Military vets, active members grateful for blessings in their lives

Two women in uniform are grateful for the opportunities to serve their country, and a 91-year-old widow continues the connection that she and her late husband made decades ago with a military organization. Two men who served in the military are thankful that they can now help veterans.  

On Veterans Day and the beginning of the holiday seasons, they share what they consider the blessings in their lives.  

Soldier’s widow

Emma Pepper and her late husband joined the Military Order of the World Wars in 1950, and she’s still moved when members sing the national anthem and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. 

“Everyone who comes in is very proud that they had that uniform on,” she said. 

Pepper, 91, of Jackson, Miss., is an associate member of the nonpartisan organization that has more than 120 chapters that promotes youth leadership, patriotic education programs, the Reserve Officer Training Corps and more. 

Pepper and Second Lt. James D. Pepper immediately clicked when they met in 1941, and she promised to wait for him to return from the war. Three years later, he proposed by letter after overcoming his fear that a Catholic girl wouldn’t marry a Protestant soldier. They wed in 1945. 

Her husband spent five years in active duty overseas, stayed in the Army Reserve and instructed in field artillery in summer camps and schools. He retired as a full colonel and died in 1978. 

Pepper retired from full-time sales when she was 82, then worked part time until she was 85. 

“I am thankful for my good health,” she said, even though she is facing open heart surgery. “And I never dreamed that I would live to be 91. I am thankful for being independent and not a burden to my children. I have had a long life and I have put myself in God’s hands. He will stay by my side.” 

Pepper cherishes her friendships through the order. 

“I love our country,” she said. “My husband loved our country and the military was part of his life. A lot of men have given their lives for us.” 

K of C military outreach

Col. Charles H. Gallina served with the U.S. Marines from 1960 to 1990 and he is grateful to now be serving what he calls his “last mission” to his fellow veterans. 

“It truly is an exciting adventure,” he said. 

Gallina, 70, is assistant for Military and Veterans Affairs for the Knights of Columbus Supreme Office in New Haven, Conn. He also is on the national advisory committee for the Veteran Affairs Voluntary Service, and is chairman of the recruitment committee. 

The Knights of Columbus have 52 military councils. They also are dedicated to serving those who have served. 

“We are currently represented in 139 of 154 VA medical centers and as of the end of the fiscal year, we had 1,309 volunteers and provided 98,000 hours of voluntary service through the VAVS,” Gallina said. 

Knights staff information desks at VA centers, escort veterans to Mass and other places, support Catholic chaplains with Catholic religious materials, and participate in a variety of programs, like providing wheelchairs for veterans. 

“What we do is a blessing from the Catholic standpoint,” Gallina said. “It also fulfills the Knights of Columbus principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism. While many of our volunteers are not veterans themselves, they provide support and compassion to our veterans who have served this nation. The volunteering also gives younger volunteers such as the college Knights an opportunity to interact with, learn from and listen to the veterans’ tremendous experience.” 

Gallina was deployed to Vietnam four times, and returning soldiers then did not have the respect they do today. 

“For a veteran coming out of that era, it’s rewarding to see another response,” he said. “For the younger folks, Vietnam and Desert Storm are ancient history, but now younger people are volunteering out of respect for what those veterans did. They are volunteering for the patriotic principle, and for the love of this country and for the love of these veterans. It is a beautiful example of the great charity and love of this nation, and it is freely given.” 

Adjusting to life after war

When Lt. Col. Michele Papakie left Afghanistan in October 2010, she expected to have a great Thanksgiving, and that Christmas would be special, too. “But I rolled in a ball when I came home,” she said. “I was completely overwhelmed by the holidays, and I had a lot of adjusting to do even though I wasn’t on the front lines.” 

Papakie, 42, has been with the 171st Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard nearly 25 years. Her son Derek, 21, is a medic with the 171st and a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in Indiana, Pa., where she is an associate professor of journalism and public relations. Her father Raymond Dougherty served in Vietnam and her grandfather Henry Hays was in World War II, both in the Army. 

Papakie was deployed to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, as regional command manager of the Equal Opportunity/Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program. She was present when insurgents randomly launched weapons into the compound, and during an incident when suicide bombers breached three entries. 

“The one thing that got me through was becoming really involved with the Church,” she said. “I became a Eucharistic minister, a lector and an altar server, and I looked forward to Sundays so much. I needed it to get through the week.” 

Being in a combat zone changed her in many ways. 

