Confessions of a combat veteran on Memorial Day

Jason C. Hohnberger

Converge Chaplain (Major)

  • Culture & society

Don’t thank me for my service! At least, don’t thank me on Memorial Day. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but that phrase is just another misplaced platitude illustrating how much you don’t understand my pain.

I hesitated to write this article because I’m scared to peel off the layers of polite camouflage I normally wear to reveal the irritated and emotionally wounded combat veteran who hides beneath the surface.

Eighteen years of war, three combat deployments and officiating more than 600 funerals have taken their toll on my mind, body and soul. Recently, I shared a particularly vulnerable and ugly side of myself to a civilian friend I’ve known for more than 20 years. I thought I was in a safe place, but I was wrong. He told me war had changed me so much that he no longer valued or wanted my friendship. I was no longer “happy-go-lucky” but “jaded, cynical and angry.”

His comments helped me understand why 22 veterans a day choose to put bullets in their heads as an alternative to living among civilians. Isolated, ostracized and misunderstood, veterans are told, “thanks, but your services are no longer needed.” Now, they can be put out to the curb while the rest of the country celebrates the deaths of their brothers and sisters, while mindlessly munching on hot dogs during the long Memorial Day weekend.

In our divided and fractured nation, no culture gap is larger (or widening faster) than the gulf between civilians and veterans. More than ever, the United States needs the church. We need Converge to stand in the gap and share the burdens of combat and the love of Jesus to make us one nation (or, at least, one church) under God.

As Memorial Day approaches, it’s important for our pastors and congregants to know a few things about military culture:

Memorial Day is a day to remember those who have given their lives in defense of our nation. Originally known as Decoration Day, it was intended to honor those lost in the Civil War. By the early 20th century the day had expanded to include all Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

For combat veterans and their families, this day is painful. It is not a day to celebrate but to reflect and mourn. It is a day where families gather at Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery. Circling around a white headstone, they will have a picnic with an absent son, sister, father or friend.

In a similar ritual, combat vets will place a shot of Jack Daniel’s on graves in countless national cemeteries to toast the memory of a fallen friend. Each shot will bring the sweet memory of adventure in faraway lands and will burn with the survivor guilt we all carry.

These combat vets yearn for the church to mourn with them without judgmental attitudes. Leave your political opinions on war, theological stance about alcohol and sensitivity to foul language at home. Go with them to visit the graves of their friends. Learn their names: Eric, John, JB, Sammy and Roy… Listen. Remember. Pray.

Related: Souls at war: What veterans need from the church

Don’t be scared of a veteran’s pain, too often disguised as anger. Yes, the scary truth is violence is always an option for a combat veteran. But rest easy knowing that if they really wanted to hurt you — you’d already be dead.

Have the courage to walk with them as they revisit valleys shadowed by death. Ask questions when you don’t understand their experience. Be invested in their friendship long before Memorial Day, Veterans Day or the Fourth of July. Love those who feel unlovable. Forgive the unforgivable.

Finally, don’t drape the cross in the American flag. There is a cult of patriotism in segments of the United States that worships the flag. Please don’t equate nationalism with godliness or military service with salvation. My beloved country has sinned, fallen short and sometimes defaulted on its promises.

The hope the church has to offer veterans and friends and families of the fallen is not found in the greatness of our nation. Our hope is in Jesus Christ alone. He has promised us that the Kingdom is within reach. He has promised to right all wrongs.  He has sent the Holy Spirit to heal our deepest hurts and bring us peace. He has shown us that no greater love has anyone, than he lay his life down for his friends.

My prayer this Memorial Day weekend is that the church will show veterans that it loves them more than it hates Jack Daniel’s. That it will remember the fallen better than oblivious civilians and show them the cross will never default on its promises.

Jason C. Hohnberger, Converge Chaplain (Major)

Converge Chaplain (Major) Jason C. Hohnberger serves in the 5th Special Forces Group Support Battalion. He has also pastored churches in Arizona and Wisconsin.

Additional articles by Jason C. Hohnberger