the White House Press Corps, and over Bowe Bergdahl’s sentencing. Americans are desperate for military service members to act as the nation’s priests, to guide the country to patriotic grace and to be a conduit of American sacraments, bestowing civic spirit. It is this search for the sacred that elevates debate on these issues to fever pitch.
But as one of those veterans in whom America vests its patriotic hopes, I haven’t been able to find for myself the peace which Americans seek. I looked for it in the Marine Corps. I prayed it would come to me in Afghanistan. Now I’m searching for it out in the mountains of Montana, and I’m still looking. That journey started nine years ago, in 2008, when I left my home in St. Louis as an idealistic, rash 19-year-old for Marine Corps Recruit Training in San Diego.
Faith sustained me during my first years in the Marine Corps. At boot camp, services were the single escape from the constant oversight of our intense drill instructors. When I got in trouble in Guantanamo Bay and was placed on restriction, I was still allowed to go to Mass unaccompanied. I remember that Christmas in 2009; the Filipino people who worked on the base sang Christmas carols in Tagalog.
But as I clung to the familiarity of the Mass, the comfort of the words, I was also being indoctrinated deeper and deeper into the faith of the Marine Corps, the near religious fervor of brotherhood and violence. I came to love the Marine Corps, the institution complete with its own rituals and rich history of martyrs and heroes. John Basilone and Chesty Puller became as familiar to me as Paul of Tarsus or Ignatius of Loyola.
A young infantryman, I grew to believe in the redemptive, transformative power of violence as deeply as I believed in my own Catholic faith. The two intermingled with one another, each amplifying the other. I wanted to be born again, not just in Christ, but in kill.
I prayed for the opportunity to prove myself in combat, to fully join the brotherhood of the Marine Corps. Just as the grace conferred in baptism had to be affirmed at confirmation, I was baptized into the Marine Corps during boot camp, but it would take my conduct in war to confirm that identity.
The height of religious ecstasy, both of my newfound faith in the Marine Corps and the faith of my birth, Catholicism, came as we toured Christianity’s holiest sites in Israel, on liberty during a training exercise with the Israel Defense Forces.
We visited a hill called Har Meggido. There, our tour guide, who made no attempt to hide his political beliefs, gave us a speech that my brothers in that unit still talk about—the Children of Light speech. He called us warriors in a holy war, a war against darkness that had been going on for millennia. Later, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I knelt and prayed at the slab where it is said Christ’s body was laid.
In hindsight, what happened next was obvious. I’d been on religious retreats before, where faith and emotion get ratcheted up, then, as time passes, the intensity fades. For me the fall off this time was more dramatic, and it took place during my deployment to Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, we killed. My brother Marines were wounded, or died, the poor farmers suffered, the Taliban planted bombs in the roads—and all for what? The war seemed timeless, endless, a carousel of pain, loss, and conflict, and for what? While American farmers ran million dollar GPS-enabled self-driving tractors, the Afghan opium farmers knocked holes in dirt canals to flood their fields by hand. The blood of American and Afghan citizens that soaked into the ground seemed to escape God’s notice.
There was no progress, no promise of redemption in Afghanistan. I had hoped that I would be transformed into something new. Not only was that hope disappointed, but in my failure to be transformed, the arrogance of my previous hope came crashing down upon me. God didn’t seem to care what happened in the deserts, north of the mountains on the Pakistan border. And how could I have been so conceited to think that war was a place for personal refinement?
Doubt, anger, anxiety, resentment, and apathy took hold when I returned home. I stopped going to church. I thought to myself that if anyone needed forgiveness, it was God, not me. God ought to weep for the pain caused through callousness, inattention, or even malice. If God could feel at all, the cold, pitiless bastard, I hoped it was pain.
As I struggled to find community outside the Marine Corps, I found it hard to reconnect with the America to which I had come home. There was something rotten in the community of believers. Not Catholics, but Americans. I had looked for the sacred in the brotherhood of the Marine Corps and in the violent crucible of war but hadn’t found it.
