Last week, just before the election, a campaigner showed up at my door. I listened as he described why I should vote a certain way. In the course of the conversation, I learned he was a veteran, returned from a tour in Iraq in 2009.
I told him that for the past year, every week my church has read the names of all the military men and women killed in action in the previous week.
“Oh, wow,” he said.
For me, the expression on his face made it worth an entire year of roll calls at church.
He reminisced about members of his unit who had been killed.He described the ritual his unit observed in the aftermath of those deaths. The next morning, he said, roll call included taps and a 21-gun salute. The slain comrade's boots were laid out and his or her rifle was stuck, bayonette-end first, into the ground. On the butt of the rifle the K-pot (or kevlar helmet) hung, with one set of dog tags draped across it. The other set of dog tags accompanied the body home and were given to the next of kin along with a folded American flag.
My eyes started to fill up as he spoke. I described the ritual our church has been observing for one year now, in which we read the rank, name, age, and hometown of each American military death. I usually conclude the roll call with words like,“May we hold them and their families and loved ones in our hearts, even as we make our hearts large enough to hold all people who have died in acts of war and violence during the past week.”
So, why read the names, anyway? Early in the wars, the news media were forbidden to show footage or photographs of the coffins coming home. Too reminiscent of Vietnam, we were told. But I object to the news blackout, to the cushy, untroubled lives we can lead here, as a result, while our tax dollars send our young people off to war. We are captive in a little bubble that removes us from our nation's actions and policies, and their consequences. Our society has constructed a norm in which we can go for days, weeks, months, without thinking of the wars, unless of course we have loved ones serving there. If we are going to send our young men and women to war, I feel the least we can do is to give them one millimeter of our attention and our hearts once in a while.
Often as I read the names during our services, I am transported back to a funeral I led for a 20-year-old Marine killed in Iraq in 2004. He had died in intense fighting in Fallujah, leaving behind his young widow, his parents, his younger siblings and extended family, and an entire heartbroken town, bowed by the enormity of the loss, and struggling to answer the question why.
A public memorial service had been held a few days earlier. Hundreds and hundreds attended. But now, the body had finally returned States-side, and the family elected to have a private funeral at a local funeral home.
The room was crowded – not one more spare inch in which to place a folding chair. The podium at which I spoke was directly beside the flag-draped coffin. A Marine honor guard squeezed in behind me and stood at attention for the entire service. At the very end, they removed the flag from the coffin, folded it, saluted it, then presented it to the widow “on behalf of a grateful nation.”
I lived then, and I live now, in a nation that appears to want to keep the suffering caused by our wars at a safe distance – enough in the mind's eye to stir patriotic feelings at the proper times, yet far enough away that we won't feel it too much. But I can tell you that if you are standing so close to a flag-draped coffin that you could reach out and touch it, and if a 20-year-old widow is weeping in the first row, only 8 feet away, you feel it.
Whether we believe our wars are justified or not, whether we have family and loved ones in the military or not, I feel we owe the young people we put into American uniforms and send away to fight some of our thoughts and awareness, and some of our compassion and love.
So each week, for the ten minutes it takes me to locate the names and type them into my sermon file and for the two minutes it usually takes to read them in our service, I pay attention. I pray for the military fighting so far from home, for their families and loved ones, and for our nation, for all affected by war, and ultimately for an end to the wars.
For me, the roll call opens a place in my heart – not only for those who have been killed, but also for those who return home so horribly wounded in body and soul – not only for our dead but also for theirs – not only for war deaths but for all violent deaths – not only for us, but for them, and not only for them but for me, not only for me, but for all of us.