Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Salute to the Bravehearts

Loving God, we commend to your care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces, at home or abroad, living or dead.  Bless the veterans of past conflicts, especially those suffering from the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds of war.  Strengthen them in their suffering, give them the peace of body and spirit they so long for, and help us to rid our hearts of the strife, violence, and anger which cause war.

It occurred to me today -- Veteran's Day, Remembrance Day (Canada), Armistice Day (1918) -- that 58% of my life has been lived under the shadow of war.  Born in 1937, I remember the days of blackouts for air raids and ration book stamps. My mom, single then, dated an Army Air Corps navigator during World War II.  The Vietnam War lumbered on for 15 years during the time I was completing theological studies, the time of my ordination, and the short time I was a Roman Catholic priest.  The Society of the Precious Blood, of which I was a member, was well represented with service chaplains. They served honorably, but most of them chose to leave the priesthood when they came back stateside.  A dramatic picture of an anguished Fr. Steve Almasy, ministering to a soldier, appeared on the cover of Life magazine.  In a contradiction strange to me even today, I was morally opposed to the war, yet I also volunteered to the Provincial, Fr. Dan Schaefer, to serve as an Air Force chaplain.  He refused my request, largely because my mom was seriously ill at the time; it proved to be the right decision.  Naive as I was at that time I would surely have got my arse shot off!

In 1965 I was teaching at Sacred Heart College, Wichita, KS (now Newman University).  Another priest colleague and I assisted the Catholic chaplain at McConnell Air Force Base, Fr. Tom Heffernan, celebrating Mass.  One weekend Tom invited us for dinner at the Officer's Club, and it was there, at the bar, that I met Lt. Capt. Robert E. Bush, Air Force. Bob was 37 years old; he and his wife had just adopted two little girls.  He told me he'd been to 'Nam for two tours of duty, and had just volunteered, as of November 11, for a third tour before retiring.  I remember asking him why he would do that, since he'd obviously already done his bit for God and country.  I don't remember the specifics, but his reply had to do with his genuine sense of duty to help get the mess in Vietnam over with.  

I asked Bob if he would come out to the college to speak to the students, to give them another viewpoint on the war.  I forewarned him that most of the young people were very much against the war and that he might get some tough questions.  He said he was OK with that; his quiet confidence was one of the things I admired about him.  The lecture and discussion afterwards went about as we'd expected.  They put him on the defense, but he never appeared rattled nor did he scorn their honest questions.  

We stayed in touch after that until Bob left McConnell in the late fall and returned to Vietnam to fly F-105 Thunderbirds. A few days after Christmas, 1965, I received a handwritten card from him, saying "Greetings across the miles."  He asked me to "throw in a few for me to the Man upstairs."   That was the last time I heard from Bob.  In March, 1966, I learned from Fr. Heffernan that Bob's plane had been shot down and that he was MIA.  I tried to reach his wife at the base, but by that time she'd apparently left with the kids to be with her parents, and I had no way of reaching her.  

Years later I saw a list of casualties which had been included on the wall of Maya Ying Lin's Vietnam War Memorial. Two Bushes were listed, both with the first name Robert.  I didn't know where Bob was from and there wasn't any other distinguishing information available.  In July, 2000, while surfing the Web, I happened on a newly available database listing Vietnam POW/MIA records.  Sure enough, there were the two Roberts.  This time, however, there was quite a bit more information and it took only a few minutes to determine that, indeed, Bob was one of the two.  His plane had gone down March 24, 1966 over North Vietnam.  Whether he died at that time or later is unknown.  The record gives the simple stark comment: "Died While Missing", and indicates that his "remains [were] returned as a result of negotiations" on December 15, 1988, and were positively identified on September 26, 1989.  

Three months after my discovery of the above information, in late October, 2000, a mobile replica of the Vietnam War Memorial came to Todd Grove Park in Ukiah, CA, where I was serving as Regional Missioner.  On October 30 I visited the memorial.  One of the guides kindly looked up the location of the panel where his name was and took me to it.  It's difficult to describe the overwhelming emotion that grabbed me as I saw his name etched there and ran my fingers across it.  The 35 years since we last spoke to one another disappeared as if it were yesterday.  Another opportunity for me to revisit the Memorial replica came on August 29 this year, with no less depth of feeling.  It has been good to have the chance to bid at least this brief and late farewell to my friend.

During my two visits to that Memorial replica, I also viewed and touched the name of a former fellow-seminarian. Army 2nd Lt. John James Glasper had been two years behind our class at Brunnerdale Seminary, Canton, OH, graduating in 1957.  I didn't know John well, but I remember him as a tall, thin, and shy young man.  On July 18, 1965, four and a half months before Bob left for Vietnam the last time, John was killed by hostile small arms gunfire in South Vietnam. Though he served his country for four years, he'd been in Vietnam only 22 days.  

In June, 1966, I celebrated the marriage of my cousins, Mike and Donna, at our home parish in Dayton.  Mike had just finished basic training in the Army.  Only 19, he shipped out for Vietnam 10 days later and returned over a year later severely scarred emotionally.  He'd fought at Quan Loi, outside Saigon, at Lac Ninh, Di An, and Lai Khe.  He was wounded twice, and was awarded a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars, an Air Medal, and an Army Commendation Medal: well-deserved honors, true, but small consolation in the light of personal physical and mental trauma and the loss of his favorite lieutenant and several close buddies.  It took many years for him to adjust and heal, but remarkably and thankfully he did.  He and I have never talked about his experiences. 

There are a number of others, relatives or friends of people I knew, who have made war seem very close and real to me, as close as their memory is this Veterans' Day.  I'm sure that many of us have had similar acquaintances, friendships and experiences touch our lives.  Whatever our politics or our moral convictions, let us never forget them. 

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