Memorial Day is a week away. For many in the United States, it means a day off from school and work to enjoy the warm weather and spend time with family. For those who have served in the military, however, Memorial Day means much more.
The CRC endorses 23 chaplains currently serving in different branches of the United States Military. Some have seen active duty while others are in the reserves, but all have a special reverence for Memorial Day. This year, we decided to ask some of our military chaplains to share their thoughts on Memorial Day and what it means to them.
Military chaplaincy is a unique experience. They minister to other service members, families, and others who work with the military. They provide pastoral care, serving the various spiritual needs of those with whom they serve. They do not evangelize, but instead meet the needs of others wherever they may be, sharing the love and compassion of Christ in areas that can be extremely dark. These men and women know people who have died for their country; they comfort the grieving, and they support the broken.
For them, every day is Memorial Day. They are constantly dealing with the deaths of those they knew and respected, those who came before, and those who will come after.
Many of our chaplains have served alongside others who have died.
CH (COL) Galen Meyer served in the Navy and Army. While serving in the Navy in Vietnam, he served alongside many men who died. To this day, he remembers them. “I keep a special folder titled ‘Requiem’ in which I have recorded the names of all one hundred and sixteen men who were killed in action while I was their chaplain along with the date each one died. These men will always be very important to me—maybe because a chaplain lives with his congregation 24/7. I often read over their names and think about them.”
“Memorial Day always brings me survivor’s guilt,” said CDR Norm Brown, CHC, USN, another veteran of the Vietnam War. Rev. Brown remembers taking his young children to see the Vietnam War Memorial shortly after it was built. “Walking down the path before that wall of names I started crying uncontrollably. Our children had never seen me this way. It wasn’t just my friends, including 2 classmates, whose names were on the wall. It wasn’t just a general sorrow for all the 58,000+ whose names there. As much as anything, it was the sense of guilt commingled with gratitude that my name wasn’t there and that my kids, the younger 2 born after I’d come home, were with me.”
Remembering the fallen isn’t just for those who have served.
One chaplain, who asked to remain anonymous, reminds that every Memorial Day services are held in National Cemeteries across the United States. There are 135 National Cemeteries, including one in almost every state. These are burial grounds dedicated to those who served in the military as well as deceased spouses or dependents. Military chaplains often give invocations at these services, and as many as 300 people may attend. Many of the people who attend these services are families of those who have died, or people who served previously in the armed forces, but they are for everyone. “It’s a great thing to bring your kids or grandkids to,” he says, “Very educational.”
Army National Guard CH (CPT) Cory Van Sloten also urges us to remember the fallen, even when it’s not Memorial Day. “The widows, widowers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children, friends, and comrades remember often, perhaps daily. The empty seat at the dinner table, the smaller gathering on holidays, and the voice of a loved one heard only as a distant memory in one’s mind are constant reminders that they are gone.
“We owe it to the heroes that died and their loved ones left behind to make sure that their sacrifices are remembered and that their service to our nation always be honored. We also owe it to the next generation to teach them the importance of the memorial in Memorial Day.”
It’s important for the church to remember.
As believers, we are very familiar with the idea of sacrifice, and there are few better examples of this in current times. “The Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH),” says Chaplain Roger Bouma, CDR, CHC, USN, “is the highest military decoration that a serviceman or servicewoman can receive. One justification for the CMH is a heroic and sacrificial act on behalf of another with little or no regard for one’s own personal safety. Needless to say, many CMH’s are award posthumously. This is an award that mirrors, albeit distantly, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.”
“The church,” says Rev. Brown, “is the right agent to connect people around Memorial Day’s message in the spirit of gratitude and hope; gratitude for all who’ve given their lives for our nation and hope that one day wars will cease at the coming of Christ Jesus. They above all would hope for an end to all wars. Perhaps there were other, less violent ways to secure our liberties and freedom but those who’ve died gave all they had. And many, many of us survivors are painfully grateful.”