Nov 11, 2011

"And one was a soldier and one was a priest"

At Fort Knox, circa 1992
When people wish me a "Happy Veterans Day" I always do a double-take. I served so long ago the whole experience is a bit blurry. I also never spent more than four consecutive months on active duty and never once stepped onto foreign soil as a member of the military.

I'm not sure exactly why I decided to enter Army ROTC as a freshman at Tufts University. It's not as if I come from a long line of distinguished military leaders. My late father, who made his living as a symphony orchestra conductor, was compelled to enlist as part of the peacetime draft in the early 1960s after graduating from Harvard. He served as a clarinet player in the Army Band known as Pershing's Own in Washington, DC . It wasn't a bad gig -- he lived in an off-post apartment and basically studied scores for three years when he wasn't marching in things like Eisenhower's funeral. From a musical standpoint, it wasn't as if he had to do much practicing since the band wasn't playing the most challenging music (at least from the perspective of a gifted future conductor).

The one military rite of passage my father did have to endure was Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He made it through just fine (and was a much better shot with a rifle than I ever was!). He told me once he was never so thrilled with KP duty than the time it got him out of learning how to throw a grenade. Let's just say we're all glad they didn't stick him with his clarinet out on the front line.

So, I'm not sure what came over me the summer before my freshman year at Tufts that made me inquire about ROTC. My high school friends all thought I'd lost my mind, my parents were cautiously supportive (which I still marvel at), and my brother thought I was doing it to meet girls. Looking back, I see it as an early exploration of call. I felt a deep desire to "give something back" even as I wasn't entirely sure what that meant.

I will say that my experience in ROTC was one of the most formative of my life. I made deep friendships with many of my fellow cadets that continue to this day. Not one of us remains in the military, which is perhaps  to be expected of members of the Paul Revere Battalion (comprised of cadets from Tufts, Harvard, Wellesley, and MIT). I learned a tremendous amount about myself, about leadership, and about human nature; all lessons that still resonate.

My military career will never be used as a case study at West Point. While still a cadet, I volunteered  to go to Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I figured, what better way to conquer my fear of heights than being trained as a paratrooper? So after training for three weeks in the August heat (doing lots of push-ups and being yelled at by the infamous Black Hat instructors), I made the five required jumps to earn my Airborne wings. To further torture myself, I earned my Air Assault wings the next summer at Fort Rucker in Dothan, Alabama. This involved, among other things, rappelling out of helicopters hovering at 150 feet.

Upon graduation, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant as an armor officer in the Army Reserves. This meant four months at Fort Knox for training as a tank platoon leader. I then had a break as I pursued my career as a political campaign manager. I couldn't stick with a single unit because I was working all over the country. Eventually I settled down in Baltimore and joined a Garrison Support Unit. Of course there was nary a tank in the state of Maryland so I had to do something else to serve. In a stroke of brilliance rarely seen in the military, they stuck me in a position I was actually qualified for: I became the unit's Public Affairs Officer.

As the PAO, I did a lot of media relations for local units deploying to or returning from the Bosnia mission -- Operation Joint Adventure. I had a lot of fun doing this -- it's great to have unit commanders, colonels and generals, hanging on your every word and taking your every order because they're terrified to deal with the media. I was even awarded a couple of medals for this!

I was nearly deployed to Germany in support of this mission when I received that letter of acceptance to seminary. My service was basically up at that point and once the Army saw this they were more than happy to say "adios." So I was honorably discharged and have the paper (somewhere!) to prove it.

Some people see parish ministry and military service as being incompatible. Most people don't actually say this but I know it's on people's minds ("How could you have served in the military? Jesus said 'Blessed are the peacemakers' not 'Blessed are the warmongers'"). As I was going through the pre-seminary ordination process, a discernment committee member  asked about this in a rather pointed way. Fortunately, I had just finished reading a biography of former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. During World War II Runcie had served as an officer in the Scots Guard and was awarded the distinguished Military Cross for valor as a tank commander. Pushed into a corner on the issue I mentioned this fact and the guy backed down. It wasn't my proudest moment but it was effective.

That's my "How I came to be a veteran" story. I'm proud of having served and have a tremendous amount of respect for those who do. I also have a few good stories if anyone's interested at some point.

These days, I'm much more of a dove than a hawk; the dove being the symbol of the Holy Spirit. And I even cringe inside when I see my boys playing Black Ops on the X-Box. I said to Zack the other day, "Since you like playing gun games do you think you'd ever consider joining the military?" He looked at me like I was nuts and responded, "Of course not. I don't want to commit suicide." I guess it's good that he knows the distinction between fiction and reality.

The boys aren't impressed by my military service. "If you weren't in any war it doesn't count." I don't agree but am thankful to God nonetheless.


Norris. Battin said...

A tale with some familiar elements.

Norris Battin
1st Lt MSC (Ret -- way Ret -- but still a coward when it comes to heights.)

Father Tim said...

How about that? Yes, I "retired" as a 1LT as well. Was serving in a captain's slot and could have been promoted right into out. Oh well. Perhaps in another life.

Derek Rutherford said...

Good post - it is a good thing that you learned how to read a map from someone who knew something about the subject.

I might also add that Jesus blessed a roman centurion for his faith (Luke 7) and never counseled non-resistance to evil. But that's a side note covered by those smarter than me.

-Another "retired" 1LT