A hug from a Vietnam vet

A Christian Science perspective: A US Army chaplain reflects on a tender moment in her career.

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When I served as a chaplain in the US Army in the late ’70s and ’80s, it always felt uncomfortable to me that some people made sweeping generalizations about all military members based on the actions of a tiny minority of actors. The Vietnam war had been unpopular for several reasons, including the massacre in My Lai, where some soldiers had killed civilians. I wanted a higher concept of humanity as a whole.

We all stand individually before our heavenly Father. God sees what’s in a man’s or a woman’s heart. Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, described “man” in the Christian Science textbook as “God’s spiritual idea, individual, perfect, eternal” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 115). I wanted to support people rejoicing in one another’s individual and spiritual identity. I asked only that God would give me some small part in a kinder, gentler approach to the way service members were perceived.

I also thought about how Jesus modeled such compassionate love for humanity. I loved the encouragement in the Gospel of John: “Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man” (John 8:15). And we can only be judged or be a part of judging righteously when divine Love is the basis and motivation for our conclusions. I was vigilant to affirm that God governed our daily opportunities and they would of necessity be opportunities for good. As I worked with these precepts, I had a very moving experience.

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In 1986 my boss at the Combined Arms Department (CAD) invited all the staff to join him at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars complex. He always made time to attend the annual meal prepared for veterans with disabilities who lived in a veterans home nearby. It was rare that any of us would miss the opportunity to chat with and encourage the men on these occasions.

One evening as we sat around the table, I was very engrossed in talking with a man who was a veteran of World War II. I vaguely remember my boss, a Lieutenant Colonel (LTC), asking me to point at numbers on a piece of paper he kept shoving my way. I really didn’t have a clue why he kept pushing the paper at me. I humored him because I didn’t want to interrupt the man’s story of his unit’s participation in some pretty famous battles. Toward the end of the evening, the nurses came to take the veterans back to their care center.

When I turned back toward the CAD team, the LTC told me that almost every number I pointed at had been a winning number in a drawing being held. I looked to see that the table was now filled with gifts. One in particular was in a pretty wooden box. He told me I should take it. Because all the items were for men, he suggested I give it away. I noticed a man with a hat on at the bar. It was a baseball cap with “Vietnam Veteran” written on it. Vietnam vets in the early to mid ’80s didn’t usually wear clothing identifying them as Vietnam vets.

The man was unusually quiet and seemed to be very much alone. For those reasons I took the box and walked up to him. I showed him the contents and asked if he’d like to have it. He smiled and happily said, “Sure!” He asked me why I wanted to give it to him. I pointed at his hat and said, “I would give it to you for that.”

Much to my surprise, he seemed offended and took the hat off and clutched it close to his chest. He said, “No thanks, I would never give this hat away for anything.” I realized he thought I wanted to trade the gift for the hat. I quietly explained that wasn’t what I meant. I told him I would like to give it to him as a thank-you for his service. You could see extreme shock in his face as he broke into tears. He grabbed me and gave me a very warm and genuine hug for almost a minute as he continued to weep. He finally gathered himself. He told me that was the first time anyone had ever thanked him or even said anything nice to him about his service in Vietnam. When I returned to the CAD table they were all a bit teary-eyed also. They were serious for a few moments and then threw themselves into ribbing me about making the soldier cry.

It is so different today. I can see how much progress has been made in adopting an attitude of gratitude toward the men and women who choose to serve. It isn’t uncommon at all to hear someone in an airport or grocery store approach a veteran and express his or her gratitude for the individual’s unselfishness and service.

I see this statement from Science and Health as a promise: “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself;’ ...” (p. 340). We can cherish this promise until humanity moves forward to the day when we no longer resort to war in the attempt to resolve conflict.

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