Not a Vet

June 16th, 2022

My son, Hans, called me a couple days ago. He lives down in Texas, and I haven’t seen him for over a year and a half, but we talk on the phone frequently. Hans was deployed with his Army unit to Iraq back in 2011. He got a little banged up while he was over there. Some bad things happened. It seems like when we talk, the conversation always winds up with us recalling our military experiences.

Hans started the call by saying,

“Well, I had an interesting time at Kroger’s today.”

I knew that I would regret asking, but I said, “What happened?”

Hans drawled, “Well, I was grocery shopping and I see this guy wearing an Army uniform. I had to look twice because that kind of uniform went out of service about the time I got out. Nobody in the Army wears that uniform anymore.

I looked closer at this guy, and nothing seemed right. He had no nametag. He had a Texas flag as a patch on his right shoulder. Nothing on his left shoulder. At least, he had his trouser legs tucked into his boots.

People were talking with him and offering to buy him stuff. That kind of bothered me.

I went up to this guy, and I asked him, ‘Where is your unit patch? How come you don’t have a nametag?’

Well, he started talking this shit about being Special Forces, and that he didn’t need the unit patch or a name tag. I told him that I knew Special Forces people, and they wore nametags when they were in country.

The guy was telling people that he was a sergeant. You know what rank he had on his uniform?”

I replied, “No, what did he have?”

Hans answered, “Private First Class.”

I said, “That doesn’t seem quite right.”

Hans went on,

“No, it didn’t. So, I asked the guy if he wanted to see something that he never had in his whole life. He said, ‘Yeah’. I pulled out my wallet and showed him my old, expired military ID card. He didn’t say nothing.”

Hans sighed and said,

“If I had met this guy after I got back from Iraq, or when I got out of the Army, I would have punched him in the throat. But I didn’t. I got a family to care for, so I didn’t do anything to him, even though all these other folks were trying to buy him stuff because they thought he was real. I just walked out of the store.”

I said, “Good move.”

We were quiet for a while. Neither of us spoke, then Hans said,

“Dad, why do people do that stuff? Why make believe like that? It was disrespectful, disrespectful of everything.”

I did a mental shrug and said, “Because they’re assholes.”

Hans asked, “Is it because they want the glory, but don’t want to do the job?”

“Hans, I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Hans told me, “There was an old man there, watching this guy. He was a Vietnam vet. When I got ready to leave the store, the Vietnam vet told me, ‘Son, don’t you worry. I’ll handle this.’ I didn’t stay, so I don’t know what he meant, but he said he’d handle it.”

Hans sounded depressed.

“Well, I just wanted you to know. I love you, Dad.”

“Love you too.”

Pilgrimage

June 11th, 2022

“A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.” – Tao Te Ching

“My turning point was my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It was then that I, who had dedicated most of my life to penetrate the ‘secrets’ of the universe, realized that there are no secrets. Life is and will always be a mystery.” ~ Paulo Coehlo

I know two people who are on a pilgrimage. They are both friends of mine, but they don’t know each other. They are walking along the “Camino de Santiago” in Spain. “The Way of St. James” is 475 miles long and ends up at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. One of my friends appears to be traveling the entire route all in one shot. He will be walking for well over a month, maybe two. The other person I know has been doing the pilgrimage in series of smaller segments, giving himself and his wife the opportunity to rest.

My wife, Karin, and I have often thought about hiking on the Camino. However, that seems to be beyond our capabilities. Karin, since she had COVID in 2020, gets out of breath easily. A walk around the neighborhood is usually all she can handle. I also had COVID, and I find that strenuous activities are sometimes overwhelming. for me. We could potentially walk a short stretch of the Camino, but that would be about it.

My wife and I became the legal guardians of our toddler grandson, Asher last week. This fact is a greater obstacle to the making a pilgrimage than our physical condition. B.A. (Before Asher), we used to travel extensively, sometimes being away from home for a month or more. This is no longer the case. Now, it is a major effort just to get across town with the little boy in tow. I cannot imagine Karin or I going to Spain until Asher is much older, but then of course we too will be much older.

