I love Assisi and the Military Veterans Pilgrimage. It’s helped to make me whole. In the spring of 1972 my life was interrupted by a draft notice. I was opposed to war then and now. I think there are better solutions to conflict and quite frankly it frightened me. The thought of a bullet or bomb ending my life wasn’t pleasant. I like to think I’m as patriotic as anyone else and I get tearful and goose bumps when I hear the National Anthem, America the Beautiful or My Country ‘Tis of Thee. In the spring of ‘72 I had a decision to make. Was I going to war or run away to Canada? Was I going to be a conscientious objector? I chose military service. I joined the United States Naval Reserve as a Hospital Corpsman.
I left for recruit training on August 23, 1972. I was scared. I thought this was the beginning of the end of my young life. Through the rigors of recruit training I found a way to help as I was appointed “Education Petty Officer.” I got the slow learners through. In the process of helping others I helped myself. I formed friendships and became part of the United Stares Navy. I looked handsome in my ‘whites’ and ‘dress blues.’ I fit in as a reluctant warrior. I did well. I carried the National Ensign at graduation from ‘boot camp.’ I was chosen for my military bearing. Imagine that, a reluctant warrior with poise and bearing.
I went on to Corps School at Great Lakes where I excelled, finishing 8th in a class of 68 other women and men. Upon graduation I left Great Lakes and my shipmates and over the next two years served with honor and distinction at two Naval medical facilities. I worked OB/Gyn and the newborn nursery at a dispensary at a Naval Air Station that no longer exists. I assisted in the delivery of babies, took care of new mom’s and their newborns. I loved what I did.
In the midst of that my father died. I still remember the senior chief delivering the sad news. I remember walking back to my barracks that night in tears. The chief told me I could go home early but I chose to complete my shift in the newborn nursery. The little people assuaged my grief. Emergency leave followed and then back to duty. Soon after that a Middle East war put us on full alert. DEFCON 3, all leaves and liberty cancelled. I was frightened. The specter of war, combat and death became very real. I spent most of my waking hours in the chapel praying.
Eventually the emergency passed and there was a stand down from the alert. A no cost transfer put me closer to my mother and home. I spent the next year at the Naval Submarine Medical Center in Groton, Connecticut. I worked in the surgical clinic, drove ambulance, made petty officer third class and was named Command Sailor of the Quarter in July 1974. January 1975 I returned to civilian life. I stayed active in the Naval Reserve for two more years and did well their too. Eventually I was honorably discharged in June 1978. Despite my record of service I always felt less than, I’d never been in combat. I answered my country’s call in time of war, but in my own mind I was conflicted. I felt like an impostor. I joined the American Legion briefly a couple of times but didn’t seem to fit. I looked for peace and worked whenever I could to promote it. Few people ever thanked us Vietnam era veterans for our service. In fact the first time I got publicly recognized and thanked was in 1999 at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes dinner in Erie, PA. The speaker was Clebe McClary, a highly decorated double amputee who was the dinner speaker. It felt good to stand and be applauded.
The Gulf War in 1991 changed that. Americans began demonstrably show their respect for veterans. I was opposed to the War in Iraq and wrote President Bush a number of letters asking him to reconsider. One day I got a reply from the White House stating that the President appreciated my letters but knew what was best for the country. I continued to advocate for peace and took part in a number of prayer vigils to that end. I never disrespected the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who took part. I felt a kinship with them that only veterans can full appreciate. I frequently prayed for young men and women in our community who answered the call to serve.
Then came late April 2018 when a neighbor suggested I join some area veterans who were part of a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. Even though I signed up only two weeks prior to departure I was soon on a plane to Rome where I met the leaders of the Military Pilgrimage for Veterans. I met the leaders, Fr. Conrad Torganski, OFM (a veteran US Navy Chaplain who served with the US Marines. Bill Reese, a Lutheran minister and combat veteran of Vietnam and Greg Masiello a PTSD specialist and combat veteran. I met fellow veterans who served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Still the impostor syndrome persisted until I met a veteran from Maine who said, ‘You got nothing to be ashamed of. You took the same oath of enlistment as the rest of us. You put your life on the line for your country but you just didn’t end up in a war zone.’ Slowly that powerful statement began to change me. Returning home from the pilgrimage last year I read Greg Masiello’s book about PTSD. In the past year I’ve had a number of health challenges and after one of them I became determined to return to Assisi.
I contacted a fellow veteran who also wanted to go and we began to plan. Returning to Rome and Assisi occupied my focus for most of the winter and early spring. I read more books about Assisi. I traveled to Arizona to visit family and while there read The PTSD Solution which the author believes is not a disorder but an moral and psychic injury. In the process I’ve come to believe that I too have the post traumatic stress injury and that my service was not less than but equal to everyone else. It’s been an epiphany, a homecoming. It took forty-seven years for this reluctant warrior to accept that my service put me on the same footing with everyone else. I owe those insights and liberation to the Veterans of the Military Pilgrimage. I recommend it to you or anyone you know who served in the military.