MOUNT ANGEL, Ore. — In a dreamy Oregon farm town, Catholic war veterans grappled with their nightmares.

At one of the first retreats of its kind, a handful of men who have fought in conflicts from World War II to Iraq told rollicking and painful tales, asking God for healing.

Army National Guard Lt. Col. John Conklin, 53, returned from Iraq in 2004. He is nagged by visions of poor Iraqis standing at the fence of the base in Balad, northeast of Baghdad. The people begged for scraps of wood from Army crates and the piles of leftover food from the mess hall. But orders called for the wood to be burned and the food to be thrown out, because it could otherwise aid the enemy.

“You said to yourself, ‘This is kind of crazy,’” said Conklin, who was to retire at the end of August after 27 years of service. “That was very, very hard.”

Bill Sharrar, who carries Japanese shrapnel in his head and neck from the attack on Pearl Harbor, still thinks of the sailor behind him who died in the blast, blocking the lethal force and saving Sharrar’s life.

“I sometimes think, ‘Was he a better man than I am?’” said Sharrar, an 83-year-old retired creamery worker from Mount Angel.

The Aug. 12-13 weekend, hosted by the Father Bernard Sander Catholic Retreat Center, was initiated by center director Tony Morris, whose 21-year-old son Joe is a Marine Corporal now serving in Fallujah, Iraq.

Morris, 49, never served in the military. But he observed the difficulties faced by Vietnam veterans and wanted his son and other present-day soldiers to have a more spiritually healthy return.

Chaplains say soldiers in Iraq face a particular kind of stress from insurgents. A feeling of insecurity and lack of trust sticks with veterans even after they come home.

“No one should suffer or bear these kinds of burdens alone,” Morris said.

Catholic soldiers, he explains, have a rich tradition to draw on for support. Men prayed in adoration before the Eucharist and went to confession during the retreat. Morris hopes these veterans will take the retreat experience and minister in turn to vets returning from Iraq.

Airing Memories

Ed Douglas, 71, tried to join the Air Force in the 1950s, but failed an eye test. He went to Korea as an Army infantryman instead and still wonders why his best buddies at the front were killed while he survived the same barrage.

Dave Talbot, 64, flew a helicopter gunship in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966. He launched his share of rockets, and his ship took its share of flak. After one mission, the crew counted 175 holes in the craft.

Talbot now owns a small farm near Mount Angel. Though he describes himself as “gung-ho” and positive about the military, he is not glad he was in a war.

“To get up with a buddy and be with him one day, and then he’s going home in a pine box — that was something you never got used to,” he told the group.

A retreat to help Catholic soldiers air out their memories, said Talbot, “has been a long time coming.”

After seeing what happened to Vietnam veterans, the military began paying attention to how soldiers are cared for after combat, says Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Estabrook of the Military Archdiocese. As a Navy chaplain in 2003, he helped develop a debriefing program for Marines returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We’d start by asking guys if they made the trip back okay, if they had any trouble with their baggage,” said Bishop Estabrook. “Then we got into spiritual baggage.”

The Marines could see that other soldiers also felt anger, despair and general disappointment.

“There is a lack of faith in humanity,” said the bishop. “You think, ‘Maybe we aren’t as good as I thought we were.’ You can sometimes be very hardened by this and even say, ‘Where is God?’ They are reacting normally to a very abnormal situation.”

Benedictine Brother Ephrem Thurman, 29, served as a gunner on board a tank during peacekeeping missions in Bosnia in 1998 and 1999.

The four-man crew lived and slept aboard the steel-encased vehicle. If snipers were to hit anyone, it would be the gunner up top. There were indeed a few close calls for Brother Ephrem, like the time bullets struck the tank behind him.

“Being in combat took us to a whole new level of working on a team, because our lives depended on it,” he said.

Brother Ephrem began formation as a monk not long after leaving the Army in 2001.

Emmaus Road

Father Rick Sirianni, pastor of St. Henry Parish in Gresham, Ore., serves as a colonel and chaplain in the Oregon Air National Guard. This month, he will return to the U.S. military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany for another tour of duty. That is where most soldiers injured in Iraq go for recovery.

Father Sirianni will focus on the psychiatric unit, where he sees lots of depression and nascent post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When people experience the stress of war, it affects how they perceive others, themselves and God,” Father Sirianni said.

His approach is to allow soldiers to tell their graphic stories, to weep, to rage at God.

“If you don’t do it, it is going to come back to bite you,” the priest said.

Providing space for that release, and the return to life, is what retreat leaders aimed for.

“The whole idea was to provide a place and time for them to work out what happened in war,” explained Benedictine Father Philip Waibel, retreat chaplain and veteran.

Father Waibel compared the veterans to the Emmaus disciples, and invited them to join them in “remembering our trauma and seeing some of the ways in which the Lord can help us heal.”

The priest reminded the men that, with God’s grace, they can forgive and be forgiven for anything.

Deacon Jim Myers, who guarded missile silos as a Marine in the 1950s, said he hopes the retreat helps returning soldiers work through the shame some parts of U.S. society have imposed on them.

“Free them from the guilt and all the things that happened in their service,” Myers said during a retreat prayer service. “Give them the courage and the comfort you, O Lord, can give them.”

Ed Langlois is based in Portland, Oregon.