Last Saturday I was given the opportunity to meet Major Joe Ko, US Army Chaplain. Joe is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of Korea. For the past year he’s been stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital and has been working with our wounded veterans. Joe came to our church’s Saturday Morning Men’s Breakfast and shared with us his experiences and his personal vision.
A little background; our associate pastor, Dr. Fred Carr is a retired US Army Lt. Colonel and became a spiritual mentor to Joe. 9 years ago they were both stationed in Germany. At the time, Joe was a Captain and Fred was a Major. As Joe related it, he was struggling with understanding God’s calling for his life and whether the military was really where God wanted him to be and approached Fred for some guidance. What Joe told us, that Fred had told him, struck me like an epiphany but I didn’t write it down at the time, so I had to email Fred about it. From Fred’s reply:
"It was funny that I didn’t remember having said that to him, but I remember it was on my heart about that time. I told Joe that what God looked for in us was faithfulness – faithfulness to the assignment he had given us. It is easy to be become subjective when an assignment isn’t as enjoyable or fulfilling as we might want, but God wants us to receive it and be faithful to the opportunity. Of course that doesn’t answer the question "should I resign or continue in the Army" but is does help see that when you get up every day you can give God what he is looking for by your faithfulness to serve him where he has currently assigned you."
Major Ko opened by telling us of his duties as one of the chaplains at Walter Reed. It’s my understanding that he was here specifically to learn how to relate to our wounded veterans and so to facilitate this learning the chaplains are rotated thru the various wards at the hospital. He had a number of stories about some of the patients that he’s gotten to know, some of them were horrific, some heroic and inspiring, but one in particular stood out. I’m hoping I have all my facts correct but some of the stories he related started to overlap one another due to their horrific nature.
The soldier is only 22 years old. He was out with his squad on what sounded like a routine patrol. His group had stopped for a moment and were actually taking a break, smoking cigarettes, talking and joking around, when a mortar round struck in the middle of the group instantly killing his 4 friends and leaving him critically wounded. When he woke up, it was too find that he was a triple amputee. Both legs and his right arm had had to be removed. I have to imagine that there was also a lot of other physical trauma that wasn’t mentioned. Joe met him while on rounds in the psychiatric ward. Physically the soldier was recovering from his injuries but mentally he was in anguish. This particular day he was refusing all treatments and any of his medicine. He was highly agitated and verbally abusive to the nursing staff, which is when one of them, just having left the room saw the Joe and asked if he’d go talk to this soldier. Now Joe’s reaction is I think the same as most of us would have and that’s, "What am I supposed to say to this poor guy?"
For the next 30-45 minutes Major Ko listened to the soldier berate and question God’s motivation and actions. God caused this war! God allowed my friends to die! God allows bad things to happen! God can’t possibly be good and allow all the pain in the world! Most importantly – God didn’t allow me to die with my friends. He wanted to be with his comrades. He wanted to die. Joe said he let him have his piece, allowed him to get all his frustrations and anger out and calm down a bit, and then he said to himself now it’s my turn to tell you about God. You know I had to chuckle a bit at that yet still, as I sat in our church auditorium, my thought was what are you going to tell this guy that’s going to make a difference? I think Joe was thinking the same thing. He even said as much when he commented that he honestly doesn’t remember everything that he said because it wasn’t him doing the talking, it was the Holy Spirit. He said the look of evil, that had been in this soldiers eyes the entire time he’d been in the room, visibly receded and was replaced with a more peaceful countenance.
There were two things that Joe explicitly remembers telling this soldier and it goes to the heart of the vision that he shared with us. It goes to the heart of who these men and women are. For Joe, our military men and women, Christian or not, truly know what John 15:13 is all about and it’s the one indelible trait that they all share.
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
Whether the soldier understands this of himself/herself it is the paradigm thru which Joe sees them. And for a person who doesn’t see ‘duty’ as a four letter word this perspective speaks to a core value that they do understand.
In response to this particular soldier Joe shared with him these two thoughts:
Number One – You have a new mission, a new role, you are the voice for your friends. They can’t speak for themselves, they are no longer here, but you are. Your job is to tell others their story, because they have no one else that can tell it for them. Don’t let them be forgotten.
Number Two – You are a prophet. You have a distinctly, singular perspective of the American Veteran that must be told.
You have to tell America to Wake Up! Wake Up America!
And this wasn’t said as some anti-war sentiment. No this was about America sending out it’s men and women to do something that is abnormal – killing other human beings – and then not properly ‘healing’ those Americans. It’s abnormal for a human being to kill another. Sane people don’t enjoy killing another person – only sick people do that. No, this isn’t anti-war rhetoric, this is about America waking up to the responsibility that we have to care for these men and women when they come back from what ever war zone we’ve sent them to. Quoting from Edward Tick’s (Ph.D.) book "War and the Soul", Joe commented that Tick says, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is improperly named. The correct name should be Post Traumatic Soul Wounded, because that he believes is what’s really at the heart of the problem. Their souls have been damaged by what they’ve been subjected to, and it’s the soul that needs to be healed. One psychiatrist at Walter Reed even commented to Joe, "I can give them all the modern medicine at my disposal, but that’s not going to fix their soul. That’s only something that you can do."
Joe then shared with us his vision for the church. For too long, fixing soldiers, whether physically, mentally or both has, in his words, been a matter of "punching the card". You correct the soldiers physical wounds – punch the card. You put them thru a regiment of psychological counseling – punch the card. The physically, psychologically wounded vet returns home and enters the local municipalities social services programs and they – punch the card. No matter how well intentioned the people involved in these programs are, the programs themselves are not designed to enter into that soldiers life. At least not in a soul nurturing, long term way and that’s where Joe feels the church needs to step in.
Joe believes that the church is in a perfect position to help not only these ‘soul’ wounded vets but also their families. It is Joe’s informed belief that the families of these vets are far too often overlooked, and are in many ways just as traumatized as their vet. So what is it exactly that the church can do? Adopt a vet. And, not just the vet but his family as well. Reach out and extend to them the same nurturing love and care that most churches extend to members who have lost a loved one. I know at my own church we’ve been taught that bereavement isn’t some, "get past 90 days and you should be over it" proposition. We, as a church, have been taught to help the person thru all the holidays , their beloved’s birthday, anniversaries, etc. And not just for the first year but for at least the first three years. If we as a church can mobilize our selves and our attitudes in this manner then why not for a vet whose also going thru physical, emotional or spiritual turmoil? It’s not rocket science, it’s reaching out and loving them in exactly the manner that Christ has called us. In simple terms, it’s connecting with them and finding out their real needs, it’s extending fellowship to them, whether that be bringing a home cooked meal or babysitting kids so mom and dad can have a night out. It’s all the simple things that "families" do for one another.
I don’t have any clear cut plan about how all this works. It’s not something that the U.S. Military has in place as another program, but it is an idea that has the weight of truth behind it. As Lon Solomon, the senior pastor of McLean Bible Church is fond of saying, "Not a sermon, just a thought."
So what do you think?