Today, here in the United States of America we are celebrating Memorial Day, remembering all those who died in service of our country, in wars foreign and domestic. It is a sad day, even while we are proud of those men and women.
When I was growing up, we all were marched off to Church by my father on Memorial Day, as if it were a holy day of obligation for us. It was, morally. The rest of the day was celebrated in our Queens, NY neighborhood much as the other civic holidays were, with BBQs in Sunnyside park, baseball games, races, etc., and surrounded by family and friends, many of whom were also vets. Without some reminder, it is too easy to forget the unique meaning of Memorial Day.
In a way, every surviving vet has suffered a certain kind of death/loss just by having been through and witnessed war and loss so close and personally, living through and watching horror, friends die, and sadly sometimes having to kill as well, etc. I mourn their loss today too--a kind of death of innocence for our young women and men. My cousin Danny returned alive from the Viet Nam war but suffered until the day he died (prematurely) with the horror of the faces of the men he killed personally. He suffered more from that than from his own physical wounds. As he put it to me not long before he died, "I was a good Catholic kid like you, with the same Irish grandmother and family life, a kid like you, taught to love people, but I had to kill them..." It was a kind of death in him too. He called me one night and talked about only wanting to die, because he could not sleep because of the faces of those he killed haunting him. "Each of those soldiers was somebody's son or grandson, like me..." he cried. "I killed them up front and personally, or I called in the bombers to kill them by the hundreds. I just want to tell them how sorry I am." He asked me if I knew any priest who'd been in Viet Nam--someone he could talk with, someone who was familiar with the ghosts too. I did. One of our deacons in Brooklyn rushed to Danny's side. Another, a bishop I knew in Virginia was on the phone with Danny daily. They could relate. Part of Danny died in Viet Nam. We all knew his ghost here for the years that followed. No deacon or bishop, not even those in his family closest to him could vanquish those deadly memories. Danny's heart gave out years before it should have.
We are an Irish family. Danny was our own Danny Boy. I grew up with him, cousins, who like many NYC Irish-American families, were as close as brothers and sisters in the old neighborhoods. We come from that race that sometimes prides itself on its fierce Celtic warrior ancestors. That blood runs through our veins, and we don't deny it, although some of us are happier not to be warriors. Yet, that trait, redefined and refocused, like dogs learning to refocus their prey instinct into guarding or shepherding animals, is what can help us be brave enough to face the troubles of life, the pain and challenges, the self-centered preoccupations and give us the courage to go beyond ourselves to love, protect, instruct, guide others. The early Celtic Christians did just this--they took that warrior spirit and did battle against evil within themselves. It's a great transformation when possible. It helps us discover that Iona of the Heart...that place of personal resurrection, our center, our Christ, and gives deeper meaning to our lives.
We all watched our Danny try to do this in his own way after Viet Nam. He tried to refocus. He was shooting at humans one minute, and being shot at, heard his name called out in the air, grabbed the ladder rope from a helicopter, still shooting as it whisked him away from war, and the next day he was back on Long Island. He tried to refocus as best he could, given that history and exit from war. He was gifted and highly intelligent. He tried to overcome his ghosts, and all that haunted him from war, and he was a magnificent cousin and friend. He just didn't see it in himself. I trust in that Communion of Saints we cling to as Christians, and that Danny Boy is now at peace with himself and those whose life paths crossed unhappily with his in Viet Nam.
May God grant peace--that peace that passes our understanding to all who have died serving their countries, their neighbors, or total strangers, those who have died either directly in the wars, or from the wounds received in action. May God give us all the wisdom to put an end to war. Amen.