For decades, Americans have honored war veterans on Nov. 11. As someone who served 28 years as a US Army chaplain, I’m grateful for this opportunity to honor not just veterans from my own time in the service but also the men and women currently serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, and other parts of the world. They are all blessed by our prayers for their safety, strength, and intelligence.
A pivotal moment came early in my military career, and it shaped my concept of service members from that day forward. It gave me an appreciation for the character of those serving in the military that I took with me throughout my career.
One morning the wife of a young private asked me to lend her $20. She had attempted to stretch the little money she had for baby formula and food for her two small children. Naively, she put water in her car’s gas tank, thinking that would make the gas go further.
In basic training it would be a month before her husband, a new recruit, would receive his first paycheck, and the need was great. I prayed a moment, and it came to me to bear true witness to the Christliness reflected in each soldier’s character. It was that rare time during my many years in service that to lend the money seemed the right thing to do.
This happened in a very public parking lot, and many of my battalion’s leaders watched. They laughed at me, saying I was new and naive, and that I would never see the money again. I remembered a statement by Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer of Christian Science, who wrote: “Do not believe in any supposed necessity for sin” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 253). It seemed wrong to me to assume anyone necessarily had to have a dishonest or sinful nature.
I told the men I didn’t want to be part of bearing “false witness against my neighbor.” I was not going to “steal” the woman’s dignity prematurely (see Ex. 20:15, 16). I’d been impressed with the sincerity with which she assured me that their family “always paid their debts.” But the officers and noncommissioned officers assured me I was gullible. “You’ll see,” they said.
For several weeks I prayed to recognize that the only real bonds that bind people together are spiritual. Mary Baker Eddy acknowledged this when she said, “The rich in spirit help the poor in one grand brotherhood, all having the same Principle, or Father; and blessed is that man who seeth his brother’s need and supplieth it seeking his own in another’s good” (Science and Health, p. 518).
About eight weeks later, after that private had graduated from basic training, the family came to my desk in the busy orderly room. His wife held their little girl, and their son walked beside her. The soldier held his infant son in his left arm and carried a child’s stocking – the kind with lace around the edge. It was filled with coins. He was too new to the military to realize he could have come to my private office.
He sat down at a table and apologized profusely that it had taken him so long to save his first payment. He counted $5, carefully stacking nickels, pennies, and a few quarters in neat stacks on the orderly room table. He assured me he would save the coins three more times, emphasizing he “always paid his debts.” His integrity was so brightly visible, he was moving everyone to tears.
I asked him if he would agree that when he saved the next $5, he would buy something that his infant needed. Then the second time, something his daughter needed, and finally something his son needed. I told him it would be a gift from me. I would consider the debt paid, because he had given me a gift of much greater worth. He had been a shining example of the character of our country’s soldiers. Only after much persistence on my part did he agree that the debt was paid.
Over and over again in my many years on active duty I saw the best parts of the moral fabric of America reflected in the men and women I served with. On this Veterans Day, I’ll be remembering this assurance in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). That young soldier’s honesty and humility point the higher road for people everywhere, whether they are in the military or not.
November 11 is Veterans Day in the United States.