In thanks we lift our hearts this day,
for those at home and far away
Who heard the call to love’s high goals
and answered with their very souls.
Bless all who serve where e’re they be,
on land, in flight, or on the sea.
(an alternate UU lyric to the Navy Hymn by Andrew Millard, minster of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula)
If there is anything Pagans understand, it is the power of symbolism. Its something Pagans have in common with military members. In the military, there is a tradition that most chow halls and mess decks participate in, regardless of branch. Every command I have been at (including the one am at now, as a civilian) has observed this day, with the setting of the POW/MIA table. If you aren’t familiar with this tradition, it occurs on the third Friday in September each year, though many commands and military affiliated organizations will perform the ceremony for other important events as well.
The ceremony itself varies. Often an honor guard enters, each member holding a cover (hat) for each of the branches of service–I’ve even seen one that carried in a ball cap for those civilians that have been POW/MIA as well (the poster above doesn’t, though often the Coast Guard is included as well). But the table is almost always small, and many times only set for one (or set for one of each service), to symbolize the one man alone and frail against his or her captors. The words often vary, but the tablecloth is always white to symbolize of the purity one’s intent in responding to their country’s call to arms.
Sometimes there is a black napkin, in symbolism of grief. The table is set with a single red rose in the vase, for the blood they many have shed or to remind us of the family and friends of our missing comrades who keep the faith, while awaiting their return. The case is tied with a red or yellow ribbon on the vase to represents the ribbons worn on the lapels of the thousands who demand with unyielding determination a proper accounting of our comrades who are not among us at this time. A slice of lemon on the plate reminds us of the bitterness of their fate, and the salt sprinkled on the plate reminds us of the countless fallen tears of families as they wait.
Depending on the ceremony, the glass(es) at the table may already be inverted. Sometimes though, the honor guard will bring the cover for the branch of the military to the table, set it at their place, and turn over the glass to symbolize that cannot toast with us this night. The chair is left empty–they are not here, but a candle is lit, the light of hope which lives in our hearts to light their way home. And then, a moment of silence, occasionally preceded by the words, “Let us pray to the supreme commander that all of our comrades will soon be back within our ranks.”
This is probably one of my favorite ceremonies from my time in the military. Not because I like the reason for having it, but because its poignancy is heart-rendingly powerful. I’ve never seen one that wasn’t done with sincerity, and the utmost respect. I’ve never been to one that didn’t make me cry. 83,000 men and women, from all branches of the military, as well as civilians remain missing since World War II–73,000 from WWII, 7,500 from Korea, 1,600 from Vietnam, 126 from the Cold War, and 7 since the Gulf War (Sgt. Bowe Bergedahl has been held prisoner by the Taliban since 2009). But even one is too many.
…Let us remember the still missing, far from home, whose bodies have never been recovered and returned. May they one day come home. Until they all come home.
The young dead soldiers do not speak. Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them? They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts. They say, We were young. We have died. Remember us. They say, We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done. They say, We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave. They say, Our deaths are not ours: they are yours: they will mean what you make them. They say, Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say: it is you who must say this. They say, We leave you our deaths: give them their meaning: give them an end to the war and a true peace: give them a victory that ends the war and a peace afterwards: give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us. poem by Archibald MacLeish
Today is about the men and women that have died in service to their country, regardless of their race, religion, political affiliation, gender, sexuality, marital status and nationality. It is about someone’s son, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s father, someone’s aunt or uncle or cousin, someone’s grandfather or grandmother or however many great’s one might need to add, someone’s lover, someone’s partner, someone’s friend.
Today is not about a barbecue or camping trip. It is not about a boat ride, or trip to the beach. It is not about that furniture sale for snaging a new area rug or an ottoman. Today is not about you and, even as a veteran, it is not about me–it is about the men and women that never got to come home and hang up their uniform and trade in their combat boots for sneakers or heels. Today is about the men and women that didn’t get to see their children grow up, or graduate, or give them grandchildren to spoil. I don’t think the men and women that chose to put themselves in harm’s way because they believed in the ideal of service and freedom would begrudge you any of those things…indeed, I think many of them, were they still with us, would be enjoying a cold one in the hand and hot one off the grill. But.
