Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars

May 27, 2012
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein
 

He came back from Afghanistan missing a leg, and with mental health problems that require him to be institutionalized, perhaps for the rest of his life. His mind has been shattered by the traumas he experienced at war, another casualty who won't be counted among the dead, but whose life will never be the same. She, his wife, looks fine. She is young and pretty and charming. But she also has post-traumatic stress disorder. Not from time spent in the battlefields of war, but from experiences in the battle of life. She has anxiety disorder and panic attacks, invisible disabilities for which she may or may not be effectively treated and recover from.

It is Memorial Day weekend, when we remember the horrible sacrifices of war, and honor those who fought in them, and died in them. In former times a young man either made it home from the war or he did not. If he did, and he seemed to be in one piece, he was expected to get on with life as usual, return to "normal" and be a man - which, for the older generations, meant being a husband, probably a father, and provider. An upstanding member of society. What happened in the battlefield or in the service stayed between veterans, other men who had been there and could understand - if they spoke of it at all. It was a time when people didn't share their personal struggles as is so much more common now, in our post-Oprah confessional age. I can't judge if that kind of stoicism was a good thing or bad thing - it is just the way it was. It was good for some and bad for others. Some needed to get on with life and put the hell they'd been through behind them. Others needed to process through their experience, get help dealing with their emotional wounds. There is that expression, we "soldier on."

I have struggled for two reasons with whether I wanted to say in this sermon that we are all the walking wounded. First, there is the fact that it isn't true - some people, and I haven't met any yet, but they're out there - have no real wounds. Life has dealt that kindly with them, and God love ‘em. And there is a second reason I hesitated to say it: we have a hard time admitting that we're almost all the walking wounded because we don't want to identify as victims. I want to hold that tension with you for a moment. We're the walking wounded, although most certainly not all victims, and not helpless or hopeless cases. What we are is human, and therefore veterans of all sorts of battles - and this is not to diminish the profound responsibility that military veterans have in fighting the literal battles of war on behalf of our nation. It is to engage a metaphor with you.

During a conversation once, my friend Barbara Merritt quoted the mystic Sufi poet Hafiz, "We have two choices. We can come to God dancing or carried on a stretcher." I thought about that for a moment. And then I said, "How about dancing on a stretcher?" I think again of him, the kid with the one leg, living at a VA hospital in Washington state (transferred there after Walter Reed Hospital closed), moving in and out of sanity and psychosis. And of her, who suffers from the emotional scars of different kinds of trauma. There are invisible disabilities all around us. And it isn't just the military veteran coming home with PTSD. It is the adult son with social anxiety disorder who can't leave the house. It is the guy at work with debilitating back pain who seems to be slacking on the job but who is hiding his physical pain so he won't lose his job. It is the teenager asleep at the school desk who isn't bored or rebellious, but clinically depressed. It is the friendly woman you hardly ever see in church because she has chemical sensitivities and is too embarrassed or modest to ask that people not wear perfume or cologne to church, as it gives her a horrible headache. It is the inner-city kid who stops going to school at age 9 and starts running drugs for a gang because he can't get the knack of reading and he's tired of being teased for being stupid. What he is, is dyslexic, but he's never been tested. It is the talented young woman who loses out on every promotion because she has chronic digestive problems and food allergies that make it difficult to travel, and even to socialize with co-workers. We are all carried on the stretcher at times, and some of us manage to get up and dance, while some cannot. Some may choose not to, as life on the stretcher gives them an identity and feels comfortable and safe to them.

I remember attending a Unitarian Universalist conference over ten years ago where a woman who immediately identified herself as an insulin-dependent diabetic. This was helpful to know because had she had to interrupt herself from the group to get a snack, or had she had a medical emergency, we would have understood what was going on. There is no shame in being diabetic, but when this woman took out her medicine kit and gave herself an insulin injection at the dinner table, I was not the only one who lost their appetite and got a little dizzy. She did not do it discreetly. She did it with much flourish, in fact, setting everything out in front of her in meticulous, attention-getting ritual. It was one of those you-wanted-to-look-away-but-you-couldn't moments. All conversation stopped and people were glancing at each other in an awkward way as the woman lifted up her arm and made a show of injecting herself. She looked at everyone at the table with a defiant expression, as if challenging us: "We're inclusive, and you need to accept me as I am!" She did the same thing later in the dormitory bedroom, where I was in the bed next to hers. As we got ready for bed that evening, the woman engaged me in conversation as she was taking out her kit. I got up to excuse myself for a moment, saying, "Let me give you some privacy while you do that." "Oh, I'm fine," she said. I mumbled something about having to brush my teeth and walked away. The woman refused to look at me or speak to me for the rest of the conference.

