The military is in the news a lot these days. Fortunately, this is one day they’re getting well deserved attention for having served.
On Memorial Day 2006, I interviewed Lt. Col. Oliver North about the concepts of duty, honor, valor, self-sacrifice, and whether we still recognize that as a society or not. He proudly spoke about what sets the men and women apart who step up to serve, who pass the scrutiny of eligibility and then training and then the rigors of battle or any tour of duty they’re assigned. He was grateful to focus that attention on service members, because they represent the best of well-disciplined human qualities.
Service members I’ve either known or encountered publicly have embodied a certain dignity and integrity that stays ingrained in their character long after their service ends. Whenever I pass a man or woman in uniform at the airport or anywher else and say ‘Thank you for your service,’ they nearly always humbly say ‘Thank you for the thank you.’ Or, ‘Just doing my duty.’
Memorial Day is for remembering those who gave their lives in service, and Veterans Day is meant to honor all veterans. But both are also marked by appreciation for all the troops who serve now, or ever have.
So I add my personal gratitude to this national celebration. And some reflections on a few interviews I’ve done with authors about veterans who made a huge difference by their service. One common thread among many is their faith.
Fr. Vincent Capodanno, ‘The Grunt Padre.’
He gained a reputation for always being there–for always taking care of his Marines.
At 4:30 am, September 4th, 1967 , in the Thang Binh District of the Que-Son Valley, elements of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines found the large North Vietnamese Unit, approx. 2500 men, near the village of Dong Son. Operation Swift was underway. The out-numbered and disorganized Company D was in need of reinforcements. By 9:14 am, twenty-six Marines were confirmed dead. The situation was in doubt and another Company of Marines was committed to the battle. At 9:25 am, the 1st Battalion 5th Marine Commander requested assistance of two company’s of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines, “M”and “K” Company.
During those early hours, Chaplain Capodanno received word of the battle taking place. He sat in on the morning briefing at the 3rd Battalion’s Combat Operations Center. He took notes and listened to the radio reports coming in. As the elements of Company “M” and “K” prepared to load the helicopters. “Fr.Vince” requested to go with them. His Marines needed him. “It’s not going to be easy” he stated. As Company “M” approached the small village of Chau Lam, the North Vietnamese opened up on the 2nd Platoon, which was caught on a small knoll, out in the open. The fighting was fierce, hand to hand at times, and the platoon was in danger of being overrun. Father Capodanno went among the wounded and dying, giving last rites and taking care of his Marines. Wounded once in the face and suffering another wound that almost severed his hand, Father Capodanno moved to help a wounded corpsman only yards from an enemy machinegun. Father Capodanno died taking care of one of his men.
So did Adam Brown. Author Eric Blehm’s book Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown, is compelling and riveting and full of very human struggles and drama. But one standout account late in the book reveals the tender heart of a warrior well placed.
The two SEALs were always swapping books and having long talks about history, religion, politics, and war. The rest of their squadron ribbed them endlessly for watching hours of Book TV on deployments and training trips.
“What ya got going there?” John said from the doorway, lifting his chin toward the book.
“Tender Warrior,” Adam replied and showed John the cover. “You can read it; I’m almost done. Check this out,” he said, thumbing backward through the pages. “It was written by Stu Weber, a Vietnam veteran, Special Forces. He became a chaplain.” Stopping at a passage, he handed the book to John, who read,
“The Warrior function is…unmistakable in Scripture…Within the epistles, the mature believing man is often described in militant terms–a warrior equipped to battle mighty enemies and shatter satanic strongholds.
“The heart of the Warrior is a protective heart. The Warrior shields, defends, stands between, and guards…He invests himself in ‘the energy of self-disciplined, aggressive action.’ By Warrior I do not mean one who loves war or draws sadistic pleasure from fighting or bloodshed. There is a difference between a warrior and a brute. A warrior is a protector…Men stand tallest when they are protecting and defending.”
This was ingrained in the DNA of George S. Patton. We probably thought we knew just about everything, or certainly the highlights, of the infamous general and his career and legacy. But along came this book recently, Patton: Blood, Guts, and Prayer, and author Michael Keane revealed more than most of us knew or ever heard.
“For this guy, faith was part of his being,” said Michael Keane, a fellow of national security at the Los Angeles-based Pacific Council on International Policy.
If you ignore Patton’s Christianity, then you cannot understand how he approached challenges or how he achieved his successes, or how he shaped history, Keane said.
“He was raised reading the Bible, praying every day,” he said.
“His faith in God and his faith in himself became this core,” he said.
“You can’t find a page or entry in his diary with him not giving thanks to God or asking for God’s help when he is being challenged or writing a prayer himself—it is amazing how intense his personal devotion is,” he said.
Patton’s most famous prayer, an incident portrayed in detail in the movie “Patton,” was the one he ordered the Third Army chaplain Msgr. James H. O’Neill to write in early December 1944, as rains were bogging down the army’s progress.
O’Neill wrote a prayer that he assumed was for the general’s private devotion, but Patton ordered it sent to every soldier under his command.
The prayer was printed on cards with Patton’s Christmas greeting on the other side, and it was out to most of the troops by the middle of December—right before the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge.“The movie is great, obviously, but it tends to see Patton as a bit of a caricature, and the same thing for that prayer,” Keane said.
Keane said he researched the prayer thoroughly to fully understand what it was all about.“It wasn’t just a gimmick to him,” he said.
“What you start to understand is that Patton saw prayer as a force, a force of nature, a force of God, really, not just some words one uttered,” he said.
“He thought that everyone praying together was like a force field, like an X-Ray, you couldn’t see it, but it could shape and affect things, with a power unto itself,” he said.
“That’s why he had the whole Third Army pray and issue a directive on prayer because he thought it would help them accomplish their mission,” he said.
The prayer he had printed and delivered to all his soldier of the Third Army just before Christmas 1944:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to refrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.
Note that he prayed to crush oppression and wickedness – not oppressors themselves – to establish justice among peoples.
Happy Veterans Day.