A midst our weekend plans, it is our mission to remember that our barbecue or camping trip or visit to the zoo is made possible by the death of our brothers and sisters–of somebody’s mother, somebody’s son.
War is brutal, it is bloody, and it kills. There is no glory in war, no glory in sending our mothers and fathers and sons and daughters to kill another’s mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. It is a tragic and painful fact that every nation and every generation has seen conflict escalate to war–whether it be to combat a cruel leader seeking to oppress their people (or another’s people), or a hapless legislature sending their might abroad for spurious reasons. Humanity will never be perfect, there will always be someone that is willing to kill in the most heinous of ways to achieve power, and there will always need to be someone willing to take up arms against them. This means that the innocent will die alongside the not-so innocent, and that communities and entire countries will be ravaged, both the people and the land. There may be no glory in war, but there can be honor in service. There is honor in protecting our homes, our families, our land, and our ideals. There is honor in standing up for the downtrodden, for seeking to bring justice where there was tyranny, and to try our damnedest to secure equality and freedom for a new generation.
There are many reasons that men and women choose to serve their country, and there are men and women that are unwillingly selected to serve their country and choose to fulfill that requirement out obligation. Regardless of reason or length of service, they are all worthy of our respect. They serve in times of war, in times of peace, as well as the in-between. Many, if not most, of them come home, but none of them are unchanged by the experience. And many of them, too many of them, do not return at all.
Let us remember the countless and often unknown women that have served their country from its conception and died in combat, despite prohibitions against such service.
Hail the honored dead!
Let us remember those that have served their country to protect rights they could only hope that they could one day claim as well, from the Colored Troops of the Civil War to the gay and lesbian troops still fighting for equal protection of the law and equal recognition of their families.
Hail the honored dead!
Let us remember those of the Pagan community that have given their life in service to their country, despite often being an unrespected minority in both environments.
Hail the honored dead!
Let us remember those that have died in service, whether that be in the moment of battle, or months or years after they have returned to a home-that-is-no-longer-home, unable to find their way.
Hail the honored dead!
Let us remember all of those that have died fulfilling their Oath of Enlistment–to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, bearing true faith and allegiance to the same, and doing their job, so that others within our populace do not have to.
Hail the honored dead!
Let us remember the still missing, far from home, whose bodies have never been recovered and returned. May their families one day find solace and closure.
Hail the honored dead!
Let us celebrate their lives, however short they may have been cut. Let us thank their families and extend them our sympathies, for the anguish of loss that has allowed us to stay home, or to come home safely if we have served. Let us remember, and let us find a way to give their lives and their deaths meaning.
Hail the honored dead!
Let their deaths be a solemn reminder on this day, and every day, to treat one another with compassion, to honor and respect our differences as well as our similarities, and to live our lives in a manner that kindles the spirit of peace a little bit stronger and a little bit longer, pushing back the darkness of war for as long as we are able.
The Hubby and I have been working on a family ritual for Memorial Day for some time. As veterans, both of us have lost friends–family really, to our current wars. Both of our families have had somewhat of a tradition of service, and between the two of us, we have had family serve in all four branches of the military and in all of this country’s major wars. We choose, on this day (or sometimes on the Monday), to pay our respects to the sacrifice of the 1.3-1.7 million Americans that have died (numbers vary a bit) in service to their country, and to their countrymen. We combine the Pagan traditions of the dumb supper, or of leaving and offering for the gods or one’s ancestors, with the military’s tradition of “the little white table” that features so hauntingly in chow halls and shipboard mess decks to honor the missing and the prisoners of war that cannot be with us, by adding a place at the table as a memorial, a tribute, and an invitation. Tomorrow (while I’m at work), The Hubby is going to try his first solo craft with the kidlets, making poppies using paper plates and peanut butter cup wrappers, in an adaptation of these instructions. This year, we’ve decided to add the playing of The Last Post and Taps (The Last Post is a British tradition, but was the original “taps” call for us as well until the writing of Taps during our Civil War) at the beginning and the end of our moment of silence (at this point, about all a 6 and 4 year old can manage), before reading the above (which has been cobbled together and adapted from the past few Memorial Day posts I’ve written), and following it up with a prayer from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Bless All Who Serve”. Over time, as their capacity to understand grows, we would like to include them more and to add some other readings, as well as a roll call of sorts of the number of casualties for each war…and extend the moment of silence for the entire meal–I’d also like to work on creating a special meal, though I haven’t had the chance to work on that yet.
