Veterans Day Sermon by Mark Di Ionno
Veterans Day, like Memorial Day, is a day of solemn remembrance and reflection. We gather, lay wreaths and pay homage to the men and women who fought our wars, preserved our way of life, served our nation in all corners of the world over a 241-period, from Bunker Hill in 1775 to the faraway Kurdish provinces of Northern Iraq, where U.S. Marines are battling ISIS to recapture the city of Mosul.
Today is day to also embrace history. To remember the ancient deaths and sacrifices at places like Monmouth and Saratoga, the legacies made to form our nation. And those who fought in places like Gettysburg and Bull Run, to preserve it.
Today is a day to put in perspective the horrors inflicted on so many young men and women in our 20th Century wars.
26,277 killed at Argonne.
29,204 killed at Normandy.
20,195 killed on Okinawa.
33,686 killed in combat in Korea, a number close to the full population of Montclair.
47,424 killed in Vietnam.
The number of wounded often exceeds the death toll by multiple of 10.
About 6,000 service men and women lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of wounded nears 60,000. These include those with lost or now-useless limbs, addled brains or other life-debilitating injuries. It includes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in those who can’t unsee the horrors they saw, or undo thing they’ve done.
A single death adds up to incalculable loss for families, for grandchildren, nieces and nephews never born. The black hole left in the war dead’s family doesn’t mend with time; it magnifies.
For the families of the injured, there is no black hole. There is a gray area of helplessness and confusion. There person who went off to war is not the person who returned, and there is nothing anybody can do about it except pray for the grace to accept and continue to love the unrecognizable person who came home, and handle them with kindness and patience.
As our World War II generation passes, we should pause on this day to remember and pray for the widows and siblings of those half-million men and women killed in action, who missed have them every day for the past 70-years.
As our Afghanistan and Iraq veterans move into what should have been the most fruitful years of their lives, we should remember and pray for the families that help them cope with their struggles, families that are bound in their own way to the collateral duty and damage of war.
My last few weekends, like in the prior nine years, have revolved around high school football. My daughter, now a senior, cheers for the team her two older brothers played for.
She is 18, the same age my father – and hundreds of thousands of men like him – were when they left the playing fields of their hometowns and went off to war.
A few weeks ago I wrote a column about the reunion of a high school football team from the mid-1960s. Part of the story was how the specter of Vietnam hung over their season.
But as I watched my daughter and her classmates, I wondered how many of them actually have a friend headed into the military. I wondered how many of them, unlike the Vietnam generation, realize we are country at war, with troops actively engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Nigeria.
I have been teaching at Rutgers campuses in Newark and New Brunswick for a decade. Not once have I seen a war protest or peace movement.
There is an unprecedented disconnect between the American public and the men and women who fight our wars. The end of the draft essentially took the greater public out of the conversation about the military adventurism Dwight Eisenhower so presciently warned us about.
There was much discussion in this election season about growing economic disparity in our country, we often hear of the “1 percent” that holds the wealth.
Our military disparity is even greater. Only one-half of one percent of the population serves in the military, and almost all come from military families.
They alone deal with the aftershocks of war. The depression, the posttraumatic stress disorder, the opiate addiction from war-wound pain killers. The physical loss of limbs, the traumatic brain injury from IED explosions. The survivor guilt from watching comrades die. The moral guilt from doing the killing. The exposure of seeing the human carnage left by the jihadists, in war-torn cities.
Today is a day to not only remember them in our prayers, but find ways to ease their pain. To serve those, who have served us.
Because their pain is real. 22 veterans a day commit suicide.
And those are the only the ones tracked by the Veterans Administration.
More Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have committed suicide than were killed in combat. A veteran of mid-East combat is 41 percent more likely to take their own life than the general population.
The VA is overwhelmed with the mental health needs of these men and women.
The modern veteran problems of post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to government prescribed opiates are nothing new. Neither are the unemployment, poverty and homelessness to which they lead.
After the Civil War, “Soldiers Heart” was the term used to describe what we now call PTSD.
“Soldiers Disease” is what they called addiction to the heroin, routinely used as a battlefield pain-killer. Those damaged men spent their days and night in jails or run-down soldier’s homes. So great was need the country went on a building spree of what were then called Lunatic Asylums, the largest being Greystone over in Morris County.
A large group of unemployed World War I veterans called the "Bonus Army" marched on Washington in 1932. Two were shot and killed by police, and their camp was routed by Army troops led by two famous names in American military history: Douglas MacArthur and George Patton.
In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge vetoed a bill giving those veterans benefits, saying "Patriotism, bought and paid for. is not patriotism."
Easy for him to say; he wasn't a veteran. Neither was Herbert Hoover, who ordered the attack on the camp.
Combat veterans ever since have their post-war stories. The warehousing of "shell-shocked" World War II veterans. The antipathy at home for Vietnam veterans. The veterans' care scandals of our latest
wars -- the terrible conditions at Walter Reed, the long waits for treatment by the VA.
On Memorial Day weekend, we hear of those who made the "ultimate sacrifice."
On Veterans Day, we should remember not every ultimate sacrifice happens on the battlefield. Some come much later, in the still of night, in the isolation of a dark bedroom or in a car parked on some lonely stretch of highway.
I worry not only about the disconnect of the military from the public it protects, but from the leaders who send them off to fight our wars. The last Commander-in-Chief to actually serve in a war George Bush, the father, 24 years and two extended wars ago. None of the front-runners in this election have been in combat, or have military experience of any kind. They talk tough, but none ever did the nation’s dirty work.
After Vietnam, 75 percent of the men and women in Congress were veterans. That's now 20 percent. And how many of their children serve?
With no draft, most Americans literally have no skin in the game. The numbers of those that did -- men and women of the American Legion and the VFW, those caretakers of our war legacy and memorials – are diminishing.
That’s why the tower connected to this church is so important. Its bells ring out a reminder of service rendered and the sacrifices made. It tolls
for the seven dead and the 91 who came home to the embrace of this community.
Who embraces the modern veteran?
It is so very important to remember that today’s military men and women fight OUR wars. WE are a nation at war. The officials WE elect send them. OUR tax dollars fund them. These warriors are simply the finger on the trigger of the guns. The nation’s body is behind them.
Today is the day we remember those who served in that role.
Today, one of two days in 365.
Somehow, it seems inadequate.
So, on this day, in this setting, please take a moment to pray for peace – and ask that peace visit the troubled souls of those who have done our nation’s dirty work.