As Memorial Day approaches each year, I treasure a moment I spent with a veteran named Bill who bared his soul to me.
I was serving as an army chaplain, Pastor of the Main Protestant Chapel at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. For our mission outreach, we adopted the nearby VA hospital in Columbia. Twice a month we visited and spent time with veterans who were there for treatment. Often it was the only human contact they had outside the staff.
One particular Sunday, we split up to cover as much ground as possible. I made my way down a long, antiseptic hallway to a room in the furthest reaches of the facility. That’s where I met Bill, alone in his room under dim fluorescent light.
I introduced myself and asked about his circumstances. He said very little, almost suspicious, simply reciting his serious complications from diabetes. We sat in silence for a few moments. When I didn’t leave, he looked at me differently, sizing me up. As I asked him where and how he had served, he focused on the chaplain’s cross pinned to my lapel. I’ll never know what prompted him to break the seal on his memories, but he did so with sudden intensity.
Bill was a survivor of Omaha Beach, part of our country’s infamous D-Day invasion of Normandy. As a history buff, I had read accounts of that heroic onslaught, tens of thousands of our troops released from amphibious transports to face Nazi machine gun nests entrenched in the bluffs. I had seen the grainy black and white photos. Some years later, I watched Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, listening as others gasped in horror at how vivid the invasion seemed on the silver screen.
But even that cinematic realism would not compare to what I heard from Bill. He described the palpable fear in the landing boat, the friends standing next to him who were crossing themselves and mumbling prayers, the spatter of machine guns, the screams, the surf, the clanging metal of the ship’s gates opening, and then that rush through the waves towards the sand and their destiny. He remembered being dug into a small dune at the rear of the beach, turning his head and scanning the shoreline, the utter devastation and bodies laid to waste, wondering just for a moment if God would truly use this suicide mission to turn the tide of evil in a country far from his homeland.
The memories came out in a torrent. We were suspended in history. I don’t know if he had ever shared those haunting scenes before. When he was through with words, he looked over at me, eyes watering, face open and vulnerable. My own emotions welled up inside of me as I placed my hand on his shoulder.
“On behalf of a grateful nation, Bill, I can’t thank you enough for your bravery and service.”
He placed his hand over mine, two Americans, two human beings, connecting across a sea of time and experience.
“Chaplain Van,” he said, “will you pray with me?”