The incident has bothered me for years. I will always remember that woman as "The Diabetic Woman," which is to associate her only with her disease and to have no other quality or characteristic to remember her by. It is terrible when we do this to people - to forget that despite any disabilities or wounds, every one of us is a precious and unique individual with a distinct identity, not just "Suzy's Son Who Had His Leg Amputated In Iraq." It is frightening when people choose reduce themselves in this way. I'm sure there are so many special and notable things about that woman that I never learned.

Although it pains me that anyone would seem to be so invested in establishing an identity around a disease, it pains me equally when any of us is limping along and vehemently denies being among the walking wounded. We return to this theme again and again in this congregation, where so many of us were raised to be helpers and to reject the notion that we are sometimes the ones who need help. We all need help at times. The identity of "helper" and "helped" shifts throughout our lifetimes. That is as it should be.

And who could deny today that we are wounded, that we are grieving, and that we need and deserve help, support, and an extra dose of tender compassion? We are sad about Stuart. And since September, we have lost and buried seven dear members of the congregation, life-long friends to many of you. We had memorial service for them, but a funeral only marks the occasion of a loss and helps us start the grieving process. It just starts the process. We have many losses to grieve as a community. Our challenge is to be present to each other with all our feelings, understanding and accepting that some of us are "Life goes on, let's not dwell on pain" people and some of us are "I need help, I need to talk about it, I need to be able to express my feelings" people. No one has the same emotional style, and we are not all required to be on the same time-line for grieving, or required to grieve the same losses. And there is also the important balance to strike in terms of our shared identity: we are not just the Church in Mourning, just as the woman I met at the conference is not just the Woman With Diabetes.

There is a beautiful old theological expression that I love that I want you to know and to remember, and it is one that I think of every time I look out over these pews and to the graveyard across the street. The expression is "The Church Militant and The Church Triumphant." The church militant is us, you and me, the living, who are fighting the battles against sin, soldiering on in faith and good works. The Church Triumphant is the ones who are in heaven, risen to glory, beyond all the sufferings of the world. We are the church militant, remember that, and we are until we too are translated from flesh to spirit, and join "the choir invisible" with our recently deceased friends. We pray for them, the Church Triumphant, and we pray for the ones soldiering on in the battles of life, whether here or across town or moved away or missing in action. Our bonds of covenant are mystical bonds, not physical. They are not subject to time and place.

We have more courage and heroism than we know. Last week, I was in my Uncle Dick's condo in Palm Beach. We were sitting shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning where the family goes home to stay in seclusion and says kaddish, the prayer for the dead, while welcoming guests. I knew I would never return to this condo or ever see these beloved furnishings again. I walked around with my camera, documenting the space. I photographed his closet, with those navy blue sports coats he always wore. I photographed the piano, covered with family photos. I photographed paintings on the wall and his bedroom, and his shaving supplies set out where he had just used them days before he died. I photographed the huge sneakers he had kicked off next to his desk- those will be big shoes to fill. I opened drawers and photographed the beautiful, sentimental tableaux that I encountered there: in one case, a photograph of himself with his three brothers next to his brother Marvin's ID bracelet. I wasn't violating his privacy, I hope, but chronicling, for his children (who gave me permission) and grandchildren. This is something I wish to God someone had done for me when my father died suddenly in 1983. Because he and my mother were separated at the time, my father and all of his belongings disappeared from my life without a trace. Knowing this, perhaps you can forgive me my snooping!

Upon opening one drawer, I saw a flat black jewelry box and carefully opened it. Lying there in the box were three military medals: two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. Another box held a second Bronze Star which could have been his, or could have belonged to a brother (all of the four Weinstein boys served in the Army). I knew that Uncle Dick had enlisted at the age of 17 and fought in World War II. I knew he fought at the Battle of the Bulge. I did not know that he was a decorated war hero. I never thought to ask him.

We have more courage and heroism than is ever spoken. In this time of our grief, let us share stories not only of pain and loss but stories of our strength. Let us take our badges of honor out of desk drawers - honors earned in life's battles - and put them where we can see them and know who we are. We are the walking wounded. And we are are also the Church Militant, struggling on, soldiering on, faithful and strong. There are heroes among us whose medals we have never seen.