The price and a prayer: on life in the military

During my first deployment to Iraq, I flew into Atlanta for mid-tour leave, often called R&R (rest and recuperation), for a needed break from the front. The fighting had been particularly fierce in our area, and as the unit chaplain, I had been very involved in providing care for our wounded and honoring our fallen.

Atlanta’s airport has a very long escalator from the lower level up to the baggage claim area. There were a number of troops on the plane that day, as well as many other travelers. I was delayed heading up the escalator, so I was alone as it carried me to the baggage claim area.

Upon reaching the upper level, I immediately noticed a large crowd of people waiting to greet passengers, a common site at this busy airport. I also noticed they were cheering and waving flags. As I checked the display screen to determine where to pick up my bags, I also looked behind me to see who they might be cheering for.

Perhaps it was travel fatigue, but it was not until I was approached directly and told they were cheering for me that I realized what was happening. Several people hugged me and one of the children put a small teddy bear in my hand that held a heart that said “thank you for your service.” As I looked at the crowd, they cheered even more, waved flags and shouted “thank you!”

I was deeply moved, especially when I discovered they were only there to welcome home the troops.

Time of reflection

As we celebrate Veterans Day, many Americans will take time to reflect on the generous service and sacrifice made by those who wear the uniform — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and the Coast Guard. Whereas on Memorial Day we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our country, on Veterans Day the emphasis is on the living, those who have served and continue to serve our nation.

Both of these days are stark reminders that freedom is not free, that it comes at a price, and those who volunteer to serve and are willing to pay that price are worthy of our honor, respect and appreciation.

Our nation has been very proactive in honoring Service Members. There are many sad and unfortunate stories of rejection and disrespect experienced by our Vietnam War veterans, but this has not been the case in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans today are frequently greeted with “thank you for your service” and “thank you for what you do for us.” Additionally, the extraordinary volume of care packages from multiple sources we received during deployments was overwhelming. Many included hundreds of hand-written notes from students, church members, businesses and civic organizations — all very personal and thoughtful letters of appreciation. We often posted these letters throughout our workspace, as they served as a solemn reminder of why we were deployed and who we were ultimately protecting.

At risk of complacency

Our direct involvement in Iraq is over and our presence in the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close. The need for care packages has diminished and we now see fewer Service Members in uniform at airports. Still, the importance of expressing our appreciation must continue, or we risk becoming complacent and take our freedom for granted.

The threat to freedom is a constant and will always require defense, even if we are not engaged in sustained combat operations. Military veterans continue to serve honorably at home and at installations around the world, and new Service Members continue to step forward, all with the same common dominator: a brave willingness to pay the price to defend freedom.

High cost of service

combat outpost
Helicopter landing at a combat outpost in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Father Albertson

Pressing beyond the popular use of the phrase “freedom isn’t free,” our appreciation goes deeper when we consider more exactly what that price is, and make no mistake about it, freedom is expensive. However, I am not making reference to the monetary cost. Rather, the price of freedom and our associated appreciation for those who serve to pay that price is better understood if we consider it more personally.

The personal price is paid by individual Service Members themselves, and this is most pronounced among our wounded, especially those who have lost limbs or been disabled as a result of combat. Yet the price is paid in many other ways: extended time away from family, long duty days, training injuries, cumulative stress from working in a threat environment, the missing of graduations, anniversaries, birthdays and even the birth of a child. Understanding the price helps us extend appreciation more sincerely.

Further, this understanding challenges us to consider how we are going to live our lives, and what we are going to do with the freedoms that have been purchased for us. More graphically, this man gave his right leg for freedom, this woman gave her arm in the service of freedom, this group of Service Members spent a year away from their families for freedom so that I can live in what our national anthem proudly calls “… the land of the free.”

Such reflections help us appreciate not only the veteran, but the freedoms we enjoy as a consequence of their service. Taking time to reflect on how we are doing with our use of freedom helps us to appreciate all the more where it comes from and the heavy price that is paid to defend and sustain it.

Spiritual support

The American people have been generous in thanking the troops, but often desire to do more. This explains the welcome-home crowds and care packages. As our military is downsizing and our deployments diminishing, I am often asked what more can be done to thank our troops. My response is always the same: “Remember us in your prayers.” Most veterans have a story of a “close call” — a moment in combat or in training when their survival was based on an inch, a few seconds, a sudden change in location or a last-minute change of mission.

I still remember a soldier showing me his St. Michael’s medal with a piece of shrapnel embedded in it. Although he was wounded, the doctor confirmed that the medal prevented the shrapnel from hitting his heart, which most certainly would have killed him. My own personal reflection is that surviving these “close calls” is the direct result of prayer and produce what I call “miracles on the battlefield.” Combat will never be without the wounded or those killed in action, but I am convinced prayers minimize our losses and reduce the severity of those who are wounded. I believe this is confirmed by the sheer volume of “close call” experiences by our veterans.

Perhaps the most generous gift we can offer our veterans is our prayers. Heaven will ultimately reveal the complete fruit of our spiritual labors, but some prayers produce very temporal and visible results.

As we honor our veterans this Veterans Day, in addition to thanking them for their service, assure them of your prayers and follow through by offering up some specific devotion. Rest assured such efforts will bear fruit, sometimes even producing miracles, but always providing temporal protection for whom they are offered — the brave men and women who serve our country, and who pay the required price to defend freedom. 

Father Eric Albertson is a priest from the Diocese of Arlington, Va., serving with the Archdiocese for the Military Services as an Army chaplain. His current assignment is the Command Chaplain, United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command/United States Forces Korea (UNC/CFC/USFK), Yongsan, Korea.