As a soldier I was loved for my sins. Now I must repent for them.

How do you come home from war? The physical journey itself is long. You leave the combat outpost or patrol base you have lived in for the last six months by helicopter—Hesco walls you’ve lived inside, the cami-netted chow hall tent, the rusted dumbbells in the makeshift gym yard, the burn pit where you have thrown your trash all fading away to a brown spot of land you’ll never see again. You fly with all your gear back to one of the larger camps where everyone is wearing clean camis instead of salt-covered, fire-resistant combat gear and where they carry pistols instead of rifles.

From there you catch a military cargo plane to a nearby country. For me it was Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. You’ll acclimatize there for a few days, maybe have a beer for the first time since you deployed, then take the long flight back to the United States, with a stop for fuel somewhere in Europe. Half the plane drinks Nyquil and passes out; the rest stay up watching movies that came out while you were away.

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We stop in Maine before making the last leg back to California. We deplane, and folks are there to greet us, shake our hands. We make awkward small talk as folks thank us for our service and buy us beer at the airport bar. We are allowed to have two. We board again. The beer mixes with the Nyquil and everyone sleeps. We land a few hours away from our duty station, and after loading all of our gear onto trucks, hop into buses. A large group of patriotic bikers escorts us on the drive back to Camp Pendleton.

How do you come home from war? The physical journey itself is long.

It is late now. We are late. We were supposed to be back hours ago. Our families have been waiting. We pile out of the bus. We search for faces in the crowd. There are children who were born while we were gone. Wives we have not seen in months. Mothers, fathers, brothers, fellow Marines. There are tears, but we are in a hurry, so we quickly wipe them away, save the small talk for later. We carry our gear toward waiting cars and drive home.

That night I couldn’t sleep. My body had not caught up with the time change. The bed was too comfortable. My rifle wasn’t slung at the end of it. I was in an apartment I had never been in before. None of it felt right. The bikers, the handshakes in Maine, none of it squared with what I had just come home from.

How can I come home from war?

•••

Before night patrols, members of the squad gather up in the makeshift command post, their blanket-like poncho liners wrapped around their shoulders, casting a strange silhouette. The proportions are all wrong, bulging around coyote flak jackets loaded heavy with magazines full of 5.56 rounds and all sorts of miscellaneous gear. We sip bad instant coffee, chunky from the number of hot chocolate packets added to sweeten the acrid, lukewarm brew.

We step into the cold Afghan night, bulky, clumsy, like knights weighed down by too much armor, trying not the trip over our own feet, guided by the pale green glow of our night vision devices, which rob us of our depth perception and create an uncomfortable five feet of dead space directly in front of us.

The purpose of those night patrols was always to observe. What we were supposed to be observing was rarely clear. Vague, disembodied abstractions like “movement” or “activity” tried to give order and purpose to our late night fumblings through canals and the hours spent, poorly concealed, on the front slopes of small hills overlooking single-room farmhouses with their tin doors and mud walls. A few nights a week we would venture out to watch nothing, probing into darkness with our rifles at the alert, and then return, rifles unfired, magazines still filled with rounds, to try to catch a few hours’ sleep before morning post.

And so onward we trudged, each day bleeding into the next—a cycle as grey and dusty as the landscape traversed. Wake in the middle of the night for post. Climb out of the tower and back into a sleeping bag. Wake. Eat. Don flak jacket and Kevlar helmet. Rack your weapon, put a round in the chamber. Walk. Try not to step on any bombs. Re-enter the wire. Unload the round from the chamber. Pop a muscle relaxer. Watch a movie. Sleep. Wake up for post again.

•••

The Catholic faith tells us that we are sinners loved by God. I am a sinner who is loved. I struggle with both halves. I don’t always want to admit I am a sinner. What I went over there to do felt righteous. I believed in the cause, and even if I didn’t, I believed in my brothers. I believed in America, and even if I didn’t or didn’t know what America was, I believed in the Marine Corps. I believed in violence, in purpose, in our community, our brotherhood. I wanted to receive the sacrament of confirmation in the military service. I prayed for the opportunity to kill.

As a Marine veteran of Afghanistan, I am a sinner who is loved—and loved in a way I am not always comfortable with.

I believed in the redemptive power of violence. I was young and golden and fit, on fire with the zeal of a convert. On the firing ranges at the school of infantry, in the mountains of Camp Pendleton, I fell in love with the rhythms of squad fire and maneuver—the geometries of fire, crisp left and right lateral limits, the steady drumming of an M249 machine gun zipping rounds into targets. I was born again. I felt clean and right. I slept peacefully at night, tired from an honest day’s work of training to visit violence upon the others. Some days, it is hard to admit I am a sinner.

Other days, it is hard to accept that I am loved. I have not earned it. We went out all those nights and never came back with anything to show for it. The war I fought, I didn’t win. What have I done to deserve love? I have certainly done enough to deserve contempt, to deserve condescension, to deserve belittlement, to deserve hate, even. Pick your sin: pride, anger, despair, selfishness. I am guilty. I went to war feeling entitled. To what exactly? To save. To kill. It didn’t occur to me how arrogant that was until I came home. I carried that self-centeredness into a marriage after I got home and wrecked it. The uniform I wore reminds others of service. It reminds me of all the wrongs I’ve done and continue to do. Some days it is hard to accept love.