Why go on a pilgrimage? A person who makes a pilgrimage is by definition a seeker. Some seekers have a clear idea of what they hope to find. Some just have an emptiness inside that has to be filled. They know that they need whatever is missing, but they may have no idea what it is. I guess a pilgrimage is a journey to find something, although that something is often difficult to describe. Maybe it is an attempt to find God, or peace, or meaning. Each person seeks something unique, something that they understand intuitively, but perhaps not rationally.

It seems that almost all religious traditions encourage some sort of pilgrimage. Hindus travel to Benares on the Ganges. Muslims are supposed to make a trip to Mecca at least once in their lives. Jews visit the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Catholics go to Rome.

I’ve been to Jerusalem. That was almost forty years ago. I went there as a tourist, not as a pilgrim. I found the city to be fascinating, but nothing there resonated with me. Other people were in Jerusalem as pilgrims, and that place meant everything to them. In physical terms, Jerusalem was the same for me as it was for the pilgrims. However, our experiences were radically different. The difference was a result of who we were when we visited that city, and why we were there.

A pilgrimage is symbolic of the journey of life. Some people focus intently on the final destination. Some pay attention to the day-to-day experiences. Chogyam Trungpa, the Buddhist teacher wrote a book called “The Path is the Goal”. The gist of the book is that the process is what matters. St Catherine of Siena once said that all the way to heaven is heaven. Some Christians obsess about getting to heaven, when perhaps in actuality heaven is already here.

In my experiences with Buddhists, I have heard the idea that all of us have an essential Buddha nature. We are already perfect, but we don’t realize it. This might mean that going on a pilgrimage is superfluous, because we already have whatever we seek. I’m not sure about that. Sometimes, a person needs to leave home to come home. Sometimes, we have to go through enormous struggles and travel great distances to understand we had it all from the very beginning.

Referring back to our grandson, Asher, it is obvious to me that he is embarked on a remarkable journey. Our toddler is on a pilgrimage. He may never leave this town. He might never go anywhere far away. It doesn’t matter. He is starting on a path that will lead him to new worlds. He is beginning something exciting and wonderful.

I don’t need to go to Santiago de Compostela. I don’t need to go to Rome or Tibet. I can go with Asher on his journey. It will be an excellent pilgrimage. Asher will show me things that I have never imagined.

Shrapnel

June 14th, 2022

My son, Hans, called me from Texas a couple days ago. He drawled,

“Hey Dad, our power’s out.”

“That’s no good. Isn’t it stupid hot down there?”

“Yeah, it is. You want to know why the power is out?”

I never know how to answer that sort of question. So, I said, “Sure.”

“A transformer blew up.”

“Wait. Now what happened?”

Hans took a breath and said, “Well, it was one of those small transformers, the kind that sit up on top of the poles. You know, the kind with the ceramic insulation.”

I didn’t know what he meant, but I let him keep talking. Hans was on a roll.

He continued, “I didn’t see it explode, but I heard it. It brought back all sorts of stuff from Iraq when I heard it go bang. I hit the ground.”

“Okay.”

Hans went on, “At first I thought I thought it might be somebody popping off fireworks, but it didn’t sound right. It sounded just like an IED.”

“Okay, so what does an IED sound like?”

Hans replied, “They have a funny noise when they go off. I can tell the sound of flying pieces of metal. I know what shrapnel sounds like.”

We were both quiet for a moment. Then Hans said,

“Well, I just wanted you know what has been going on down here. I’m okay. I didn’t have a heart attack when I heard the explosion.”

“I’m glad.”

Hans was deployed in Iraq over a decade ago. It amazes me that he still remembers the sound of flying shrapnel, and that his reflex is to automatically fall to the ground when he hears that sound.

It makes me sad too.

Black and White

June 3rd, 2022

Suzanne came over to our house on Friday. Karin and I were expecting her. She had been planning to visit us for quite a while. She takes photos. She’s been studying her trade for a number of years, and she wants to be a professional photographer in her second career once she retires from teaching at the local community college. Suzanne is working on her portfolio, and she wanted to take some pictures of Asher, our toddler grandson. She takes photos with film and digitally. She chose to shoot her pictures of Asher in black and white.

