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My Grandma Was a Marine

November 8, 2009
Rev. Dawn Cooley

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Selected sermons

This was not supposed to be a particularly emotional service. For several years, I have wanted to do a service to honor and celebrate those who have served in our nation's military branches. My experience in Unitarian Universalist churches has been that we focus more on peace on days like today and give our veterans barely passing notice. Using the title "My Grandma Was a Marine" was supposed to hint at a celebratory spirit.

But then I heard that, here at First Unitarian, it has been a while since we honored our veterans. Please, I heard, ask us to stand. And so the subject became a bit more somber. Then several of you started sharing your stories - stories of war experiences, stories of family members you are worried about, stories of how you struggle to honor a child's decision to join the military even while you experience great fear.

And so the topic became less celebratory - more urgent - as I began to realize the depths of emotion that were present and needed to be addressed, to be named. But still, I thought, this does not mean it has to be another service where I stand here and weep - because really, its not something I enjoy though I suppose I might as well get used to it.

No, even with all this, I thought it would be fine.

And then an army psychiatrist burst into a Ft. Hood processing center and started shooting. Soldiers, some just returned from deployment, some on their way, soldiers who never thought they would have to use their skills at home, on their own base, suddenly found themselves in the midst of battle.

And for me, for many of us, so much about today shifted.

I do not know anyone, personally, who was injured at Ft. Hood. But I know that the people who were fired upon are people I generally hold in very high regard. People to whom I try to say "Thank you" to when I see them in uniform on the street or in the airport. People who take the military oath seriously when they pledge to "bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America."

These are the people I come from. People I seriously considered joining. No one ever taunted me with the old phrase "Your momma wears combat boots." But if they had, I probably would have smiled and replied that it was my grandma who wore combat boots. My grandmother was a Marine. A clerk, because of course she could not serve in combat. And in truth, she probably mostly wore heals. Her husband was a WW2 Air force pilot who had to eject out of at least 2 planes that we know of. My other grandfather and his son (my father) and one of his brother-in-laws were in the Navy. My father went to the Naval Academy, where I considered going until I learned that my bad eyesight would prevent me from having any of the exciting jobs. My spouse's father was in the Coast Guard and then went on to a career in the Veterans Administration, and John has two more relatives who were in the National Guard, deployed to Iraq in the early days of the war. My step-father's grandson just graduated from Army bootcamp. I was in ROTC for a while in college and would probably have joined the National Guard as a chaplain if I did not selfishly choose to be with my children.

Writing a sermon is usually a labor of love - we ministers struggle with an idea over the course of a week or longer, agonizing at times over what to say and how to say it. Some weeks are more difficult than others. Some weeks we feel very vulnerable to the topic. This is one of those weeks. I do not offer an unbiased perspective on this subject. But I do offer the truth as I have found it to be. Your mileage may vary.

Years are coming when war's dread banner shall be rolled up and put away, when the trumpet that calls us to war is silent, when the Angel of Peace is welcomed. The song we sang earlier was written by Universalist Minister Adin Ballou, nephew of the more well known Hosea Ballou and published before the Civil War. I chose the song because of the connection to Armistice Day, which is what Veterans Day used to be called.

Armistice Day was formed to commemorate the ceasing of hostilities on the Western Front of WW 1, the armistice signed between the Allies and Germany. This was the symbolic end of World War 1, as hostilities in other regions continued. But it was a day that brought many hope that the war would soon be over. That the soldiers and loved ones would soon be returning from wherever it is they had been.

But as with any war, it does not end when the treaties are signed, or even when the soldiers come home. Our soldiers bring the war home with them, as much as they try to leave it behind. There are scars that need tending - physical and mental. Relationships to be mended, lives to pickup and relearn. It is a sort of dance for the loved ones who have waited so eagerly for the soldier's return, wanting to know about what he or she has dealt with - is dealing with - without pressing too hard. Coming home, as much as it may be longed for, is not easy.

In many parts of the world, people still celebrate Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. Here in the United States, in 1954 Congress renamed the holiday Veterans' day, a day to honor all veterans - those who served in wartime and in peacetime. Indeed, Veteran's Day is now understood as a time to honor and thank living veterans for their service, to set aside time to remember that all who have served in our country's military have made a sacrifice to do their duty, and to acknowledge their contributions to our national security.

National Security - that sounds like a dirty word these days for all the crimes that have been committed in its name. But its essence remains - in order to secure the general welfare of our citizenry, the government is tasked, in part, with providing for the common defense. And it takes people to answer "Yes" to this call - weighted with baggage though it is.

Unitarian Universalist Minister and Military Chaplain The Rev. Dr. Vernon Chandler notes that there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalists who have served in the military. Some have enjoyed peacetime service, while others have been touched by the horrors of combat. Our virtual congregation, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, has a special ministry for those in the military.