As a Marine veteran of Afghanistan, I am a sinner who is loved—and loved in a way I am not always comfortable with. Being a veteran means being venerated here at home. Before every college basketball game I go to, we take a moment to be grateful for our nation “and those who keep it safe.” I am loved with every flyover at a football game, every Fourth of July, every Veterans Day. I feel America’s love for me and for veterans in every “Thank you for your service” and in every “Support the Troops” bumper sticker.

The oftentimes adoring American public does not talk much about my sins, but I feel them acutely. 

The oftentimes adoring American public does not talk much about my sins, but I feel them acutely. St. Augustine talked about animi dolor, “anguish of the soul.” Animi dolor is the soul’s natural response to war, to killing. I feel viscerally the stains that entering into the morally complex arena of war has left upon my soul. In the American culture, I am loved for my sins. I am loved for being a Marine who went to war.

When I returned from Afghanistan, I needed to find a way to go from being a Marine who is loved for his sins to being a believer who is a sinner but who is loved. I needed to find a way to come home. The church has always offered a path for soldiers coming home from war: the path of penance. It is a hard path, both for veterans and for the families and communities to which they are trying to return. But if we really believe in the message and truth of the cross, and if veterans are to truly become again members of the community, we are compelled to take this route.

•••

That penance is required to scrub the stain of violence from my soul is nowhere more clear to me than in the central symbol of our Catholic faith, Christ crucified on the cross. My struggles with faith and war led me to talk with David Peters, an Episcopalian priest who served as both an enlisted Marine and an Army chaplain. Over the phone, he told me, “The military will give you a [messed]-up relationship to violence, and the power of violence is destroyed upon the cross.” Later he pointed me to a book by Michael Griffin, The Politics of Penance, whose final chapters focus on how a Catholic penitential ethic can help repair those who have been shattered by war.

The community the veteran returns to needs to see war through the witness of the veteran and ask honestly: Why do we have war?

I knew Michael Griffin. He was a family friend. He was involved with the Catholic Peace Fellowship, originally founded in the mid-1960s by John Heiderbrink, Jim Forrest and others (including Eileen Egan, James Douglass and Dan Berrigan, S.J.). The fellowship focused on helping conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. The program was relaunched during the height of the Iraq War. I had exchanged emails with Griffin before I enlisted, at my mother’s urging. He said that if I did decide to enlist and later struggled with the implications and experience of war, I should reach out. But I lost touch and had mostly forgotten his offer for help.

Through Peters and Griffin and others, I found the beginning of answers and an intellectual tradition that I had been searching for since I had returned from Afghanistan.

The Catholic understanding of reconciliation has three parts—lament, penance and reparation. Lament: Veterans needed to air the wrongs they had done and to do so publicly. A Jesuit scholastic I talked to, a veteran, put it another way: Because we had participated in war, the public we returned to needed to indict us veterans, needed to know and see and in some ways pass judgment on what we had done.

While this seems an incredibly difficult process—how can you judge a soldier returning from war?—it was crucial to the relationship of the veteran to his or her community. There cannot be lies or glossing over. A public accounting is needed, so that the community and the veteran together can lament war. The community the veteran returns to needs to see war through the witness of the veteran and ask honestly: Why do we have war?

I cannot bring back those killed in war. But I have got to do something to try to repair the world.

The next step is penance. Penance for acts done in war has a long tradition in Catholic theology. St. Basil, almost 2,000 years ago, recommended that soldiers returning home from war abstain from Communion. “Homicide in war is not reckoned by our Fathers as homicide,” the saint wrote, referring to the early church fathers. “I presume from their wish to make concession to men fighting on behalf of chastity and true religion. Perhaps, however, it is well to counsel that those whose hands are not clean only abstain from Communion for three years.”

After the Battle of Hastings, the bishops of Normandy issued the “Ermenfrid Penitential” listing penances that soldiers who had participated in the battle ought to undergo, depending on their motives and actions in the battle. What is perhaps most striking, David Peters has said, is that even though the Norman Conquest had papal sanction, penance was still required by those who had participated.

Having gone through the act of truth-telling about war, I needed to do something to begin to try to scrub the stain of war from myself, if I ever want to be in the right relationship with my community again. This can take the form of fasting or, even better in the case of veterans, of pilgrimage. Peters explores the idea of physical and spiritual pilgrimages at length in his book Post-Traumatic God. Going on a journey, through physical time and space, like those patrols I went on in Afghanistan, can fundamentally reorient the veteran who comes home and mark his spiritual journey as well.

The last part is reparation: slow works of infused grace. Having tried in some measure, through fasting, prayer and penance, to perfect my own soul, it is now time to go out into the world and try to repair some of the hurt I caused. We killed some teenage kids while I was in Afghanistan. I now teach kids who are about the same age. I cannot bring back those killed in war. But I have got to do something to try to repair the world.