I don’t know much about photography. Suzanne does. She is an artist. She can take a scene and emphasize a particular aspect of it. She can find a story in a human face and somehow tell that story without words. Hers is a subtle art, a nonverbal way of depicting reality. We know Suzanne from the Zen sangha. Her work is very Zen, very intuitive, much more so than my scribbling.

Suzanne and her husband came into the house and looked around for a place to shoot a portrait of Asher. They decided to seat Asher on to my footlocker, the one I had from my days in the Army. I told them,

“That footlocker is pretty old.”

Her husband turned to me and replied, “Yes, you went to West Point, and you were a second lieutenant.” Then he looked at the writing on the footlocker.

It says, “2nd Lieutenant Francis K. Pauc” on the top.

Suzanne smiled and asked me, “Does that feel like another lifetime?”

I told her, “Yeah, like different incarnation.”

Suzanne knows about my history. She knows I was an Army helicopter pilot in the 80’s. She knows that our eldest son, Hans, fought in Iraq. She probably knows that Karin’s father was an enlisted man in the Luftwaffe during WWII. She knows that generation after generation somebody has worn a uniform in our family. She also knows that isn’t how we wanted things to be. Karin and I did all we could do dissuade Hans from joining the Army. He did anyway. His time in Iraq did not go well.

Suzanne and her husband set up the camera, the lighting, and the backdrop. We all cajoled Asher into sitting quietly on the footlocker. We were sometimes successful with that. Suzanne took a number of photos. Photographing a little boy is kind of a crap shoot. The photographer never knows what he or she will get as a result. Asher the photo shoot, Suzanne packed everything up.

A couple days ago, she sent me a copy of one of the pictures of Asher.

She titled it: “On my grandfather’s Army footlocker, that I may never see war.”

Guns

May 25th, 2022

Yesterday, Salvador Ramos stormed into Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, and killed nineteen children and two adults. Ramos died during his attack on the school.

Another week, another mass murder.

I should feel something: shock, sorrow, outrage. I don’t. I just feel numb. I feel numb because this slaughter happens over and over again in our country, and nothing will be done to stop it. Perhaps nothing can be done. I know in my heart that this will happen again.

I am sure that some politicians are screaming for gun control, and that others are fighting that tooth and nail. After the headlines from Uvalde fade and we are distracted by other events, there will be no change. We will just keep doing what we have been doing, with the same predictable results.

I was in the Army back in the 80’s, and my oldest son, Hans, served in Iraq. We have argued about guns frequently over the years. I don’t own any guns. Hans has numerous firearms. We have gone shooting together several times. At this point, both of us agree that gun control is not a good idea, simply because it cannot possibly work in our country.

I do not believe that new gun control laws will do any good. We can’t or won’t enforce the laws that we already have. We can’t get rid of guns in the United States. We can’t control the supply of guns. We can’t even trace most of them. There are more firearms in the U.S. than there are people. America is awash with weapons, and there is no conceivable way to keep track of them. A War on Guns would be just as effectively as the War on Drugs: not at all.

Other democratic countries have stringent gun laws. The citizens of those nations abide by those rules. They follow the laws because within those societies there is a consensus that gun control is necessary for the common good. There is no such consensus here.

Hans lives down in Texas. That state has a strong gun culture. Hans has friends who are gun owners (a group which includes damn near everybody in Texas), and they are adamantly opposed to any government oversight with regards to firearms. It doesn’t matter what happens what kind tragedy occurs. They will not give up their guns. Period.

The problem is not with gun ownership. Although I have no firearms, I have no issue with other people, like my son, owning them. A gun is an inanimate object that is not intrinsically good or evil. Guns are by nature dangerous, but not necessarily wicked. I enjoy going with Hans to target practice. Shooting off rounds can be fun. In the hands of somebody who is sane and sober a gun can be quite useful.

The problem is, in my opinion, the fact that most people in the United States believe that killing somebody is a legitimate way to solve a problem. Our nation was born in violence, and we have been at war with somebody somewhere almost ever since that moment. Our culture worships violence. Americans can be described in many ways: brave, industrious, inventive, generous. However, I have never heard of Americans being described as peace-loving. That we are not. There are American pacifists like the Catholic Workers or the Quakers, but these people are rare, and they are the exception to the rule.

