I was asked to give a Memorial Day sermon at my church. I only attend the local UU (Unitarian/Universalist) church intermittently, but because they only have an interim minister, they 'farm out' the sermons every other week.
When the planned speaker, the Chaplain for the Veterans memorial in D.C., fell though, they thought, "Vincent's a writer and his dad was a chaplain, we'll ask him". So I was pressed into service.
So I decided to speak about my father, a naval chaplain of close to twenty years (more details below). But because I like tying my stories together, I tied what happened to him into the larger theme of memorizing fallen soldiers, even though it's not a direct comparison. But the lecture was well received, and I think you may enjoy it (pardon the poor spelling and punctuation, as I didn't have time to get it edited beforehand).
Not to toot my own horn, but you, my readers don't often to get to look inside the private life of use authors much, so here's a decent sized peek. ;-)
I’m an odd choice to speak for Memorial Day, as I've never served in the armed forces. I'd planned to attend the Naval Academy at Annapolis and become a career officer when I was young, but I ended up with Juvenile Type 1 Diabetes, which shelved those plans. That was probably for the best, since I'm terrible at following orders. But I've spent my life watching my father serve as a Navy Chaplain, my brother as a naval officer and my sister as an Army Medical researcher. But I'm going to focus on the role of the Chaplain in the military: on their role helping the servicemen and trying to counterbalance a life in the military with their religious spirituality.
My father's job involved conducting the normal religious services in a chapel on Sunday—the kind where they'd rotate the Roman Catholic altar to convert it into a Protestant communion table—preaching, counseling, advising and serving the spiritual life of both sailors and marines.
But there was much more to the job than just those factors.
The Marines—specifically the helicopter pilots—my father served with called him "Sky Pilot", because he was the one piloting them into the afterlife.
When we were stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, he wasn't sure he wanted to serve on hospital duty, not sure what he could achieve, whether he could change any outcomes, and he also hated the smell of hospitals at the time. I remember those old antiseptic hospital smells, as I’d frequently come close to passing out every time I’d enter a hospital. However, since we lived directly across the street from the hospital, they'd call him whenever someone was in an accident, giving birth, discovered they were pregnant, or any of a hundred other possibilities, so he was involved with the hospital on an almost daily basis.
That involved him in the lives of virtually everyone on the base, from the servicemen he sailed with, the marines he served with, the wives he counseled while they husbands were away or their children coping with growing up too soon. That duty station proved to be one of his favorites.
While many Chaplains preached about duty, sin and living a moral life, he focused on the day-to-day aspect of people's lives, relating to them as equals rather than as a moral arbiter. He started out as a fairly conservative bible thumper and over the years, as he gained experience dealing with people, he gained a much broader perspective and he had to put aside his preconceptions about how strictly you had to follow the scriptures.
He was popular because he could relate to the young, which worked since most of the servicemen were barely past their teen years themselves. He'd play the songs from “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar” in his services, as well as popular rock and jazz tunes while preaching in Chicago, the home of most of the famous jazz musicians at the time.
He was also an insightful and creative sermon writer and a powerful speaker, working through his sermons with my mother late into the night. He always loved bouncing ideas off of those closest to him. The following series of prayers he wrote reflects how he’d rework prayers for different occasions and times of the day.
Lord God, we thank thee for this day, a fresh page in the book of our lives, unstained by any sin of ours, unblotted by any mistakes. Give us grace that we may do our work well and so live the hours of this day that we may return to thee unsoiled.
Before a Landing:
Eternal Father, thou whose power broods over the seas and whose command is over all, let us be aware of thy presence and obedient to thy will. Keep us true to our best selves, guarding us against dishonesty in purpose and in deed, and helping us to live that we stand unashamed and unafraid before our shipmates, our loved ones and thee. Guide us through our landings in the morning’s light, and protect those men who sail and work with us.
In Foreign Port:
Lord God, as we ride at anchor in this sheltered harbor we are conscious of those on the beach—small children without shoes—hard working men, never able to give their families what we take for granted in America—tonight we pray for them and their children. Grant us a vision of thy power—that we may have the strength to do our part in bringing thy kingdom on Earth, even as it is in heaven.
Almighty God, thou that watcheth all men who sail thy seas, grant us a safe voyage and an honorable tour of duty that we may give glory to thee and protection to our loved ones, though our service to our nation.
The story of my father is interesting, because my siblings perception of him are all over the map, dependent largely on which stage of life they remembered the most vividly. When he was young, he was fairly strict and would quote scriptures to you. When he grew older he spent much more time discussing topics, trying to get you to see the other side. It frustrated many people, but whenever we kids would discuss an issue with him, he’d very often argue the opposite of whatever position we were debating whether or not he actually believed it, simply as a way of getting us to expand our thinking on a particular topic.
