Vernon J. Baker, an African American who received the Medal of Honor for his heroic service in Italy during World War II, died this past July. His picture is displayed in the Pentagon. Beneath the picture are his eloquent and deeply moving words about war and war's impact on the lives of those who serve. Baker wrote: "War is the most regrettable proving ground. Those who launch it, and those who seek to create heroes from it, should remember war's legacy. You have to be there to appreciate its horrors — and die to forget them."
There are many veterans in our country today who know first-hand the truth of Baker's words. Veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are living their war's legacy. For many, the legacy is one of pride for having served and helped to preserve freedom for ourselves and win it for others. For some, the legacy includes unhealed wounds of the body, mind or spirit; living with addictions, broken relationships, dreams that haunt their nights, feelings of shame or guilt because of what they did, or deep grief because of what and whom they have lost.
Though we hate war and may disagree about the justification for particular wars, we are morally obligated to recognize the sacrifices of those who have served on our behalf, and to care for them in return. We also have a moral obligation as Christians and citizens to demand of our leaders that no wars be entered into unless the cause is clearly just.
Today we hear words that were not often uttered a generation ago: "Thank you for your service." Though these words will never go far enough to bring healing for some wounds, it is at least a way to acknowledge what veterans have given to us and to our nation.
So, this Veterans Day we say to our veterans, "Thank you for your service — and may the peace of God be with you."
Veterans' Day Prayer
God, we give you thanks today for our nation's veterans. We honor them for their faithful service to our country, and for what they have done to defend and preserve our freedom. Generation after generation, young men and women have answered our country's call. And as a result, their lives have been changed forever.
We are grateful to all who have served, whether in peacetime or in periods of conflict. But today we especially remember those who have been tempered by fire, those who continue to bear wounds of the body or the spirit as a result of what they endured. They lie in our veterans' hospitals or struggle for recovery in rehabilitation centers; they suffer from post-traumatic stress and survivor' guilt; they yearn for peace in their souls.
Dear God, we ask you to heal their wounds, to banish whatever inner demons may haunt them, and to give them peace within so they may return fully to their families and to society.
We thank you, God, for all of our country's veterans—those of past generations, and those who continue to earn this title today. May we never forget what our country has asked of them and what they have given in return. Help us to care enough to give them the respect and honor they are due. And strengthen our resolve to build a world modeled on your realm, where war will be pursued no more.
This we ask in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Amen.
The Rev. John Gundlach is the UCC's minister for government chaplancies and a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years.