Recently I was with fellow soldiers in Pennsylvania. Each time I travel there I am moved by the region’s beauty. Some of it is quite industrialized and it is clear that the land and minerals have been plundered rather than stewarded. Much of Philadelphia, for example, unlike the etymology of its Greek roots, is often rather appalling, unloving, and divided by stoked racial animus. But in much of Pennsylvania’s countryside, the region retains a colonial feel, and reflects even still its German, Dutch, and other influences. Below are a few shots from north of Gettysburg, not far from the state’s capital. I was with fellow soldiers most of the time, so I visited a cemetery for U.S. veterans and families, which invariably moves me in appreciation and a good kind of pride.
A short story begins . . . When I drove around the cemetery, several families of the deceased veterans were out at their loved one’s headstone. One woman, for example, was quite elderly. She had a small folding lawn chair out in the middle of rows upon rows of headstones. She had her chair facing her loved one’s headstone. She just sat there, totally still. Her hair was so white, she could easily have been a great-grandmother several times over. Her skin appeared paper thin. I could not tell whether she was crying, talking, praying, or perhaps a combination of any of those. She appeared as one in communion.
Farther along I saw a young mother (probably in her thirties) and two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom were less than eight or so, sitting on a blanket the mother had laid in front of their loved one’s headstone. The mother was face-down on the blanket in the middle of the rows of headstones and her children sat beside her on the blanket.
I have preached scores upon scores of funerals and talked to scores upon scores of families of veterans, but sights like these never cease to move me. I wonder often if there is any end or limit to man’s pettiness, to his seemingly endless ways to focus on inaninites of life and miss the enduring and important things–namely, what American writer William Faulker wrote and spoke when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, about love and “courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”
I’ve heard so many folks quote Jesus’ words, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, ESV) at funerals. It is a crucial sentence, of course. I just wish folks would provide the context therein. Jesus’ point was about abiding. Enduring, persevering, not falling away.
Here’s where the story ends . . . So I was at the airport in Harrisburg, waiting on my flight out. A young man in his thirties rolled up in a wheelchair. His legs were completely gone. I could tell he was military. He caught my eye and I caught his about the same time. I was in uniform and he saw I was a chaplain. “Hey, brother,” I said. “We on the same bird this morning?” “Yes, sir,” he said. “I”m headed to Kansas City for a tournament. But I have a connecting flight in Atlanta.”
And we began a long conversation. He shared with me that he was an engineer in the Marine Corps. He’d been clearing IEDs in Helmand Province in 2011 when, he said with a sad smile, “I found one the wrong way.”
I said nothing for a moment and just let the moment hang. Finally he resumed his story. His unit suffered a lot of casualties that day, he said, but he had pressed on.
I asked about his family. “My wife stuck with me,” he said. “I told her after I woke up in the hospital that she didn’t have to. I would understand. She didn’t sign up for this,” he said. “But she stayed with me through it all, and we have two boys, and they want to be soldiers or Marines,” and he smiled. “It’s crazy, chaplain. I can’t say anything; I was the same way. I’d do it again.”
We kept talking. He told me about being on a volleyball team with fellow vets without legs. His biceps, triceps, forearms, and pectoral muscles were huge from their constant use. When they called for us to board the plane, I walked behind him in his wheelchair. When he got ready to board the plane, he popped himself out of his wheelchair and walked on his fists to board the plane and we greeted the stewardess together.
“What’s your row, brother?” I asked.
“11 Charlie,” he said.
“Roger,” I said. “I got you.”
He shuffled on his fists to 11C. I grabbed his hand. He swung himself up onto the seat. “Thanks, Chap,” he said.
“No problem, brother. Good luck in the volleyball match,” I said.
And that was it. We flew to Atlanta. And we went our separate ways. We shook hands as we exited the plane together, and I knew once again why some folks abide. God only knows the number of great men like that Marine.
2 thoughts on “Scenes from Pennsylvania, My Conversation with a Marine with No Legs, & Thoughts Thereupon”
What a beautiful and moving story! The visuals you provided of the families visiting their loved ones’ gravesites at the veteran cemetery were so vivid, and your encounter with the disabled marine brought tears to my eyes. I appreciate your point about the enduring and important things in life, and I wonder how we can all strive to focus on those more. Is there anything you would suggest for people who want to make a difference in honoring those who have made sacrifices for our country?
Thank you for your kind words. How to make a difference? Thank them for their service when you see veterans or those still serving. Volunteer at the VA. “Adopt a vet” ministries abound. Link vets up with pets. Service dogs are a HUGE blessing to many. And perhaps reach out to the families of vets. They serve, too, in remarkable ways. Thank you so much for your kind words.