There are times when violence may be necessary. Some changes in our history have not occurred peacefully. Slavery was only ended through a bloody civil war. Fascism was only defeated by our nation’s involvement in World War II. However, we have made violence a fetish. It is our default mode. Our media glorifies violence and conflict at every opportunity. How many movies have you seen that have a peaceful reconciliation of adversaries?

Gun control will not work until there is a seismic shift of values in our society. Until Americans decide to forego violence, nothing will change.

Two Fathers, Two Sons

May 15th, 2022

There is an old man who comes to the synagogue. He always sits in the back row. He must be in his 80’s, but he is surprisingly vigorous for his age. His face is deeply lined, but it is still strong and alert. He looks like a man who has been though a lot, but he isn’t quite finished with life yet.

I stood near him after the Shabbat service. We were sharing a drink during kiddush. He saw that I was wearing a t-shirt with some writing on it about veterans. The old guy was from Ukraine, and he came to the U.S. many years ago as a refugee. He asked me with his heavy Slavic accent,

“You, you are a veteran?”

“Yeah.”

“What service were you in?”

“I was in the Army, the American Army.”

He nodded gravely, and asked, “So, what you do in Army?”

“I was a helicopter pilot, an aviator.”

The old man nodded approvingly, and said, “My son, he too is a veteran. He went to Soviet radio school, like I did.”

I replied, “My son is a vet. He served in Iraq.”

The old man looked at me and started talking. We weren’t really having a conversation anymore. He wanted, or needed, to tell me a story about something important to him. He just wanted me to listen. He asked me to give him a ride home. As I drove, he spoke about his son.

“My son, he was in the radio school. He graduated with honors. They sent him to a military base in Kyiv in 1981. He would write us letters. Then, no more letters. For three months, we hear nothing from him. No letters. You understand?”

“Yeah.”

“We write a letter to his commander. The commander, he writes back that my son is on “secret military assignment”. We don’t know where. You understand?”

“Yeah.”

“After six months, we hear from our son. He was in Afghanistan with Soviet Army. He was at radar station. The Muslim fighters, they were shooting rockets at his base. These rockets, back then they come from here, from America. You understand?”

‘Yeah, go ahead.”

“The army have trucks there. The Muslims have put in the ground mines. Not just one or two; they put in many mines. My son was in second truck. The first truck hit a mine. Nothing left of it. Not even metal. Nothing! You understand?”

“Yeah, where do I turn?”

He pointed in my direction, “Make a left here.”

Then he continued, “My son, his truck go over a mine. Big explosion. He is thrown from truck. He is hurt bad, remembers nothing. They fix him in hospital. He got two artificial ribs! You understand?”

“Yeah.”

“Soviet Army discharges my son. They just send him away. No pension, no money. Nothing. They need him no more. They just used him.”

I could taste the bitterness in the father’s voice. I told him,

“The Army did the same with my son.”

He asked, “American Army? They do that?’

“Yeah.”

The old man shook his head. He asked me,

“What happened with your son? Was he in Afghanistan?”

“No, he was in Iraq.”

The man nodded, “Yes, you said this before. I remember now. He was in Iraq.”

I continued, “He got hurt. He got shot once. He killed a guy. He stabbed him to death.”

The old man asked me,

“How old is your son?”

“He’s thirty-five.”

The man replied, “My son is sixty-two.”

The father thought for a minute. Then he told me,

“I wanted to be an aviation engineer. But the Soviet aviation school did not allow any Jew to come. My father told me that I was wasting my time with tests for that school. They would never let me in. Why? Because I am a Jew!”

There had been anger in the old man’s voice. He continued, now sounding sad,

“My son, he went to the radio school, like I did, like my father did. My father was a colonel in the Soviet Army.”

The old guy said, “My son, he has PTSD. Your son too?”

“Yeah.”

“Your son drink a lot?”

“Yeah.”

The old man said, “My son too.”

Then he looked up and said, “That is my house. There. Stop.”

He asked me, “You got card with your name and phone number?”

“No, but I can write it down.”

“Do that.”

I wrote down my contact information, and he then wrote down his.

The man looked at me and said,

“I think we be friends. Not just in the synagogue. You understand? I think we have similar experience. You understand? I think we be friends.”

He shook my hand. He said again,

“You understand?”

“I understand.”

