[This sermon was given to our congregation by the Rev. Knowles on Memorial Day Sunday, May 24, 2015 and is reprinted here with her permission]
I had a splendid dream. I dreamt of a meadow surrounded by low green hills, a place of peace and abundance, where veterans in need and homeless came together to be honored and be fed and cared for in every way imaginable. I dreamt of beds and pillows and bed rolls, and toilets and showers and fresh towels, with quiet tents to rest. There were new clean clothes to put on, jeans and underwear and socks, and sturdy new shoes that fit. I saw in my dream cool fresh water, coffee all day long, and breakfast, lunch and dinner, as much as you can eat, with watermelon and peaches and popcorn for snacks.
In my dream, there was every kind of service to meet every need--and all right there on the meadow. Teams of doctors and nurses saw everyone who came, and gave shots and diagnoses and planned future free treatment. Optometrists made new glasses for anyone who needed them, and dentists cleaned teeth and filled cavities, and if you had nowhere to leave your dog, veterinarians cared for the dog too. Oh, and barbers and hairdressers were lined up giving haircuts and trimming beards. Chiropractors were re-aligning spines and easing joints, and acupuncturists relieved chronic pain. Under a shady tent, veterans got massages to ease their tense bodies.
And not just physical troubles were attended. I dreamed of therapy cats being wheeled around in their buggies, for everyone to pet, and therapy dogs wagging their tails and loving everybody. Alcoholics Anonymous was there with chairs in the shade. I dreamt that veterans with legal problems had their day in court, right there in the meadow, to settle old business, and some got their drivers licenses back, and some worked out custody agreements with their ex-spouses. And in my dream, vets found out about their VA and their social security benefits--they sat right down with a representative who checked out everything on a laptop and got them signed up for what they needed. Oh, and there was even a place to recharge cell phones. Then, after dinner, jazz bands struck up, and stand-up comics strolled around making jokes. And all of this, every moment, every act of service in this dream was given freely from the heart.
The dream I dreamed really happened at the East Bay Stand Down back in August, at the Alameda County Fair Grounds in Pleasanton. For four days, about 350 homeless veterans were housed and fed and had all these needs seen to They were brought by busloads from San Francisco and pick up points all over the Bay Area.
I served there with a group of fifteen volunteer chaplains of many faiths, to provide a listening presence for anyone attending. The night before it began, we walked to the four corners of the fair grounds and prayed that the ground might be made sacred by the presence of love, that the needs of the veterans might be met, that all they received might stay with them when the Stand Down was over. We prayed for the wisdom to listen well, and that we might all be upheld by the powerful connection of our shared humanity as we prepared to join them and speak with them where they waited for services, at their meals, and as they rested in the shade.
Next day, we welcomed the men and women as they came through the fairgrounds gate, in busloads of about twenty.
This is when I felt the awesome impact of what has happened to so many of the women and men in our military over the years. In their eyes and bodies I could see our failure as a nation to keep our covenant with the men and women we sent to war.
Through that gate came tired old men, gaunt men, sad men, men limping and leaning on canes, men bent over walkers, men in wheelchairs, women limping from knee injuries, women wincing with pain, women looking sallow and sad and ill. When they smiled, every mouth had teeth missing, and the remaining teeth were stained and cracked. They were thirsty and hungry and weary--many had been up for hours to make their way to the pick up points. Group by group, they sat on planks for a briefing about the rules--e.g., all personal possessions had to be checked for the duration, no drugs or alcohol--and then each group followed a leader to the tent that would be their home for the four days.
Unlike dreams, reality is not perfect. The brand new clothing and shoes for about 300 plus men were already there waiting. The men could head for the showers and change into fresh clothes at once. But the new clothes and shoes for the forty women didn’t arrive till the next afternoon so most of the women slept that night in their dusty and sweat soaked pants and shirts. Cavities were filled, teeth were cleaned, but one entirely toothless veteran had been promised dentures, but was refused this service. Most visits to the medical services tent were not for routine care but by cancer patients wanting to know if their disease would be acknowledged as service-related.