The Wild Hunt has an interesting (and good) piece on first responders and the role of faith (I recommend going and reading it). The author makes mention of how other religions view the role of a first responder from their particular faith tradition and asks these questions of our own communities:
What is the role of Pagan theology in the mindset of the first responder? We don’t have referential texts to guide our sense of transformative justice or “Godliness” as it were. Is there any religiously-based ethic that drives Pagan first responders?
Or perhaps, YES! And I don’t think it stops with first resonders or first response situations. Anyone that is religious (regardless of the religion) and works with people in a heath care setting, in the aftermath of tragedy, or in moments of personal crisis has probably developed a perspective on what they do and how or why they do it, that is in some way and shape informed by their religion or spirituality.
I was Pagan when got my first job a lifeguard. After that, I was in the United States Navy for six years, and for four of them I was a Hospital Corpsman* (and for two of those years, one of my duties was being a victim’s advocate for sexual assault). In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never rushed into a burning building, I’ve never been shot at, I’ve not been in combat, and I’ve never delivered a baby on the side of the road in a snow storm. But I have drilled and trained for events like them. I have been on the ship’s fire party at a fire, I’ve been in full MOPP gear for hours on end (thankfully a false alarm), and I’ve pulled more than my fair share of people to safety (on and off duty) from the water. I’ve held the living and the dying and I have cried, bled and sweat for both. I’m not saying that to boast, or for credit of any sort (there are many people out there that have seen and done far more than I have); rather I’m saying this for some perspective for what amounts to my personal ethic on the matter. At the end of the day, I’m just a chick that had a job and an odd compulsion to run towards shit that other people would rather run away from.
Life is a gift. When you can give it, do so with humility; when you must take it, do so with mercy. And when you can do neither, offer all of the comfort and dignity that you can muster, for the person whose hand you are holding.
For the most part, the above has been an idea that has come after the fact. I never particularly thought about my theological or philosophical opinions about life and death or living and dying when I was on the job. There really isn’t time for religion when you are doing CPR or even just stitching someone up. You do what has to be done because its what has to be done. You’ve trained enough to assess the situation and do what has to be done because its become second nature. And when you come across something that you haven’t trained for, you do what you can to the best of your ability until someone with more training comes along. In the moment, the only thing you think about is the moment.
Instead, my spiritual practices have been what I’ve found useful–grounding and centering to get through everything from adrenaline and fatigue to despair and elation with a cool head, cleansing to let go of the events of the day before going home to family or out with friends, or a blessing before heading in and a moment of thanks upon coming out. And like the training of what to do for a broken bone or an electrical fire, they are only really useful because they’ve been practiced to the point that they are instinctive. Paganism might not have an authoritative text to offer a theological perspective on service before self, or the nature of healing, or the value of life…instead we have a plethora of ideas and ideals on those matters. What I think our religious traditions can offer though, is a set of practices (common to contemporary Paganism) that can be incredibly valuable to the Pagan that does disaster work, or is a medic, or a police officer, etc.
