I wrote this reflection back in 2007, while I was still on Active Duty in the Navy. It was something I didn’t share publicly, but needed to write anyway, for me. I wrote this during pre-seminary education/pastor phase of my life, and I’ve left it unchanged over the years. So forgive any heresy, mistakes, lack of gender-inclusive language, and incoherence. But I wanted to share with you all because Veteran’s Day is so important to me……
Passage: Romans 8:18-25
“The whole world groans.” Just that statement by Paul in Romans pretty much sums up what we see around us everyday: whether it’s in the news, in our workplace, communities, or our homes, “the whole world groans.” And we hear it loud and clear. This coming week, Veteran’s Day will be upon us. It marks the remembrance of those who have served this country as members in our Armed Forces. And for a lot of people, it’s the reminder that we live in a world where war is present. And the reality that goes with war is that those who serve are killed. We don’t really see it; we hear the numbers, but when it hits close to home, when we open the newspaper and read about some person from our hometown has been killed as a result of war, our grief and sorrow turns to anguish. We’re moved to question, “why?” “What’s the point?” “What a senseless death?”
The problem with wars are that they are complex. There are forces and motives and agendas that work behind the reality of the death and destruction that goes on. We ask “why?” and then turn to those forces and agendas, and the people who make them, and try to make sense of the death that’s come so close to us by blaming them. And what I’m not saying is that we shouldn’t question those forces and agendas or the people who make them, but in our blame, we don’t get any answers, we don’t find any comfort. We’re left with our sorrow, and it turns to bitterness.
His name was Travis Manion. He was a teammate of mine on the wrestling team at the Naval Academy. We were a couple years apart, so I admit, I didn’t know him that well. But, when the news hits and it’s one of your own, it affects you. Travis was killed in a fire fight in Iraq April 27th of this year. Another Academy brother killed. Now, being in the service, I understand the cost of what we do; I understand what the military is about: our profession is fighting wars. Fighting and dying is part of it. But Travis’ death hit me a bit harder than most. And I really don’t know why. I think it was the fact for the first time, I found his death senseless. It wasn’t a good death. No one noticed, except for family and some of us who knew him; it wasn’t because he was involved in a major campaign, fighting to free a nation.
I read Travis’ Citation for his Silver Star, a pretty prestigious award. It reads:
“The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star medal posthumously to First Lieutenant Travis L. Manion, USMC
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action as Company Advisor, 3rd battalion, 2nd Brigade, 1st Army Division Military Transition Team, regimental Combat Team 6, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), in support of operation IRAQI FREEDOM on 27 April 2007.
As First Lieutenant Manion’s patrol concluded a search of a suspected insurgent house, it came under precision small arms fire attack. With the corpsman grievously wounded by enemy fire and the attack developing into a full-scale ambush, First Lieutenant Manion and a fellow Marine exposed themselves to the increasing fire to pull the corpsman out of the kill zone. After recovering the corpsman and administering first aid, First Lieutenant Manion led his patrol in a counter attack personally eliminating an enemy position with his M4 carbine and M2303 grenade launcher. As he continued to direct the patrol another Marine was wounded by the enemy’s accurate fire. He again moved across the kill zone, under fire by five insurgents, to recover the wounded Marine. Iraqi Army reinforcements, halted by an improvised explosive device, were unable to advance on the flank of the insurgents, and First Lieutenant Manion and his patrol found themselves taking fire from three sides. While fearlessly exposing himself to gain a more advantageous firing position and drawing enemy fire away from wounded Marines, First Lieutenant Manion was fatally wounded by an enemy sniper. His courageous and deliberate actions inspired the eventual counter attack and ultimately saved the lives of every member of his patrol. By his outstanding display of decisive leadership, unlimited courage in the face of heavy enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Manion reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
As I read this, it dawned on me: Travis put himself in harm’s way for something well beyond a set of values or loyalty to country. It went way beyond honor, courage, duty, integrity. Travis put himself in harm’s way, at the expense of his life because of love. In the midst of chaos and bullets flying everywhere, with members of his team being hit with enemy fire, Travis acted because of the love he had for those people. It was to defend those around him who meant so much to him. On a larger scale, it was out of love that Travis continued to serve. Defending others in a place where freedoms and safety we take for granted are not daily realities for people, Travis understood the call to stand for those who had no voice. One day, while back in the States, his brother joked if Travis broke his leg, he wouldn’t have to go back. Travis replied by saying, “If not me, then who?”
I’m not trying to glorify war, or what Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines do. It’s a bloody, dirty, sobering experience. Knowing that the things you do can ultimately end the lives of others, I find no glory in that. But acting out of love for the neighbor, that is the call of the gospel. God acted for us out of love at great cost, through the offering of his Son, Jesus Christ. Christ died for the world out of God’s love for us. Jesus’ words in John 15 assure us, “There is no greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” This is the proclamation of the gospel, that the depth of God’s love goes to such lengths, that he bore such a high cost in the humiliating and inglorious death of his Son on the Cross.
Paul’s words in Romans 8:18 comfort me. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” I think in Travis’ death, one I felt was so senseless, so empty, that something is revealed in it. The suffering his family, his close friends, myself, and perhaps even this nation and yourselves have felt or are feeling are nothing in comparison to what is revealed in Travis’ death. The glory revealed in such a death is that sacrificial love makes no regard for the self, it is purely out of the love we have for our neighbors. It points directly to a God who loves us to the extent he has little regard for himself – he bears death. If that is the case, than I think we can find hope in the realities of war, the reality of the deaths and sacrifices are military men and women make each day. It’s the hope that people are acting not for the motives and agendas of politics and men, but it’s that people are acting out of love for others who cannot stand for themselves; for those who the reality of suffering and oppression are something we can’t even imagine here in our lives.
This Veteran’s Day, let our groans be joined with the groaning of others in this world, especially as we remember those we’ve lost due to war or other senseless acts. But also, let us be reminded of what God has done for us, at great cost, out of love for us. Let us honor those who have dedicated their lives in acting out of love and defense for their families, neighbors, and those who cannot fend for themselves. In the midst of our groaning, let us hear of God’s great love for us, embodied in those who serve in our Armed Forces. Amen.