Reading the News

May 13th, 2022

“I read the news today, oh boy…” – John Lennon

Yesterday, among all of the breaking news stories, there was a brief video clip on the Internet showing the Ukrainians blasting a Russian helicopter that was flying over Snake Island on the Black Sea. I was an aviator back in the day, so the video intrigued me. I clicked on it. As I watched the drone blow up the Russian aircraft I thought, “Wow! Good job!”

Later, I thought, “How many Russian soldiers got killed in that attack?”

I suddenly felt disgusted with myself for looking at the video clip. It was like I had been watching porn. I had viewed the killing of several human beings. Granted, I had only seen the helicopter explode, but there had been people on board, certainly the pilots had been. They probably had families. Somebody somewhere would miss them.

How did that video even qualify as news? What could anybody possibly learn from watching it?

I don’t watch the news on TV. I don’t listen to talk radio. I read the news on the Internet, and even then, I do it, with some reluctance. There is no such thing as objective news reporting. There probably never has been.

The coverage of the war in the Ukraine bothers me. The media seem to be nudging us closer and closer to war with Russia. The Russians are consistently portrayed as the bad guys, and for the most part they are. They are the aggressors in this war, and they make no bones about it. However, there are little things that I notice when I read the descriptions of the war that disturb me. When the Russians lose people or weapons, that makes the headlines. Seldom do I read about the Russians killing Ukrainian troops or destroying Ukrainian ordnance. I read article after article about the Russian soldiers refusing orders or sabotaging their own equipment. I never read about low morale with the Ukrainians. According to the news, the Russians seem to be committing war crimes continually. Are the Ukrainians ever involved in atrocities? If so, nobody mentions it.

The media have sucked us into wars in the past. Look at our country’s involvement in the Spanish-American War. Yellow journalism was utilized before that war to increase readership. “Remember the Maine!” was the rallying cry in the Hearst newspapers. The media in 1898 convinced the American public that the Spanish had blown up an American ship in the Havana harbor. The country went in a war frenzy, and suddenly Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were fighting in Cuba. The media at the time convinced us that we were liberating Cuba, but 120 years later, it doesn’t look like that’s what really happened.

I want the Ukrainians to win this war. They are defending their homeland. However, I feel like the media are portraying the Russian soldiers as negatively as possible. Most of these troops are not criminals or monsters. Most of them are ordinary people caught up in events over which they have no control. They are to be pitied, not hated. I don’t want to feel like cheering when I see an image of a Russian tank or helicopter being obliterated by weapons we gave to the Ukrainians. I don’t want more people to die, whether they be Ukrainian or Russian.

When I read the news, I have the suspicion that I am being manipulated. I don’t like that.

Roe Versus Wade

May 10th, 2022

I want to write about abortion, but I am reluctant to so, basically because I am a man. I don’t know what it is like to be pregnant, because I can’t know. By the same token, I cannot know what a woman feels when she gets an abortion. So, whatever I say may seem inaccurate or misguided. That being the case, if you choose not to read this essay, I understand. Go ahead and click on something else.

Thirty-two years ago, my wife developed intense abdominal pains. We went to her gynecologist, and the doctor determined that she had an ectopic pregnancy. A fertilized egg was growing in her fallopian tube. The physician recommended immediate surgery to remove the embryo. My wife was shocked by the diagnosis, and she wondered if there was a way to save the unborn child. There wasn’t. The doctor told her that if nothing was done, the child would die, and she would die.

My wife had the laparoscopic surgery. It saved her life. Because my wife had the surgery and survived, our daughter was born a little over a year later. Because our daughter was born, my wife and now I have our toddler grandson, Asher, running around the house, simultaneously bringing us blessings and chaos.

My wife had an abortion. It can be argued that the unborn child would have died anyway. It can be argued that, if we had done nothing, my wife would have died along with the baby, and I would have become a widower to care for our oldest son alone. However, we did in fact consciously choose to destroy the fertilized egg.

Even after all these years, we grieve over this event. We would not make a different decision now, even if we could. We did what had to be done. It still hurts. It will always hurt.

When I think about women who consider having an abortion, I think about my wife. I think about the trauma and the sorrow. I think about the years required to have the wounds heal.