*If you aren’t familiar with the term, the closest analog would be “medic”…but being a corpsman is more than being a medic (since most of us equate the term with paramedic). A corpsman is doctor and nurse on ships at sea without them, they are the paramedic and the ER technician and the CNA and LPN at the hospital, they are the person the draws your blood, shoots your x-rays, that conducts your lab tests, passes out condoms, keeps your records, gives shots, delivers babies, acts as the FDA inspector and the Orkin Man, fixes broken bones, teaches first aid and CPR…and the list goes on. There is no civilian equivalent to the Hospital Corpsman, and really, there is no equivalent to the Hospital Corpsman in either the Air Force or the Army, which both divy up the role of a corpsman into many different jobs (if you are wondering why I didn’t mention the Marines, its because Hospital Corpsman are their medics).
Extra note: The title for this post comes from something a patient of mine once told me…he’d been a Hospital Corpsman in Korea and Vietnam and he wasn’t doing so well…he was also one of my favorite patients. I asked him one day, what made a good corpsman, and his answer what that “What makes a good corpsman is what makes a good person–the only thing that counts, whether you are in the field or on the ward, in wartime or in peace, at work or at home, is that you do what you can, the best that you are able, for as long as you are needed.”
Just for fun (and to see the oh-so-hilarious look on his face), I informed The Hubby (a.k.a. Mr. Thalassa and Daddy Man) that he was going to be on my blog. I figure if its amusing enough, I’ll bring him back from time to time…
And I needed to take some time off from Yule blogging. BTW, Happy Hanukkah!
Me: So babe, tell us about yourself…
Mr. Thalassa: Well, I like long walks on the beach, the wind blowing through my Fabio-like locks, sunrises that could make you cry…running with scissors, shiny things, and viciously large explosions. All of those can be made better with a big cup of coffee.
Me: You are such a dork. Just sayin’.
Mr. Thalassa: (laughs) And you love me for it…its not like you were specific!
Me: Yup, I definitely married you for your dork skills. Who the heck else would put up with my Star Trek Marathons? Okay…serious now. Put on your serious face.
Where are you from? What was your upbringing like?
Mr. Thalassa: I’m from the land of Cheese–from Wisconsin. I was born in a small town outside of Milwaukee and both my parents were police officers. My father passed away when I was six and my mom raised us. I had ADHD–oh look, something shiny!
Me: Dude…I said serious face.
Mr. Thalassa: Sorry, I wasn’t listening…there was a squirrel holding keys on the window sill.
Me: (snickering) What was it like to have a mom that was a cop?
Mr. Thalassa: Um…how truthful do you want me to be here? It was hard. She was gone a lot and Mom brought work home emotionally. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my mom–she was one of the first female police officers in our county, and the first female to make detective. But…it still sucked. It did keep me on the straight and narrow though, if I got in trouble with the cops, they were calling my mom, you know? Really, I just had a better idea of how not to get caught.
Me: I am putting this on the internet.
Mr. Thalassa: Good point. Let me go check on the squirrel with the keys.
Me: So, how did you end up moving from the land of Cheese to the Bay?
Mr. Thalassa: I joined the US Navy because I didn’t want to be a farmer, or a logger, or a factory worker. And school and I didn’t get along very well. The ADHD, you know. A lot of my friends had joined the Army, but my dad and my uncle were in the Navy, and I saw my cousin’s boot camp graduation. I decided to be a sailor instead…and the Navy sent me here.
Me: And the Navy thing? What did that do for you?
Mr. Thalassa: Well, it gave me my beautiful wife…
Me: Are you going for brownie points here?
Mr. Thalassa: Too obvious?
Me: Just a tad. Don’t get me wrong, I know you are serious and I love you too, but…over all, how did the Navy change things up in your life? Like…what you thought your life would be like, to where you are now?
Mr. Thalassa: Well, to start out with, I guess it really brought about my change in religious outlook and beliefs. I had started to questioning my religious upbringing* and indoctrination before that–the history that was wrong, the moral inconsistencies, and stuff. But I didn’t really have any exposure to other ideas and beliefs until I was in my ‘A’ school**, where there was an unofficial Pagan group.
Me: How did that go, being Pagan and in the Navy?
