Tuesday, August 4, 2009

16. Soldier Boy

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

(Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen, 1917)

On a recent Southwest Airlines flight from Nashville to Baltimore I was one of the last to board the full flight. I took the first middle seat I saw, which happened to be next to a handsome young soldier, one of a couple dozen on the plane. Normally I immediately bury my head in a book in order to skip the chit-chat with the person next to me, but when the flight attendant announced Let’s show our men and women in uniform how much we appreciate them he and I made eye contact. I felt compelled to ask the proverbial Where are you going? and when he answered Afghanistan the conversation began.

Chris, based in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, is 23 and an Army officer from a military family. He was headed to a helicopter base near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan where he will be a maintenance supervisor. A recent college graduate, he chose the military both for job security and because it is in his blood.

I asked how his parents were handling his deployment (pretty well, since his father is career military) and what his living conditions would be (a tent, some access to phone and internet services, a softball field). I wondered about the preparation he’d had for the trip, such as language and culture studies. His answer was not reassuring. Perhaps I detected some apprehension in his face, but no real fear.

Truthfully, I’m not clear anymore why we are in Afghanistan. To me it’s just another part of an unjustified, endless war that we cannot win. All of it is very, very far away and removed from my own life. But meeting Chris suddenly made it real to me, with a personal, human dimension. I was taken aback at his young, tender age, and the ages of all those with him. My daughter is 24. How, oh how, can we send our young people into these ambiguous situations? If they are lucky enough to come back alive, there is a good chance they will be seriously injured, either physically or emotionally.

Since this encounter I’ve become aware that Afghanistan is in the news everyday and that troubles there are escalating. In the newspaper I’ve begun reading the weekly summary of our soldiers killed there and in Iraq and I am sadly reminded of the fragile and transient nature of life. I fear that we are in a situation that will only escalate, with tragic results, as we fight an ill-defined enemy seemingly able to outwit our best intelligence.

At my church Chris and his company have been added to the Prayers of the People every Sunday morning. May they return home alive, healthy and whole.

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)

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