This failure cast deep doubts on my faith and relationship with the church. The words, the words I had always taken for granted, that had always brought me home, felt empty and hollow. I stopped going to church.
But my friends, my family, America, didn’t seem to notice that I didn’t have any special revelation. Quite the opposite. They looked at me now as if I knew something they didn’t, as if I had access to something sacred they did not. Not just myself, but all veterans.
I saw it on cable news, in the newspapers, on Facebook, and on Twitter. There hardly seemed to be an issue on which Americans weren’t actively seeking and deferring to veterans’ opinions. Retired generals lined up to support presidential candidates on both sides. Panels on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC were crammed with former officers, Special Forces, Navy SEALs. New veteran-owned companies didn’t just hawk T-shirts and coffee, but a lifestyle, a brand that proclaimed that combat experience revealed what it meant to truly be American.
The world seemed so certain that being a veteran meant knowing something, but I was convinced my own military experience hadn’t taught me anything. I was anxious and isolated. I felt angry and alone.
The inability to reconnect poisoned my relationships. A year and a half after buying a house together in south St. Louis, my wife and I separated. So on New Year’s Day I took a journey west on I-90, west like so many Americans before me, chasing freedom in the vast expanse of plains and mountains.
The American West has always been a holy place in my imagination—a place first for pioneers, then workers, then seekers of visionary angels like Kerouac and Ginsberg. In the mountain lakes and streams, in the months of snow, in the anonymity of a new small town, I hoped I’d find that thing I had been looking for, the thing that had eluded me in Afghanistan, that connection that would finally make me feel whole and complete.
I hiked the trails, floated the rivers, hunted, and wrote, all the things I came to Montana to do, but I still felt lost. My back porch faces the parking lot of a Catholic church, and on Sunday mornings I’d smoke cigarettes and watch, angry for no reason, as obedient Catholics filed into Mass. Until one Sunday I decided to stumble in there myself.
On the corner of 11th and Kagy, across from the Brick Breedan Fieldhouse (the only concert venue in town) and catty corner to the college football stadium, is Resurrection University Catholic Parish. To the north are the Bridger Mountains—the farmers in the valley know not to plant in the spring until the last snow melts from their peaks. To the south are the Spanish Peaks, part of the Madison Range, the western border of the Yellowstone ecosystem. Between these two ranges lies the Gallatin Valley.
On Sunday mornings, after a cup of coffee and too often shaking off the whiskey shakes from the night before, I walk through the snow pack in the back of my apartment complex and hop the short fence that separates my complex from the parish parking lot. Inside I’ll see Father Val, greeting each family by name, the Hispanic families in perfect, albeit accented, Spanish. Depending on the time of year, he may be sporting a white beard. During football season, after Mass he’ll don either a Pittsburgh Steelers beanie or, if the Bobcats won that week, a Montana State University cap. The opening week of football in September Champ, the Montana State mascot, will visit and process out with Father Val during the recessional hymn.
The holy words of the Mass have been a comfort to me. They place me, center me in the familiar and the sacred. The ritual, almost mantra-like nature of traditional prayers calms my anxiety and doubts. When I first started having panic attacks, I turned to the rosary.
I don’t know if I truly believed when I dug out the old beads; I don’t know if I truly believe now. But when I struggled, the words were there: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Our Father, who art in heaven.
Outside of the safe confines of church or the comfort of my bed, rosary in hand, I’ve looked for the same sacredness in the world that I find in the words. That journey led me to join the Marine Corps and, when I got out, it led me to Montana. I’ve faced obstacles along the path: my own fears, my misplaced faith, and pressures to fulfill a priestly role in American civil religion. I’ve stumbled, struggled, failed, wallowed, and begun to search again. I’m still looking for the sacred out in the world. Until I find it, I have the words. Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps, photo by Cpl. Fareeza Ali/USMC