I think about having compassion and empathy for suffering that I can never understand.

In Another Life

May 2nd, 2022

I have a friend who is an Afghan refugee. He and his family fled Kabul shortly before the city fell to the Taliban. They are safe now in another country thousands of miles away from their homeland. My friend was trained by the United States to be a helicopter pilot, which explains his abrupt departure from Afghanistan. Recently, he sent me a photo of himself sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft. He is wearing his reflector shades, so he is barely recognizable in the picture. I think he intended it to be that way.

I decided to return the favor. I dug through my archives and found a black and white photo of my flight platoon when I was stationed in West Germany back in the early 1980’s. The picture is four decades years old, and I sent a copy to my friend, asking him if he could pick me out of the lineup. I haven’t heard back from him yet.

I posted the photo at the beginning of this essay. Go ahead and look at it. I’ve been looking at it, and I’ve been remembering.

There is no date on the picture. I am guessing it is from late 1982 or the beginning of 1983. That’s forty years ago. The Black Hawk in the background must have been brand new at the time. Our unit was transitioning from Hueys to Black Hawks at the time. We were also transitioning from a Corps level unit to an aviation company belonging to the 3rd Armored Division. Our equipment was changing, and our mission was changing. Everything was changing.

On a global scale, things were in flux. Brezhnev died about that time and the Soviet Union was in the midst of a leadership struggle. Reagan was ranting about the “Evil Empire”. The Cold War was very real. We were all waiting for Armageddon to start.

I was section leader in my platoon. I think that I had just become a 1st lieutenant. I never really understood my duties as a section leader. I don’t think anyone else did either. I was kind of superfluous. If I had questions, I was told to look in the unit’s SOP. The book of the SOP (standard operating procedures) was usually either missing and/or being revised. There wasn’t any kind of mentoring system as far as I could tell. I was on my own, so I drifted.

The Army at that time was trying to reinvent itself. There was still a hangover from the Vietnam years. The military was slowly purging itself from the drugs and the low morale. The Army was now a volunteer force, and nobody seemed to know how to deal with that. There were more women in the Army, and more minorities. Sexism and racism had to be confronted somehow. Oh, and it was also peacetime, albeit an edgy sort of peace. What does an army do during peacetime? What was the mission?

My commander had a poster in his office from Afghanistan. He was a big fan of the Muhajideen. I think he had actually been in Afghanistan briefly. That was back was when the Soviets were in that country, and we were rooting for the Muslim insurgents to drive out the invaders. It seems ironic now.

God, I was a fucking idiot during that time. I was bored. I had a purpose when I was flying on a mission, but otherwise, I was just looking for something to do. I hung out with the pilots. Sometimes we trained. Sometimes we just killed time. In my free time I got drunk…a lot.

I am surprised that I didn’t get into any serious trouble. I was certainly looking for it. I remember going to the red-light district in Frankfurt with a couple guys on Christmas Eve. We went to some brothel. Even now, the memory of that night depresses me. We got the come on from the whores. It was all a sales pitch. It was sex without love, purely a business transaction. One of the guys made a purchase. I didn’t. It was profoundly disturbing.

I was intensely lonely. It was difficult to connect with the other people in the unit, most because it was transient population. People were constantly coming and going. By the time I could make a friend, they were getting ready to make a PCS (permanent change of station). Most of the people in the photo were to a large extent strangers to me. I don’t remember their names, and I doubt that they remember mine. There are two pilots in the picture who I still count as friends. Even after all these years, we still stay in contact. I am grateful for that.

I didn’t know German will enough at that time to feel at all comfortable among the locals. I rented an apartment from an elderly German couple. I used to drink with the old man. He showed me pictures from his youth. I remember one photo of him smiling. He was in his uniform with a swastika armband. That guy had been a Nazi, a real one. Most of the time, it seemed that I wandered through German towns alone. Even when I was in a crowd, I was alone. Ever since that time, I have felt a deep sympathy for migrants. It is hard to be among strangers in a strange land.

The German locals had a schizophrenic attitude toward the Americans (the Amis). They tolerated the American troops. The Germans made money off the GIs, but they really didn’t want them around. The Germans from my generation were often leftwing pacifists, and they considered us to be an occupying force. In a way they were right. We were had been on their turf for almost forty years at that time, and we weren’t leaving. I remember seeing graffiti on a brick wall in Hanau that said,

“Amis raus!” (Americans out!)