“I don’t take anything for granted anymore, and I have reprioritized everything,” she said. “I had been in and out of Church, but now the Church has stayed in my life and I take my faith much more seriously.” 

Papakie is grateful for her work and the support of her students. She also is thankful for her military friendships. 

“They are a phenomenal group of people who take pride in their jobs and are completely focused on their mission,” she said. “The crazy thing is, as homesick as we get, when we get home, we feel like we should still be there. You want to be home, but at the same time, you are part of something much bigger than yourself. It’s hard to walk away.” 

Papakie is thankful for her family, for God and her faith. 

“I am blessed all around,” she said. “What would I tell other Americans to be thankful for? It’s the luck of the draw where you’re born, and I would say how fortunate we are to have been born in a place with so many opportunities and you don’t have to live in fear every day of being killed. That’s something we don’t even think about.” 

Papakie is looking forward to this Thanksgiving and Christmas. “I feel so much more secure and squared away,” she told OSV. 

Finding peace in chaos

Capt. Jessica L. Castillo, 26, finds peace and joy even while being stationed with the 25th Infantry Division at Camp Liberty in Iraq. 

She rises early to read The Word Among Us over coffee, and to get to the gym and breakfast before reporting as the plans and operations officer-in-charge for the Division Personnel Office. 

“When I leave here, I will remember with gratitude the beauty and peace of my mornings,” she told OSV in an email interview from Iraq. “That routine has probably helped me keep a positive attitude here more than anything else.” 

Castillo, from Mocksville, N.C., graduated from West Point in 2007 and is in her second deployment. Last time around, she met Maj. David Castillo, and they wed in May 2010, a month after she entered the Church. They work in the same division and live together. 

“That has been really great support to me,” she said. “It is nice to never have to explain anything to him because he is here with me and he knows exactly what I am going through.” 

At times, she added, she, like all soldiers, gets tired of the daily drudgery, the stress of being a soldier and temperatures that hit 130 degrees. In those worst times, she said, “The good news was that God still loved me and always would. I could choose to embrace that love with joy and try to reflect it to others. I cling to my faith as a source of my comfort. I can choose to give God thanks and praise and to be joyful no matter what the circumstances are around me.” 

Castillo expects that they will be home for Christmas. 

“I am looking forward to relaxing with my husband’s family in New Mexico, going to midnight Mass and just basking in the glow of being home from a long deployment,” Castillo told OSV. “I am thankful for how bright and hopeful my future is and how fortunate I am to have an opportunity to go to graduate school next year and to start a family with my husband.” 

Easing soldiers’ minds

In the restlessness of sleepless nights, in the darkness of souls struggling for light and in the troubled minds of men and women reliving traumatic military experiences, John Zemler sees hope. 

“The primary blessing that I have seen is that because of my work, some people have opted to not commit suicide,” he said. 

Zemler, an assistant professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., is a former artillery captain in the Army, and did special weapons work in Turkey in the 1980s. He returned from service with what he called “the screamers.” Nobody had a name for it then, nor earlier for soldiers who served in Vietnam and World War II. But the symptoms were all similar: hypervigilance, anger, risky behaviors, substance abuse and alienation in relationships. 

“It’s post-traumatic stress disorder, and people are starting to realize that you can’t just treat this with drugs, that the person is actually a wounded soul,” he said. 

Zemler, 50, is on a mission to spread an understanding of PTSD and to reach out to those who have it. That’s not just soldiers, but anyone who has suffered a trauma like rape, or has witnessed or been victimized by violence. He has outreaches in a number of places, including Catholic churches. 

“My PTSD work, first and foremost, is helping people to not get killed,” he said. “Untreated, PTSD will take a journey through the culture of death. You will die quickly by suicide, or die slowly through alcohol, drug abuse or the result of some sort of thrill-seeking violence. If we can get them past that, they are choosing life and realizing that their own life has value no matter how it might be to live that life.” 

Zemler uses an approach that personifies PTSD as “an identity, a thing that wants to override our souls.” 

He is grateful for the healings. 

“People who have been absolutely alienated from their previous relationships are able to start resuming the relationship,” he said. “Sometimes a relationship is so destroyed by PTSD that they may not get back together, but they choose to not kill themselves because of it. I have seen people start to re-embrace the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation. They find tremendous value into going to confession and being able to talk about something they have never talked about before. Some start to realize that marriage is a sacrament, not just a social contract, and some people are able to take part in the joy of our faith more than if they had never been wounded.” 

The blessings also come, he said, “in the deepening of relationships and trust. We end up carrying one another on this journey.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

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