Yet, over all, the food was delicious, some of the homeless were promised subsidized housing, some drivers licenses were recovered, the nights were cool and quiet. Many of the volunteer tent leaders were men and women who themselves had once been homeless veterans at an earlier Stand Down and whose lives were turned around by that experience. Sunday morning came, with Catholic mass offered at one end of the field and a Protestant service complete with a gospel choir on the main stage. Lunch bags of sandwiches and fruit were ready for the veterans as they gathered their gear and lined up to depart at noon.
Who are these men and women who had once served their country in the military, and now find themselves homeless in shelters or on the streets? Nationwide, the statistics are disheartening. Almost half are Vietnam era vets, many older than 45. Two thirds had served three or more years in the military. Eighty-nine percent received an Honorable Discharge. Eighty five percent had completed high school or the GED, compared to 56% of homeless non-veterans. Seventy-six percent had alcohol, drug or mental health problems.
And these were indeed the vets I met. None of them were well. I had several talks with Rob [I’ve changed all the first names] starting with our first encounter at the gate. I brought him the water he urgently needed to take his medications: he carried a case with about 12 different prescriptions, many of them psychotropic drugs essential for him to cope. He had served in Viet Nam, and later he’d been employed in the travel business in the U.S. and overseas, but now he was jobless and homeless.
I ate lunch with Ben, another Viet Nam veteran. He was on active duty for two years and then spent two years as a prisoner of war. The US Army had his POW records, but they’d lost the records for his two years of service--and he had been fighting for the last ten years to access his VA benefits, so far to no avail. Ben looked ill and wasted--I thought cancer. He and his wife were homeless. Their eldest son enlisted in the Army right after 9/11, was deployed to Iraq and was killed just a few weeks later. At dinner, Bruce sat down beside me. He’d found out about the Stand Down barely in time to get registered. He served in Viet Nam, then all over the country, but he was discharged before 9/11. He told me he used drugs, mostly marijuana, because it kept him calm so that he wouldn’t explode with anger all the time. Pot had fewer side effects than the drugs he’d been prescribed.
The Stand Down lasted just four days--and it won’t happen again for two years. About 300 homeless men and 40 homeless women had gotten significant help. But on a single night in January 2013, California ranked #1 in the country for homelessness, with over fifteen thousand homeless veterans.
San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Clara City and County, Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Sonoma County, taken together, had more than eighteen hundred homeless veterans. We had served fewer than one in five of the homeless veterans in our area.
Why is homelessness so critical? Because all other efforts to help veterans don’t work if people don’t have a safe, stable place to live. Federal programs have been too meager, too underfunded, to have a big impact on the problem, though there’s been about a 24% reduction in homelessness over the last five years. At that rate, it will be fifteen more years before the problem is resolved. And even if these men and women had stable homes they would still face being turned away from the help they need: California holds the record for the longest wait time in the country to determine eligibility for VA services, as long as two years.
To access services, a veteran has to know what benefits he or she is eligible for. I picked up a little manual provided by the VA entitled “Benefits for Veterans and Dependents.” I have at least average intelligence.
I found it a bewildering morass of bureaucratic jargon, of hurdles of “if’s, and’s and but’s” to be surmounted before help might be forthcoming. Not surprisingly, few know even most of the benefits to which they are entitled.
What has left these survivors of war and military service so wasted with illness and burdened with mental illness? Once they were young and healthy and buoyed by the spirit of being part of a team. They were promised care after their service for the rest of their lives.
There is no surprise that this covenant was broken. As the US ramped up the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration made deep cuts in the VA budget--and awarded medals to VA officials based on the number of claims they denied. The system has never been adequately repaired and restored--this at time when veterans of past eras are now aging and increasingly in need of care, while the influx of new veterans grows as we end our contemporary wars.
Yet, even if our covenant were kept, it would meet only part of the challenge of restoring our veterans to health and well being.
This Stand Down was not a setting for intimate sharing about the war experience of these men and women. I can’t know what nightmares woke them, what flashbacks the drugs were aimed at easing. But nobody comes back from war unchanged. One high-ranking military officer put it bluntly, “We all come back morally fractured.”
