When I joined the United States Naval Reserve in June of 1972 I could never have imagined how that would change my life. I was a draftee who was looking for a better option than going in the Army and possibly going to Vietnam. I had just finished my first year of college and being drafted was at once frightening and also a disruption to my plans. I remember well the day of my enlistment. My grandmother accompanied me to the Naval Reserve Center in Jamestown, New York. My decision to become a Navy Hospital Corpsman could well have sent me to Vietnam but that was not my fate. Instead I served at a dispensary at Naval Air Station Albany GA and later at the Naval Submarine Medical Center New London which was actually in Groton CT.
I did well on active duty and in less than two years time I became a Petty Officer 3rd Class after having started out as an E-1. I learned a lot about labor and delivery and neonatal care in the newborn nursery. In New London I worked in the surgery clinic and assisted with minor surgery. Leaving active duty in early 1975 I returned to civilian life and eventually married and later finished college. I was never active in the American Legion and was very low key about my involvement with the military. Then a couple of years ago i got the chance to go to Rome and Assisi as part of the Franciscan Pilgrimages Program for veterans. On the pilgrimage I met other veterans. Some older, some younger but we all had one thing in common, we had served our country in time of war. After returning from the first pilgrimage I was determined to help other veterans have this pilgrimage experience. I contacted Francisco Morales who is the Director of Veterans Services at St. Bonaventure University and expressed my willingness to help. Frank who is a retired US Army combat veteran accepted my offer and gave me some swag to take home.
St. Bonaventure University’s Office of Veterans Services has teamed up with the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran Peer Support Program on the Food4Vets program. I’ve been a volunteer in that program. The past couple of weeks Frank has invited me to have a free meal and today I couldn’t say no. I joined another veteran volunteer at one of the local restaurants involved with the program. We each received a fish fry with the trimmings. Shortly after we put our food in the car Frank arrived to present each of us with a “Military Aligned Service Award” from St. Bonaventure University. I was very moved by the experience. Frank had personally designed the medallions that include an image of St. Francis astride a horse as he returns from battle. In the background of the medallion you can see the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi as it appears and then the back of a contemporary soldier.
Everytime I listen to New York States Governor Andrew Cuomo I come away relaxed. He’s a leader in a time of crisis. New York is a big state and I’m a long way from the New York City which is the epicenter of this crisis. Yet, I feel a connection to friends and relatives who live there. I am connected to many people around our country and around the world. In the past week I have found myself thinking of Assisi, Italy where I’ve spent ten or eleven days in the past couple of years. I remember the shopkeepers and our hosts at Casa Papa Giovanni and the Hotel Posta Panoramic where I stayed in May 2019. I have thought often of the shopkeeper where I purchased olive oil and wine to ship home to family. All these people are in my thoughts and prayers.
I have thought of our hosts in Rome at the Casa Tra Nois. How are they? Are they sick? Have they died from this pandemic? What about the pilgrims that I was with the past two years? Are they sick? Are they well? Are they frightened as I am? As horrible as all of this is, it is a reminder that we are all connected. We are one. We are not separate as we might imagine or as some power brokers would tell us.
Governor Cuomo reminded us that we are, “socially distanced but spiritually connected.” Indeed we are. It doesn’t matter what we believe, whether atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jew, liberal, conservative or whatever we are spiritually connected and in times like this we feel, think and pray for each other. May we continue to send positive energy to each other and our world. Namaste, Shalom, Salaam, Pax, Pace, Peace.
As we parted company this morning my friend John said, ‘Donald, this has been the good journey.’ Indeed it has and in the space of nine days we traveled over ten thousand miles via jet aircraft, taxi, bus and on foot. In the process we became united with a group of American veterans whose ages spanned at least sixty years. The oldest member of our group was an octogenarian and the youngest were in their mid-twenties.
We are veterans of Vietnam and that era, Iraq, Afghanistan and everything in between. Geographically we came from all over the Unites States. We were diverse in every way and yet we shared the common bond of military service. We who have experienced the horrors of war enjoyed moments of peace that were beyond words. People who never met prior to nine days ago are now united by a common experience of pilgrimage in some of the most beautiful areas of Rome, Assisi and its environs.
Already we are planning how we might share this unique pilgrimage experience with others. If you’re a veteran of military service and you are searching for healing then Veterans of the Military Pilgrimage should be on your radar. Peace and all good.
Next week I’ll be in Rome for the second time in my life. Last year I was able to attend a wonderful pilgrimage for veterans that took us to Rome and Assisi. I’d never visited either before and it was incredibly fulfilling to see Pope Francis, tour Rome, get lost in the Roman hills, see the Lateran Basilica and much more. It was the trip of a lifetime. When I looked out over the Spoleto Valley on the morning of May 21, 2019 I took a mental picture and one with my iPhone too. I was grateful to have spent the last week visiting Italy and trekking on this sacred ground once walked on by the apostles in Rome and St. Francis and his early companions in the Assisi and Tuscany.
While I was there last year I called a fellow veteran and long time friend and told him that he should go on this pilgrimage. He told me then. “I’ll go if you go Donald.” I filed that conversation away and it lay dormant for about six months. In late November of last year I survived another pulmonary embolism and atrial fibrillation. That first night in the hospital I said to myself, “I’m going back to Assisi.” I’m fortunate to have survived not one but two pulmonary embolisms in my life. I called my friend while still in the hospital and said, “I’m gong back to Assisi.” He replied, “I’ll join you.’ In the past six months we’ve been planning and anticipating and next week we’ll be there.
I’m filled with anticipation, excitement and gratitude. I’m praying that my friend John will have a blessed time on this pilgrimage. While I’m looking forward to Rome I’m really excited to be returning to Assisi and returning to Casa Papa Giovanni where we stayed last year. I’m longing to walk again the footsteps of St. Francis, St. Clare and the early Franciscans. Last year’s pilgrimage was deeply moving and sparked a spiritual and emotional transformation. I came to understand St. Francis not only as the seraphic father of the Franciscan order of which I am a part, but also as a fellow veteran and person who suffered from post traumatic stress.
I’m looking forward to meeting the many other veterans and their spouses who will be joining us. I’m eager to renew relationships with the leaders of the pilgrimage and with the wonderful hosts and people of Rome and Assisi. I’m eager to greet my companions with Buongiorno buona gente.