At one of the first retreats of
its kind, a handful of men who have fought in conflicts from World War II to
Army National Guard Lt. Col. John
Conklin, 53, returned from
“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.”
who carries Japanese shrapnel in his head and neck from the attack on
“I sometimes think, ‘Was he a
better man than I am?’” said Sharrar, an 83-year-old
retired creamery worker from
The Aug. 12-13 weekend, hosted by
Morris, 49, never served in the
military. But he observed the difficulties faced by
Chaplains say soldiers in
“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
Ed Douglas, 71, tried to join the
Air Force in the 1950s, but failed an eye test. He went to
Dave Talbot, 64, flew a helicopter
Talbot now owns a small farm near
“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
“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
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.
Father Rick Sirianni,
pastor of St. Henry Parish in
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
“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