A Korean war veteran reported this dream that has haunted him ever since--
The little girl walks up to me on the beach. At first, I’m happy to see her. As she comes closer, I see she’s been crying and I ask her, “What’s wrong, sweetheart, don’t cry.” Then she always says the same thing: “Why you shoot me, GI?” I start to cry, and she disappears. I never meant to hurt her. She was just looking for food in the dark and she died because she was starving….. I’ll never forget her face when I pulled her from the rice paddy--she was like a little angel. She could have grown up and had babies and been happy in her village. Instead, she only lives on in my dream as a six-year-old girl. They say it wasn’t your fault--you were doing your job--but how can God forgive me? I can’t forgive myself.
We diagnose so many of our veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD for short, and hand out a dozen drugs to dull the symptoms. Increasingly we realize that their distress goes far deeper than a checklist of symptoms, and penetrates the deepest self. So many suffer the aftermath of intermittent fear of death, unresolved grief for fallen and maimed comrades, ethical disgust at what they have seen or done, and the sense of betrayal by those who sent them into danger.
The red poppy has become the icon for those who have died in military service to their country. This poem, “Paper Poppies,” by Bob Smith turns our thoughts to the deadly cost of war for those who return--Sprouting from lapels,
staining dark, crisp suits,
how sinister they seem:
a splash of blood next to the heart,
signifying that even those
who return have been grazed
by a bullet no less deadly
for being invisible.
Veterans’ suicides continue at the rate of 22 per day--a figure that’s an underestimate. One that wasn’t counted: Levi Derby hanged himself in 2007. His mother says he was haunted by the death of an Afghan child. He had handed the girl a bottle of water, and when she came forward to take it, she stepped on a land mine. Back home from Afghanistan, he locked himself in a motel room for days. When he was called up to deploy to Iraq, he didn’t want to kill again. He went AWOL and finally agreed to an “other than honorable discharge.” Thus he was not in the VA system.
We Unitarian Universalists and liberal theologians generally have a hard time finding words for such despair, for the sense of responsibility for such morally repugnant deaths. A colleague who treats veterans with PTSD and is himself a Viet Nam vet, declared, that after Viet Nam, he had never come back into a state of Grace. To be out of a state of grace is to feel mired in sin. Out of an excess of optimism about the human spirit many of us UU’s have avoided concepts like sin, the loss of grace, the yearning for atonement, the search for redemption. Yet these are what our warriors struggle with.
All that our warriors have done has been done in our name. We trained them, we sent them to war, they laid down their lives for our country. We shall struggle perhaps forever to make meaning of their deaths.
But we can do something about those who’ve come home. It takes more than a “thank you for your service.” It is time to redraw our covenant with those who make it through.
A society that spends what we spend on war can ask all its citizens to pay for the care of our warriors. It is time to end the stigmatizing of those who return in emotional and spiritual pain. It is time to end the longstanding practice of punishing those who request psychological help by blocking promotions or discharging them “less than honorably, so they are cut off from critical benefits. It is time to remove from power whose who cover up the reality of a dysfunctional system and those who stand in the way of change.
In the coming frenzy of 2016 campaigning, we are likely to hear focussed attacks on the VA medical system. There will be demands to dismantle it as “socialized medicine,” big government that doesn’t work. There will be proposals to replace the VA with vouchers for care in the private sector. In fact, once a veteran can ever access treatment through the VA, the care itself is excellent. Privatizing their care is a disastrous option.
Yet there is more to be done than any clinic, any government service can do--that only communities can do.
We UU congregations and other liberal religious communities can undertake a labor of love, and create healing spaces for veterans. We can ask who in our congregations are veterans. We can open our minds to hear their stories and celebrate their safe return. We can grieve with them over the deaths of so many, and accept both their need for forgiveness and our own need to be forgiven for the world we made. We can create rituals of cleansing and forgiveness for them and for ourselves. We can support them in building a new meaningful life, either in serving their country, or serving other vets, or finding other work of compelling value.
If we can do that, they can come all the way home They can reconnect with a world they can trust again.
And by honoring them, we can redeem ourselves for what has been wrought in our name. And we can stand together as sisters and brothers in our prayers for peace on this earth, that love shall have the victory.