I came home from war, physically home at least, and felt treated like a priest of the American civil religion. No one ever indicted me or lamented the war. I was celebrated, venerated and sought out for wisdom. But I am not a priest, I cannot be, I don’t want to be, and I shouldn’t be. I am a penitent. I am a sinner—who is loved. I cannot ever earn the love that is poured out upon me; I will never be worthy of grace. But there is a path to reconciliation. As a country, we often avoid it, embracing a theology of justification, sidestepping questions about the costs of war. We can avoid it no longer. A theology of penance: That is how I come home.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
MICHAEL GRIFFIN
4 months ago

Very powerful. Thank you for sharing.

Gene Szarek
4 months ago

Terrific insight. Great writing. Moving and spiritually uplifting. Thank you. ~Gene Szarek, C.R.

Bill Bulger
4 months ago

Peter, Thank you for sharing your experience and providing this spectacular lesson in the theology of penance.
Bill Bulger

Alan Johnstone
3 months 4 weeks ago

With 40 years experience as a mental health worker and 3 episodes of working in different war zones my impression from this article is that is was written by a traumatised man.

Almighty God is the Lord of Warrior Hosts. The ideal king for the Jews was David, a seasoned warrior king and we are aware that his grave sin was murder to fulfil lust, not as commander of his soldiers.

Jesus Christ, our Lord, although he did not send lethal force against his enemies, is at least once reported to have used violence against the racketeers profaning the holiness of the Temple.

You are being given love, love inferior to the love of God as well as Divine Love itself, and neither has been earned, from both sources it is given.

Arrange to see a Catholic who is a counsellor and for you it would be better if he be a priest as well.
Remember, pacifism is NOT official traditional Catholic teaching like it is for the Amish or Quakers.

Robert Lewis
3 months 3 weeks ago

We may not be pacifists, but we are definitely bound by Church teachings on "just war," and none of America's recent wars in the Middle East have been"just"; they do not meet the requirements of those teachings of the Magisterium. Once, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka, I had a colleague who had been a member of the Army's newspaper staff during the fist war against Iraq--the one that "liberated Kuwait." I asked her if she remembered that John Paul II had condemned that war from the window of the Apostolic Palace in Rome. She told me that she did, indeed, remember that, and that she and her colleagues made sure that Catholic American servicemen serving in that conflict never saw what the Pope had said about it. Catholics who would be faithful to Church teachings should never serve in America's unjust and unconstitutional wars.

Allan McWilliams
3 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you for your service, both as an American and as a Christian.

kate oatis
3 months 3 weeks ago

I am sorry for not having done more to prevent the U.S. from involvement in these 17 years of wars. I apologize to you, Peter.

Deborah Wells
3 months 3 weeks ago

This article connects me to something I have been thinking about lately. Why do we not put as much effort into encouraging our young people to join the diplomatic corps as we do toward enlisting them into the armed services? Why do we seem to prefer molding warriors instead of peacemakers? Not only do we invest obscene amounts of money into the military complex itself, but consider the efforts made for recruitment and advertising toward enlistment. Think of the perks and educational resources that are made available to the enlisted. I have never seen marketing aimed at recruiting young people to become diplomats in order to train those with the abilities to sit down and discuss ways to make peace between nations in order to avoid conflict and war and so make fighting unnecessary. I realize the United Nations is a place for this, but when was the last time you were aware of the State Department wanting you? Maybe there are obvious routes for those with the inclination, but how would the average young person know how to go about it? On the other hand, there are military recruitment stations in every community and personnel at every high school. I'd also like to see us create a "Climate Corps" along the lines of the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps since we cannot deny that climate change is a national security issue. These would seem to be healthier alternatives for the body, mind, and soul; reducing and maybe eliminating PTSD, suicides and the guilt, regret, and soul angst described in this article.

David Rowe
3 months 2 weeks ago

I think that's a really good question to be asking – thank you.

One speculation: Because America was founded in armed conflict, it has beatified its armed forces. The diplomatic service is not venerated, because peacemakers did not have a role to play in the country's foundation. Not until the Civil Rights movement and MLK's focus on 'waging peace' did America have a genuine role-model for non-violent action.

Thoughts?

Charles Erlinger
3 months 3 weeks ago

A couple of questions come to mind. One concerns the following sentence in the article:

“Pick your sin: pride, anger, despair, selfishness. I am guilty.”

Another concerns this sentence:

“We killed some teenage kids while I was in Afghanistan.”

My understanding is that a sin is a specific act. It must be an important matter, be done with full knowledge and full consent of the will. Is the author saying that he committed murder? Or what?

A sin can, of course, be done out of pride, anger, despair or selfishness, but if there is no act, where is the sin? Guilt, in my opinion, is a condition incurred due to a specific act, quite independently of how one feels.

I appreciate poetic expressions involving virtue, vice, sin and works of mercy probably as much as the next reader, but I am uncomfortable with reckless accusations of actual sin, even if they are self-accusations.

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