For some of our veterans, it was their experience in the military that started a religious journey that led them to our doors, perhaps with the help of a UU Chaplain - most UU ministers will tell you with pride that our respect for diverse faith traditions ideally positions us to be military chaplains. There are currently about a dozen Unitarian Universalist ministers serving our armed forces as chaplains. This year, the Military Chaplain of the Year went to UU minister Rev. Rebekah Montgomery of the National Guard. Guantanamo Bay's first female chaplain was the Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Cynthia Kane - no relation to the minister of our Lexington church.

As it does in our congregations, political opinions vary among those in uniform. So does their perspective on the current wars we are fighting.

I think we sometimes make dualist assumptions about the military and those who serve in it. I am reminded of the signs that I saw soon after the Iraq war started: "Say No to War in Iraq", said one in front of my neighbor's yard. "Support our Troops" went up a few days later in another neighbor's yard. I was glad when I finally saw a yard that had both signs. Because we can, we can say No to War...we can work for Peace, and still support our troops. Rev. Chandler reminds us that "Regardless of your political views regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our members of the armed forces do not start wars nor do they dictate foreign policy...Our Unitarian Universalist military personnel need your support... and your love."

Many of us may wonder why people choose to join the military - particularly these days. The reasons are varied, but very few join because they want to go to war. Many are trying to provide for their families (especially in this economy!), or get an education. Some come from a long tradition of people who have served. Others are trying to serve their new country - the Courier-Journal recently reported that there were people in uniform at a Swearing-in ceremony for new citizens. One person said "Instead of fighting for someone else's country, I'm fighting for my own" as becoming an American citizen will allow him to re-enlist in the US Army.

Others join the military because they feel they need the discipline or need to grow up some. Or want to see the world. Or because it is something they are good at. Many, most, have a desire to protect our country, our way of life. Which, granted, is not perfect, but I would not trade it for anything else out there right now.

Of course, like the rest of us, those who join the military are human. And I don't want to sound like I am putting them up on a pedestal, untouchable by critique. That is not the case at all. I feel strongly that it is up to the informed citizenry to call on our armed forces to be institutions where the respect and justice they fight for as American values are practiced in their ranks. It is up to all of us who are citizens to call for an end to Don't Ask Don't Tell, to end hazing and discrimination against women, to promote religious tolerance. But again, we can work for peace, we can work for justice, inside the military and outside, while still supporting our individual troops. For whether we agree with the war or not, the people who come home from it need support: they need good, comprehensive medical care, they need PTSD treatment, they need to be heard and listened to - their complaints not dismissed.

And this brings us back to the tragedy at Ft. Hood. Gunned down by one of their own, a man who had asked to be released from service, who had reportedly suffered taunts for his religion. Maj. Hasan had counseled soldiers with PTSD upon their return and likely suffered from what is called secondary trauma as a result of being a caregiver helping those who experienced the trauma first hand. He had just received his own deployment orders and was petrified. I do not condone what he did, in any way, shape or form. But it says something that he attacked the people whom he had been trusted to serve. He, too, is a victim of war.

And a reminder that even home is not always safe.

And yet, I believe the men, women and children who fought in the American Revolution were onto something amazing - a country that is based on freedom, respect, justice - values that we as Unitarian Universalists share.

I believe that these values are worth defending, and that, as such, we need people who step up to provide this defense.

I believe that those who are prepared to protect our values, our imperfect way of life, deserve our support during peacetime and when they come home changed forever by the experience of war.

I believe the people who make sacrifices to honor their sense of duty deserve our love, our respect, our gratitude, and our prayers for their safety.

And I hope, desperately, that there may come a day that the countries of this small planet will find a way to settle our conflicts without the use of violence. But until that day, I offer our veterans my gratitude for your willingness to serve.

Would those of you who have served in the armed force please stand and remain standing as I name your branch of service?

Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, National Guard

Please remain standing for a moment of prayer.

Spirit of life and love,
On this day of sorrow, memory, gratitude and hope,

Help us to celebrate our veterans
Those who have been to war,
And those who have not.
Those who chose to serve
And those who were drafted.

Help us to care for those who come home
With broken bodies, broken hearts, and broken spirits,
And help us to support the families they come home to.

Help us to know how to honor
The ones who do not, did not come home,
And to mourn and grieve with their loved ones.

Help us to hold in our hearts
Those who sacrifice much for our country,
For whom coming home is no guarantee of safety.

Help us, finally, to hold on to the dream that someday,
War will be but a memory.

Until that time, may we believe
It is honorable to be called to serve our country.

And may we offer our love and gratitude
To those who answer this call of duty.


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