“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” said our deacon, Jim Lieb, not for the first time.
He was standing at the door to my office at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ben Lomond. I had just handed him a piece of paper with the names of those Americans who had died in Afghanistan the previous week so that he could read them during our prayers for those who have died, and their families and friends. “So do I,” I replied.
At our annual meeting in January, he told our membership: “This is the least favorite part of my job.”
Jim is familiar with the cost of war, having served a tour of duty in Vietnam with the Air Force. Each name hits personally. He told me that he feels like he is calling the roll.
I remember, not long after the Iraq War started, walking into a local drugstore in Long Beach, Wash., where I was then living. There was a display of T-shirts just inside the door. The first one I read said, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!”
I was surprised by a rush of anger, blood to my face. “We’re at war,” I thought. “How can we be indulging these trivial thoughts?”
I remembered a long-ago practice of reading the names of the dead during the Vietnam War to remind people that war is not just a political issue — it has a dreadful price. That action had a great impact on the participants, and it seemed to me like a good way to remind people that something was going on, and it involved our own citizens — parents, siblings, children and grandchildren.
I began hunting down the source of names of those killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and reading them at services at St. Peter’s in Seaview, Wash., where I was then vicar. The congregation, which included veterans, responded with appreciation.
We then began praying for friends and relatives who were on active duty. It is hard for me to think of a group of people that needs prayers more than they do.
I began to hear from some of these servicemen and women that they were aware of these prayers, and they thanked us. I brought that practice with me when I became rector of St. Andrew’s Church in Ben Lomond, and our deacon seemed to me to be the most appropriate person to read the casualty list.
I asked him one time whether his dislike for reading those names meant that he wanted me to take over the task. “Oh, no,” he responded. This was something he felt he needed to do. His dislike for the job stems from empathy and identification with the casualties, not from squeamishness.
I continue to find it startling that we have people at war on our behalf and in our name, and so little attention is being paid publicly to those who are facing the stress, the tension and the violence we have sent them to face.
When I watch a TV newscast, or a pundit show, I rarely hear about Afghanistan except as a political issue — how long should we stay, under what conditions should we leave? If I read the daily papers, war news is missing or somewhere inside the front section. If I look up Internet news, I might find some mention of the war, but not often, and usually only if more than one soldier has died in an incident.
I have had other members of clergy visit one of our services and ask, “Where do you get the names?” When I first started doing this, I got them from the newspaper, but that meant cutting them out daily and never missing a day.
I did some searching online, and discovered that the Department of Defense has a website with a page of press releases, which contains that information, along with ages, hometowns and units. These releases make for sobering reading. Ages range from the teens into the 50s. All branches of service except Coast Guard are regularly represented. All areas of the country are likewise mentioned.
There I also find information about those missing in action who have been recovered or identified from other wars, information that rarely appears in daily news outlets.
We can argue about whether we want these troops fighting and dying in this place, or whether the president or a challenger would do a better job of dealing with this war. We can say whether we should be doing a better job for the veterans of this war, or whether we are doing enough. But we should not be ignoring it.
When I read recently that only 28 percent of Santa Cruz County eligible voters had voted — meaning that it only took 14.1 percent of eligible voters to decide for everyone in the county — I thought again of those who are facing these battles. Many of them joined the service to support our rights, including the most basic one of voting. Apathy seems a poor repayment, however cynical we might have become about politics.
I am not a supporter of war in most cases as a solution for political and social problems. But when people go into battle in our names, I think we owe them a bit more than to forget about them and go shopping.
- Blaine Hammond is the rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ben Lomond. He has served in the post since September 2009.