ONE MORE MISSION
By Father Mitchell, Pastor
San Clemente Catholic Church
Los Lunas, NM
When Christie first called me to come speak to you my first reaction was ‘no’ —I’ve closed the door on that chapter of my life. That’s old news and I don’t need to go back there. But then something deep down in my gut said ‘go’—there’s one more mission that needs to be completed’. So I said yes to Christie and went to your website. I began to read the stories, your stories, our stories, and that voice kept coming back, I kept hearing ‘there’s one more mission.’
When we went to war there were three displacements that took place in us, but they only told us about one of them — the one nobody can ever really tell you about because you have to live it. That first displacement is the displacement of your soul. It happens when you’re thrown into the caldron of combat for an extended period of time. It begins with the loss of innocence when you kill your first human being. It grows in you when you fight for your life and the life of your buddies. It creeps up on you — you don’t even really know it while it’s happening. It’s a hardening of the heart, a steeling of the nerves, a firming of the mind. Oh, you still feel the fear when you’re getting shot at, but you deal with it. We all did, each in his own way. We built a shell around us to protect us, we didn’t let anyone in — you couldn’t, you didn’t dare. We told lies to each other, blowing off our fear. We’d do the guy thing, mocking death. You know, telling each other we were the meanest sons of bitches in the valley or singing stupid songs like “You’re going home in a body bag, Doo Dah, Dooh Dah.” Or tell each other knowingly that we believed in the golden BB theory: if it’s your time nothing can save you and if it’s not, nothing can harm you. We ragged on each other incessantly.
I remember one time on my first tour on a mission over Cambodia. I was only a first Lt. but I was already the ‘old man of the outfit’ because I had 8 or 900 hours of combat time. That meant I was the one they called for the night landings at a blacked-out runway in Cambodia or the sneaky Pete missions in Laos that ‘didn’t happen.’ I was breaking in a new copilot who had just arrived from the states. We were short on copilots so we rushed him through his combat qual in a week; he hadn’t even finished in-processing yet and he was already flying combat missions. We had a lull in the action and he was talking about in-processing —‘where is this, where do I go for that’—we kept helping him out. Then, I slipped in, with a perfectly straight face, ‘Have you gone down to the morgue to get fitted for your body bag?’ His jaw dropped about 6 inches, the Crew Chief just about chocked on his coffee and the navigator, not to be outdone, picked up the ball and joined right in ‘hey man you gotta do that. It’s an article fifteen if you don’t.’ The Crew Chief jumped in ‘Yeah man, you gotta go do that. Uncle Sam wants you to look good if they have to send you home that way.’ The guys in the back were dieing to keep from cracking up. Well, a couple of days later I was in ops getting ready for a mission and he comes in and comes over to me and says “You son of a bitch!” He bought it; he went to the morgue to get fitted for his body bag!
We’d talk incessantly about the “land of the Big BX, where the cars were hot and the women were hotter.” We’d count the days on our short calendar till we could climb on that freedom Bird and go home, back across the pond. But what kept us going, what kept us sane in the middle of all that madness and insanity was not the land of the big BX; it was not hot cars, or even dreams of hot women — that was our fantasy, our diversion, our self-delusion, it wasn’t real. What kept us going was the mission. It was the only thing that was real, it was the only thing that made sense. Even if it was a stupid, dumb ---- mission it was real — nothing else was. Not headquarters, not the generals, not the press — God, especially not the press. For better or worse the mission was our life; it defined us, it made us a member of a band of elite brothers; it made us part of something that was bigger than we were and it gave meaning to our lives no matter how miserable they might be. It made us larger than ourselves; it drew the best we had to give out of us because it gave us a purpose, a focus, and an objective. We were there for others, not for ourselves; our existence had meaning and our life had a flavor, a flavor the protected will never know. We didn’t fight for mom, apple pie, or the flag that was Hollywood, not reality. We fought for each other, even when we didn’t know each other. I saw men risk their lives over and over and over for other men they didn’t even know —flying through a hail of flack again and again and again just because some GI’s on the ground were in trouble or an aircrew was down. We rose above ourselves and in spite of ourselves we touched, in some way, the transcendent in the midst of hell.