Personally, I suspect that helped Victor and I view issues on a much broader level and is probably why we both became authors. Though I imagine he did it mostly for his own entertainment.
He was also an avid hunter and outdoorsman, and he loved the ocean, having been raised on the coast on Long Island. Those interests account for how we ended up here on the Outer Banks, near the ocean, his favorite hunting grounds and owning a hunting service my brother Victor took over, yet still remaining near the Norfolk naval base.
However, he didn’t always approach life as most ministers do. During Viet Nam he carried a loaded pistol along with a portable communion set. He flew rescue missions on attack helicopter often enough to qualify for a combat rating, though he had to refuse because it wouldn’t have looked good given his dual roles.
During his sea tours, consisting of six months at a time out at sea, he took supplies for local orphanages. My mother feared he’d return one day with more kids he’d decided to adopt in a foreign port. He ministered to the sailors, but he also interfaced with the ship's Captain. Captains couldn't exactly 'pal around' with their subordinates, so when they went ashore they'd typically go with the ship's doctor and Chaplain. Vern would use these opportunities to relate problems that the crew was having that they either couldn't voice, or that weren't reaching the commanders. He advised one Marine commander that he needed to cool his responses with his men, or else there was a good chance he’d be shot in the back during a mission since the men's morale was so low.
During the Tet Offensive, when his base was stormed in the middle of the night, he had to dive into a foxhole and the building he’d been sleeping in was blown up. He spent most of the night dodging bullets, caring for the wounded and pitching in where he could. He was awarded the Bronze Star for the work his did that day ministering to the wounded and dying.
He’d travel everywhere with his yeoman (a military secretary), his flak jacket, his metal communion kit, his collar and his pistol.
But for all his experience in the military, what probably affected him the most was probably one of the most minor. Descending a hill, he discovered he crossed a live minefield and almost triggered a mine just under his feet. That disturbed him deeply, and he always reflected, "I should have been killed". Seeing men wounded in battle and the emotional costs of the war didn’t disturb him as much as his own mortality did. But more than that, his faith was disturbed by what the war did to his view of his ministry. He'd been taught all his life that 'honesty is the best policy' and that being good is its own reward. But what he realized in the war was that the honorable, 'decent' men were the first killed, and it was the 'street smart' bad boys who survived, largely because they wouldn't volunteer for dangerous duties, would skirt dangerous activity, or would trade for better assignments or better equipment. Thus he felt that his teaching morality to his servicemen was, in essence, teaching them the wrong message and setting them up to be killed.
However, the turning point in his military career came when he testified on his own son's behalf during an infamous, landmark gay rights case that was widely reported in the media. For well over a year we couldn’t visit a newsstand without seeing a cover story about the case. This was especially true in Norfolk, where we were not only well known because my brother Copy had attended school there, but where the military personal felt threatened by him. Not only was my brother dishonorably discharged based on the unsubstantiated word of an unnamed informant, but his testimony ended Vern's career as well.
The most damning testimony he gave was when he said:
“Homosexuals that I have known in the military have done extremely well, getting to extremely high ranks after I first met them.”
My brother's defense attorney pressed him on that point.
“Are you saying that you know of homosexuals who are officers in the United Stated Navy today?”
“Do you know any of them of the rank of commander?”
“The rank of captain?”
“The rank of rear admiral?”
Needless to say, the military command wasn’t very appreciative of that testimony.
Finally, as if losing his faith in his ministry, the support of the military and his career weren’t bad enough, he ended up dying from lymphoma, a form of cancer caused by his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in Viet Nam. Thus as many we honor this Memorial day, he ended up losing his life because of his service on a foreign battlefield, only he didn’t die there and it took many years before he did. He felt he’d survived the war, but it followed him home.
Despite what happened to him, he never lost his belief in God, only in the benefits of his ministry. Instead of preaching the bible, he’d instead relate to people, listening to their problem and discussing issues on a variety of topics, relating a variety of information—including the scriptures—which they could turn to. But he touched many people during his life, even after giving up the ministry after he left the military. He aided a great many people, including many here, and left a long line of livelong friends behind.
Although his faith was tested in war, and he felt disillusioned by both his ministry and abandoned by the military, I don’t see that as a disappointment, and I know that he didn’t. Instead I see it as a reflection that war changes people. We send our sons, brothers and fathers off to war hoping they’ll return to us the same men we sent off, but that’s rarely the case. Even though many war veterans return physically whole doesn’t mean they weren’t changed by it in very fundamental ways. And I think we need to consider that as we consider those who serve in our stead.
The story of my brother’s trial is covered in the book “Conduct Unbecoming”, which has pictures of both my father and my brother. After the delivery, I also showed (as part of my show & tell) a couple photos, along with my father’s book of prayer, his service medals and his battlefield communion kit.