Mr. Thalassa: It was really never a problem. At first I kept it on the DL, then later I found there were more and more Pagans among us folks in uniform. I don’t think anyone realizes how many military members are actually Pagan. There are some problems–people that don’t understand who and what we believe, and those that don’t want to, that would rather keep their own negative stereotypes. But overall, those people are a minority, I didn’t have any major issues.
Me: How did being in the Navy affect your Pagan beliefs and vice versa?
Mr. Thalassa: It can be hard to practice in the Navy. Its not on purpose, its not religious oppression or anything…its just the environment. Like the physical environment. You can’t burn incense on a ship. Its a big gray boat in the middle of the sea…what about the green stuff? Steal a broccoli from the salad bar? Clean some algae from a tank?
It can be hard to find other Pagans sometimes…not everyone is as comfortable being open about their beliefs as you and I, so it can be hard to find people at your duty station. It can definitely be hard to participate in the wider Pagan community, just because you aren’t there. Deployments and all. And when you do go to places, a lot of people can’t relate. There’s some pretty big ignorance that borders on bigotry for people in the military in the Pagan community. That is changing a bit, but…heck–you were there, you remember that lady that called us baby killers at the drum circle at the festival we went to?
Me: Yeah, I remember that one. Probably the most blatant one I’ve run across.
Mr. Thalassa: And that one Druid writer…he wasn’t a fan of military Pagans at all.
Me: Isaac Bonewits?
Mr. Thalassa: Yeah-the one that said you can’t be in the military and be Pagan. I think he died a while back, so I’m not going to say anything bad, but… (sighs) He wrote some good shit, but that was…just dumb.
Me: Do you think that had something to do with us hitting it off? We had both the Navy thing and the Pagan thing in common? I know you dated Navy girls and Pagan girls before me, but never in the same fabulous package.
Mr. Thalassa: Ha! You are right there… At the very least, it made things easier. Being to relate and all. I mean, most of our real life friends were both. And even when you go to a festival or a ritual or something, those are the people you have stuff in common with first. Even before people with the same tradition or beliefs as you.
Me: Ah…Yeah, I’ve talked about this before. Do you think then, that there is more commonality between different sorts of Pagans from being in the military than there is between civilian Pagans?
Mr. Thalassa: Oh, heck yeah. I’m not saying that we have the same opinions and beliefs on anything…our perspectives run the gamut just as civilians. But we have something that binds us. We have necessity. We can get together and put aside our spiritual egos, if you will, to support one another, instead of bickering over who believes what and why. I mean, yeah–we can still disagree with that stuff, but at the end of the day, we don’t bitch about it the same way.
Me: What do you mean?
Mr. Thalassa: I’ve read some of those whiny blogs about whose really Pagan or not over your shoulder…I’d like to see them try to be Pagan on a ship. You can’t do it, do it well in a way that lets you grow…you can’t do that without support. And you don’t get to be picky about who that support comes from. Our Pagan discussion group on-board the ship was sponsored by a Catholic priest, and we had a ton of non-Pagans show up, just to learn what we believe. And when we had the occasional asshole show up, it was Chaps that kicked them out first.
And my chain of command was pretty cool about it too…they would rotate my watch schedule to attend the meeting. Even on the (ship name removed) the Chaplain was cool. The ship sucked, but the Chaplain was cool. He was actually pretty thrilled to find out there were Pagans aboard, as we both know they don’t really do that good of a job educating Chaplains about Pagans.
Me: You think that’s about it? I know you have to get ready to work and all…and it would be awesomesauce if I could talk you into vacuuming before you leave.
Mr. Thalassa: Yeah, I should start getting ready. Ugh, I really don’t want to work evenings this week. You know…this wasn’t as awkward as I expected. It was actually sort of fun.
Me: Lol, I love you too…
*The Hubby was raised in a very religious and very conservative Catholic family. He attended Catholic schools until his 10th grade year, including a year at an all boys boarding school.
**’A’ school is the Navy’s term for a training school after boot camp that offers job-specific training.