And then that bittersweet day finally came when we left our buddies — that hurt — and we went home. But when we got there, it wasn’t the same; it didn’t match the dream, the bubble burst and no one cared. Our families — if we had families — tried, but they couldn’t reach down inside where the pain was, they didn’t have the right, and they couldn’t understand, even if they wanted to. We couldn’t tell them because you had to live it to know it. That’s when we discovered those other two displacements, the ones they didn’t tell us about. The first was the cultural displacement. We didn’t fit in, we didn’t belong. We had gone to war as brash young men; we came home battle hardened veterans. The world wasn’t different; we were different. We dreamed dreams, we had flashbacks, we coped; some well, others crashed. We did it because we had to, but mostly we did it alone. We didn’t fit in anymore; for us the real world wasn’t real. Our culture was not their culture, our values were not their values, and that was the other displacement — the displacement of our values. There was no more mission, no more heart-pounding adrenalin rush, no more camaraderie, no more purpose. We were back in the world, back in the land of the Big Macs and the milkshakes, the land of hot cars and hotter women, but it felt like Disneyland — it wasn’t real. Something was missing.
What was missing was the mission, the purpose, the reality check. Most of us adjusted, but there was an emptiness within, a sense that I am alive but I feel dead. The transcendent was gone, the purpose was gone, and all that had been of value to us meant nothing in the fantasy world we found ourselves in. That is the reason you are here, you have a mission. Not a mission of death and destruction but a far more important mission of healing and unity. The ride to the Wall has a meaning that only a vet can know. You ride for yourselves and you ride for each other. Most especially you ride for those who will never ride again.
I remember my first and only trip to the Wall. It took me ten years to go. I was back for a visit to the Pentagon, but I had some time to kill so I decided to go. I don’t know what I expected, but what I experienced was power — silent, gentle healing power. I stood there, on the grass, looking over the sidewalk to the Wall; I looked at my four years in Nam. I saw the names of friends I had gone to school with, guys I had played sports with, gone through pilot training with. I knew them, I knew their wives and their children; but I had almost forgotten. I stood there in silence. I was not in uniform, just a three-piece suit and a raincoat, a thirty-year-old man aged beyond his years. After a while a group of innocent, high-spirited high-schoolers came along, on a field trip for school I guess. They were laughing, happy; I didn’t mind, but there was a Park Service Ranger there. He saw me, he knew — he must have been a vet. He moved them along gently. I was grateful. He left me there with the silence, with my ghosts. After awhile I turned and walked away. I left my baggage there, never to return.
You, too, will find healing at the Wall. You will find closure, maybe not all at once, but you will recover your purpose. You ride now to heal; not just yourselves, but something larger, something more important, you ride to heal our country. You ride to heal your brothers and sisters in arms, those coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. After Desert Storm the country assuaged its guilty conscience with a tumultuous welcome home for the Desert Storm vets, one that was well earned — the Desert Rats of Desert Storm deserved their accolades and some of you got to celebrate with them. But there’s a new Nam that no one is talking about, or more accurately, everyone is lying about. The politicians don’t care, the news media doesn’t care; the public might care a little, but they don’t know, they don’t understand and it’s not their fault. In fact almost no one cares —except us. We care. That’s our next mission, to turn to our younger brothers and sisters in arms. As a working pastor I know they are hurting, just like we were hurting. We must reach out to them because no one else can. We passed the torch of war to them and now we must pass the flame of love. That’s our real mission —vets helping vets. So when the ride is over, and the bikes are put away, remember that there is one more mission. We must to turn to our younger brothers and sisters in arms; we must to say them ‘Welcome home! Well done, soldier. We care because we know’. We must reach out to them and minister to them. We are the only ones who can, because we are the only ones who know. We know the pain, we know the hurt, we know the loneliness, the loss of purpose and the loss of meaning, and we have the power to heal it. So ride for the Wall, and when you come home, roll up your sleeves and make a difference in their lives. Go to the VA and ask ‘what can I do’; get your VFW or Legion Post or your local veterans group to reach out and meet the need. Don’t let them die inside as we died. Reach out to heal and you will be healed.