Jeremiah’s Lessons for Veterans

(Remarks presented at Adult Sabbath School, Vallejo Drive Adventist Church)

Jeremiah’s story goes from outcry and lament to anger and finally to hope. That’s the journey of many veterans.

Let’s start with his lament. It echoes for me in the stories of my soldiers and vets. Soldiers love to complain. And if they complain to the wrong person, they are told, “Tell it to the chaplain.” So I hear it all.

Look again at our memory text, from Jeremiah 20:7

“O Lord, thou has deceived me, and I was deceived: thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, everyone mocketh me.”

Yes, that is the complaint of a soldier. “I was tricked–my recruiter lied to me.” I hear that a lot.

 But there is real pain in many of the complaints I hear. We can all reach the point where we are disillusioned. Where we become cynical. 

 You see, those of us who wear the uniform do so out of noble ideals. Patriotism. The desire to serve our country. Once upon a time young men joined thinking of stuff like “glory.” We’ve all heard the slogans: “Be all that you can be.” “Army Strong.” We’ve seen Marine Corps commercials of a knight battling a dragon transforming into a Marine in dress blues with a saber.

All that fades quickly in the gritty reality of the battlefield. Or in the hospital room of a friend. Or at a cemetery, as we hear taps played over the grave of a buddy. Those are the times we, like Jeremiah, can cry out in protest.

 A good example is Ron Kovic, who wrote the book, Born on the Fourth of July. Tom Cruise played him in the movie version. The movie starts with a Fourth of July parade, and he looks up at the soldiers, and at the wounded veterans, and later he hears Marine recruiters, and he dreams of glory. And then he goes to Vietnam. And there he is wounded. And he lashes out in anger and in despair. He returns home, where he is mocked by his fellow Americans, and even by his family. But he finds a rebirth in speaking up for his fellow veterans.

Soon after I was commissioned as a Chaplain Candidate in the Army Reserve in 1986 I did Clinical Pastoral Education at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I had patients with missing limbs, with head injuries, with psychological scars. I had patients who were angry that the government had lied to them, refusing to admit their friends died in combat in secret wars in Central America. 

 And I’ve had more of the same for the past 30 years–more and more each year. In 2013, shortly before I deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, I did a trauma ministry class at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. I walked the halls of that hospital, and of the Center for the Intrepid, the Army’s premier rehab center, and saw soldier after soldier with burns, and with casts, with a missing arm, or two–even three limbs missing.

I hear of war hawks pleading for more money for more weapons, and I see the real price in their bodies. I hear politicians calling for military action in country after country … and then, when the war is over, they are eager to cut veterans benefits.

So Jeremiah’s cry resonates with me. “Lord, this isn’t how it was supposed to be! I was deceived! I was lied to!”

I joined the Army “for God and country.” To serve soldiers. To care for them. And I got more than I bargained for. I care for them. Deeply. And I carry their pain and suffering and grief.

 Back in the mid 1990s, after ten years Reserve and Guard, I was tired of it. I had visited Central America, and seen the reality of the wars we fought there. I wanted nothing to do with it. But then, in 2009, I felt God calling me back. And I got back in. 

 I felt like Jeremiah in the next passage: 

 “I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.”

That’s how I felt. That’s how many a veteran has felt who re-upped after a break in service. We love this life, though we complain about it. It is painful but familiar. It is not like the strange civilian world of materialism and obesity and shallowness and pettyness. 

 But if we go back, we do so with eyes fully open. We have no illusions now. We know what it is like. We go back because we know there’s nothing else we can do.

In 2013 I deployed for a year as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. I came back from deployment at Christmas and spent the next 7 months unemployed. All the money I saved on deployment went to putting bread on the table in the months afterward. I couldn’t sit home and do nothing, though. I got active in the VFW and the Legion, and in a veterans organization for post-9/11 vets, the Lone Star Veterans Association. And then I was called by the North American Division to my present position, representing the church to our service members, to our veterans–working with pastors who feel called to minister in the military and other specialized settings–and traveling around visiting them in their place of ministry, as a pastor to them when they, too, cry out.

I connect with another part of Jeremiah’s ministry. He denounced many evils in his society. That’s often the chaplain’s job. We have to be a burr under the saddle of the military. That was drummed into us when I took the Chaplain Officer Basic Course at Fort Monmouth, NJ, 30 years ago. We have to speak out against injustice and the violation of the laws of war. We have to speak out against sexual assault, and advocate for victims. We have to work to prevent suicide, and we have to minister after suicide. We have to minister to soldiers wounded in body and soul, who cry out against the things that gave them these wounds.

The worst are the invisible wounds. The scars, not merely of PTSD, but of what we call “moral injury”–the sense that you did something wrong. That you violated your own conscience. That you crossed a line. And I have to cry out against a system that puts young men and women in that position.

 But Jeremiah didn’t merely complain. He didn’t only condemn. He also spoke of hope. And that’s the main part of my job, to be an agent of hope. In the midst of darkness, in the midst of even my own complaints, I have to speak of hope. I have to bring to soldiers and to veterans the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God, that we have in Jesus Christ.

 Jeremiah did that, too. But you don’t see that in today’s lesson. You have to skip further down. Jeremiah 29 is a good example.

The people were in exile. The warnings had come to pass. They couldn’t believe it. They wanted out. They moped. They despaired. And God’s word came to them: Get used to it. You’re here for 70 years.

“Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; 5 build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; 6 take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. 7 And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”

And verse 11, and I switch to the New International Version: “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

 That doesn’t sound like Jeremiah. But Jeremiah gave that message. He came through his own darkness, and that of his people, to shine the light of God’s mercy with equal passion. They were in exile, and God told them to deal with it. Settle in. Get comfortable.

He told them to build a home and live there. Not as a renter, but a homeowner.

He told them to plant a garden. Put down roots.

He told them to get married. Have a family. Make sure your kids have families. And live there. Multiply.

And he told them not to stay in their own little corner and hide, but to seek the welfare of the city. Pray for it. Bring peace, prosperity, wholeness, relationship between God and man.

 And that’s what we do as chaplains, as pastors in special settings, whether we are in the military, in the hospital, on a college campus, in a prison. We make that place our home. We adopt that culture. We put down roots. And we seek the welfare of that place, and the people who live there.

 Jeremiah got there at last. That was God’s call. God dragged him there kicking and screaming. He didn’t want to do the hard part. He didn’t want to deal with the tragedy. But he did. And he found God was there. And there, in the midst of tragedy, he brought hope. That’s what our veterans can do in and for our communities. And I thank God for them. And I am grateful that you, too, are thankful for them this day.