I enjoyed it when we had interoperability exercises with our sister unit from the Bundeswehr. We used to fly with them when we still had the Hueys. It was through the guys in the Fliegende Abteilung301 in Niederstetten that I met my future wife. How I met Karin is long story, and I won’t go into it here. It’s odd. I seldom had a strong relationship with my American comrades, but the Germans pilots took care of me.

I look at the photo and I find it difficult to recognize myself. Who was I then?

That was another life.

Commitment

April 29th, 2022

Last week Karin and I attended Father Richard’s funeral. He was our parish priest years ago. We sat in a pew with our little grandson, Asher, while Father Richard’s family members wheeled the casket into the sanctuary. Archbishop Listecki presided over the funeral Mass. There were at least twenty priests in attendance, most of them dressed in their vestments. As the archbishop began the liturgy, three things were placed on top of the coffin: a chalice, a crucifix, and the Book of the Gospels. Those objects represented the essential aspects of the life that this priest had chosen.

I looked at the priests gathered at the side of the altar. A phrase popped into my head”

“A band of brothers.”

I know that the term is usually used in a military sense, but I think it also applies to the priesthood. All those priests had committed themselves to a life of obedience and chastity. Through their training and ordination, they had become connected to Christ and to each other in a way that outsiders can never understand.

Forty-two years ago, I was taking a management class at West Point. The instructor told the class,

“I am going to describe an organization to you. I want you to tell me what it is.

In this organization people often wear uniforms. There is a rigid hierarchy and rank structure. A member of this organization can be ordered to move at a moment’s notice. Promotion, if it happens at all, is slow.”

Some of my classmates quickly raised their hands, and said, “The Army!”

The instructor shook his head.

I raised my hand and told him, “The Roman Catholic Church.”

He smiled and nodded.

The Catholic Church and the military share much in common. They are both authoritarian in nature. This fact sometimes offends the democratic sensibilities of our culture, but it is so. I remember when I was on the parish council and Father Richard was our pastor. We, the members of the council, were trying to decide on a policy change for our church. The proposed change was divisive. After a long discussion among the council members, we decided to take a vote. Father Richard looked at all of us and said,

“Go ahead on vote on this, but remember that my vote is the only one that counts.”

A priest is essential to the Catholic Church. A priest, through his ordination, is authorized to celebrate the Mass and consecrate the bread and wine. No lay person can do that. The center of the Catholic tradition is the Mass, and the beating heart of the Mass is the Eucharist. Without a priest, the bread and wine cannot be transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. Catholicism can’t exist without that transformation.

Years of formation and the sacrament of Holy Orders make a priest qualitatively different from other people. That doesn’t mean that a priest is necessarily better than others in a moral sense. We know for a fact that is not always the case. However, a priest is not one of the boys. He can’t be like everyone else. He is set apart from the rest of humanity, except for his brother priests.

A priest is a pastor, a shepherd of souls, and is often a CEO of a small corporation, the parish church. At least, that is how it works in America. Father Richard was good as an administrator, but his heart was in his spiritual work. He took pride and pleasure in providing the sacraments to his parishioners. He was called to guide the members of his flock to God. His purpose was to serve.

Does a soldier serve? Is a member of the military set apart from the rest of society? When a veteran dies, is his or her funeral the same as everyone else’s?

It is said that a priest receives an indelible though invisible mark upon his soul at his ordination. The person is fundamentally changed. When a person becomes a soldier, are they not also changed in a profound and permanent way?

Thirty years ago, I went on a religious retreat. During a counseling session with a Jesuit, the priest told me,

“You will always be a soldier.”

He was right. In a way, I will always have that mark on me. I will always be a bit different from the people who surround me. I will always need, at times, to find solace in the company of other vets.

Priests and soldiers have starkly different missions in life. However, both soldiers and priests make open-ended commitments to a greater cause. That makes us counter-cultural, and therefore we are set apart from the majority of people.

Father Richard was a good man and a good priest. He did his duty, and he did it with love.

“It is accomplished.” – Jesus