In 1973, when I was released from active duty, I re-enrolled in college and my wife, baby son, and I moved into married student housing. The next year, just after I started my senior year, I was assigned to be the student pastor of a small rural church. There were only about 23 people on a Sunday morning but it was my first pastorate and the people were kind, warm, and friendly. Except for two guys.
The brothers were in their late 20s or early 30s and, frankly, treated me with contempt. I could not understand why. My best efforts were constantly rebuffed and, after asking some questions, I finally figured it out — they had a total disrespect of me because they saw the ministry as a career that was unmanly. In other words, they saw me as a wimp that couldn’t cut it in a man’s world.
The brothers were in business together. They moved houses for a living and I was fascinated at how an entire house could be in a location on a firm foundation and, one day, could be picked up and moved miles away and reset on a new foundation in a new neighborhood.
So, one day, after finding out that they were moving a house the next day, I decided to go watch. I should add that, under orders from my superintendent, I always wore a coat, tie, and shirt. While that was the uniform of the clergy, it also reinforced the thought in the minds of the brothers that I thought I was too good to do real work; to get my hands dirty.
On the job site, I watched for several hours as the brothers and their employees went about their business. They were good at what they did and things went smoothly. The time came to give the men a break and the brothers, reluctantly, I thought, came over to where I was observing.
I wasn’t totally ignored, but their distain was obvious. They both had served in the United States Army and began to reminisce among themselves. One looked at me and said, “I don’t guess you’d know anything about the Army, would you — Preacher?” He said the word “preacher” as if it wear a swear word.
Still making nice, I chose to ignore the contempt and said, “No, I don’t know a lot.”
“I didn’t think so, one smirked.
I continued, “I only spent six months on an Army base while I was in the Marine Corps attending a school but that’s not enough to know a great deal about the Army.”
Suddenly, both faces were blank and the smirks evaporated. “What did you say?” one brother asked.
“I said I didn’t know about the Army.”
“No, the other thing you said.”
“What other thing?” I asked.
“I thought I heard you say you were in the Marine Corps.”
“Yes, I was.”
The other brother asked, “You went to Parris Island?”
“I did indeed.”
After a moment of silence, they both looked at me as one brother said, “Well, damn.”
“Hey, boys!” one of the brothers called to his crew. “Come over here! I want you to meet my pastor. He’s a #*% $@*& Marine!” And just like that, I was in the club.
There was a lot of hand-shaking, back-slapping, and smiles all around as introductions were made and stories exchanged. Soon, the break was over and they went back to work. I stayed a while longer and, as I left, everybody waved and smiled. The two brothers and I were fine from that moment on.
As I drove away, I thought, “Who knew? This thing has currency among a certain group of people.” The “thing” was being a veteran and the “certain group” was other veterans, whatever the branch of service.
I hadn’t thought about it all that much prior to this event for a couple of reasons. One, nearly everybody in my blue-collar environment, if able-bodied, either enlisted or was drafted. The kids from more well-off environments often got out of serving in the military.
Two, I served at a time when the war of that day was terribly unpopular and active duty service members, as well as veterans, with the exception of those who served in World War II, faced disrespect if not downright hostility.
In 1975, the year the war in Vietnam ended, the population of the United States was 216,000,000. The number of men and woman who served in the military during the entirety of that war (Aug 5, 1964 – May 7, 1975) was 9,085,000. That’s a lot of people but still a significant minority. Even today, only 7% of the U.S. population of 328,200,000 has ever served in the military and that includes from 1941 to the present day.
The number of men and women on active duty and in the reserves today is around 1% of all Americans. One percent protects the United States from all the enemies out there while the other 99% live life without much fear of invasion and occupation. That’s a small fraternity.
On July 1, 1973, the draft officially ended and the all-volunteer force was established and continues to today. Now, only men and women who volunteered are serving in the nation’s armed forces. With the advent of the all-volunteer military, it’s a much smaller fraternity than in the past.
Someone once said to me, “You veterans think you are so special.” Maybe not “so special,” but “special?”
Yes, I think so. Since July 1973, the men and women who have served this nation in the military have done so because they wanted to. No one forced them. That doesn’t mean that other Americans are not patriotic. Most, I believe, are.
But what it does mean is that those who served have offered their lives, if it came to that, to protect the rest of the country. And, yes, that is special. And, yes, it’s a fraternity. And, yes, there’s a connection there that unites a house-mover and a student pastor — when nothing else did.
Today, on this Veteran’s Day, I salute all those who have ever served in whatever “clime and place,” for however long you served, in whatever branch you served, and in whatever job you did, and for wherever you traveled or if you traveled not at all.
The difference between you and others is that you didn’t “almost enlist,” as I’ve heard from so many. To you I say, “Thank you for your service,” but, if you’re like most veterans I know, it was your honor to serve.
Happy Veteran’s Day and may God bless you every one.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]