Memorial Day weekend is always a time to honor the men and women who have lost their lives in service to our country.
It can also be a time to honor our current armed forces.
This coming holiday weekend, as we reflect upon the sacrifices our military men and women have made, here are a few numbers to consider. The numbers represent those currently serving in our all-volunteer armed forces, and they remind us that such service always — always — involves a call to honor, whether the nation is enjoying the luxury of peace or the tribulation of war.
Today, nearly 1.4 million men and women serve in the nation’s military and nearly 25 percent of them are Catholic. They are counseled, guided and ministered to by slightly fewer than 240 Catholic chaplains. (The military as a whole has about 2,900 chaplains, according to a U.S. armed forces website.)
Those chaplaincy numbers are down — way down. But the need for the services of Catholic chaplains is as significant now as it has been anytime since the end of our world wars.
Father Benjamin J.F. Brown is well aware of those needs. In fact, he spent just a few months shy of 20 years as a Navy chaplain, often serving with Marine units during both the calm of peacetime and the violence of war.
He knows the apprehension and anxiety of notifying next-of-kin about their fallen soldier or Marine. He knows the need for a supportive shoulder and a calming voice for the young lieutenant who’s just lost members of his platoon to enemy fire. And he knows the need for guidance, spiritual and personal, to the young men and women caught in a maelstrom of violence, or adrift in their personal worlds away from home and family.
The services of a chaplain are in constant demand for those few who serve so many.
Father Brown, who retired from the military as a Navy Lieutenant Commander, saw those needs first-hand in Iraq.
“One of the things I did as a chaplain and senior officer,” he explained, “was to attend the colonel’s briefing every day, and that gave me some knowledge and insight that young Marines serving at a roadblock in the 114-degree heat didn’t have.”
Those Marines would often wonder, during their time on roadblock or guard duty, exactly what they’d been called to do.
“If you asked him why he thought he was there at that roadblock, he’d say ‘because my gunnery sergeant told me to do it,’ ” Father Brown noted. “So I was able to tell him that, no, there was more to the mission than that,” he said.
In the first of two battles for Fallujah, for instance, one particular road the Marines were guarding had been used by the enemy as an escape route.
“I could tell him he was helping to keep the bad guys from escaping; I could give him an explanation for what he was doing that he didn’t have,” Father Brown said, “simply because I was privy to a briefing and he wasn’t.”
In another instance, Father Brown helped console a group of Marines whose convoy had been ambushed. One of their vehicles had struck a buried bomb that blew two Marines some 50 feet into the air, he said, while reducing the inside of the armored vehicle to a blast furnace. Several didn’t escape.
“So I was there (at a medical center) where there were corpsmen who were saving lives,” he said. “Four years ago they were in high school and now they’re holding, literally holding, lives in their hands.”
The corpsmen needed counseling and debriefing that a chaplain could provide, as did the officers who’d lost members of their command, and who burned with an anger that few people ever experience.
“He’s wound tight, ready to say, ‘Let’s go and get those guys who killed my men,’ and I can perhaps guide him another way,” Father Brown said. “I can say, ‘How about we go see how the rest of your platoon is doing?’ It gives him a chance to unwind, to let the rawness of his emotions calm a bit.”
Those might be extreme examples of the ministering hands a chaplain can provide, but Father Brown noted that in other, simpler times, the corps of chaplains provide services every bit as needed, if less dramatic.
A new member of the armed forces might be away from a new wife or an old girlfriend; they might be separated from the only home, the only comfort, they’ve ever known.
“Every member of the military has left the familiar behind,” he said. And nearly everyone needs the compassion of a chaplain, the comfort of a priest at some point during their time of service, he added.
So this weekend, while we honor and pray for our dead soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen. Let’s take a moment and remember those who serve us today. They could use the attention, and they always need our prayers.
Record Editor Emeritus