Wednesday, March 26, 2008

From into my face to the face of God...

I heard a chaplain whose ministry is at a VA hospital talking about how he gets a notice on his computer screen each time a member of the US military is killed in Iraq. It shows the name, the home town, where the person died and how, among other details. He says it's a moving experience and that it has had a profound impact on him.

It reminded me of being a young Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps, in 1967-68. I was working in the Casualty Reporting Section at Fleet Marine Force Pacific Headquarters. It was my job, each morning, to go down to the Communications Center and pick up a stack of messages. These pieces of paper documented the death or wounding of a Marine in Southeast Asia. Once I got this stack of papers up to the office my fellow Marines and I took information from each message and did various kinds of processing.

The dead all got their own, separate message, three pages, stapled together. The wounded were listed on a single sheet, like a roster.

Over time, I saw names that I recognized from boot camp, and one day I say my older brother's name on the roster of wounded--although he was not in the Marine Corps and I knew him to be safely in Austin, Texas, working at my dad's all-you-could-eat buffet. But it was his name, first, last, middle. I looked at it for a good long time. I cut out that entry and put it under the clear plastic cover on top of my desk blotter.

After a time I could not do that job, any more, and had to be transferred. That daily routine began the process that moved me from Goldwater Republican to Kennedy Democrat and on and on right up to the present, in which I am a 60 year old non-partisan member of the Religious Society of Friends.

I'm not much on making people do anything. I would entreat all, however, to make a practice of taking a few moments to read the details, in so far as one can, given the state of our current media, each time one comes across an account of a soldier who has died. I wouldn't limit it to US soldiers in Iraq, either. I cannot help but think that one will be edified, if simultaneously unnerved, by doing this practice.

And I think it is a spiritual practice. I could tell from that chaplain's voice that it was a spiritual practice, a discipline, for him. Although I didn't know it at the time, my carrying those messages and processing the information in them was a spiritual practice for me. As surely as any regimen of prayer or mediation, any participation in the life of the meeting or contemplation of scripture, that daily observance, that acknowledgment of the fact of what was happening to real people, of the reality of death in war and the result of that for so many people, changed my condition. I was changed in a way that only my getting into sync with, being conformed to, the Spirit could possibly have transformed me.

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