Friday, November 6, 2009
I Want to Believe
When I was finishing up my course work at Arizona State University in 1999 I had to take a seminar on Civil War History. As a history major, wars didn’t really interest me all that much, and the U.S Civil War was, to me the least interesting of them all. Writing a 50-page paper on Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant seemed about as thrilling as spending a Friday night with a ped-egg and a glass of warm goat’s milk. Ultimately, I chose to write about something that was interesting to me and would hold my attention for the long months of the semester. Never one to take the easy road I chose to write about Chaplains in the Army. Finding primary sources on this subject was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in college.
Flash forward ten years, and I found myself wandering around at the Phoenix library one recent day. We are now eight years into a war that seems to have been dragging on for much longer than that, and my thoughts are on the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. I have been wondering to myself if I have done anything to support the troops who have fought so bravely, and realized that like most Americans, I have not. Like soldiers of generations past many veterans will undoubtedly be forgotten and avoided as time marches on and we get to the important business of enjoying our freedoms. Although I have not so much as thought about chaplains in the military since I turned in that paper all those years ago a book in the stacks jumped out at me begging to be read: Faith Under Fire: An Army Chaplain’s Memoir by Roger Benimoff.
Two thoughts crept into my head as I made my way to the checkout terminal. First I thought, proud that I had found such an awesome book, was the wish that a resource like this had been available when I was writing my term paper all those years ago. Here I had a first hand, current account of life in the military as a chaplain. Secondly was the stark realization that were I ever to enter the service, I would try to do so as a chaplain with the feeling that this is where I could do the most good. Roger Benimoff’s story is not full of easy answers and proves that the grim reality of war can bring even the most penitent man to the brink of self-destruction.
About half way through Faith Under Fire I almost put it down. The pages were filled with a certain degree of arrogance. As Benimoff details his perfect life filled with a supportive church, a beautiful wife and two amazing children, followed by his sojourn into a dangerous battlefield where everyone’s lives are being shredded but his own, the reader gets the sense that like many Evangelical Christians he believes Christ serves as a shield of some sort. He is impervious to the effects of War, and while his comrades are losing their wits and their limbs on the battlefield, and losing their wives at home, Benimoff is able to minister to their needs with a mind untainted by the horrors around him.
At some point something begins to change however, and this is what makes Faith Under Fire such an interesting read. Early on in his service Benimoff makes the conscious decision to be on the front lines with the men he is serving, something that many other chaplains don’t do. In fact, the practice is discouraged by the military all together. Benimoff fights hard to be placed where he can do the most good, and in turn earns the respect of the troops. Perhaps he ventures too far down the rabbit hole though, because over time the things he saw begin to rob him of his faith in a loving God.
Returning to his home in Colorado, Benimoff is a changed man. He is abusive towards his wife and kids. He stops going to church. He’s unable to minister to the men on the base. Admittedly, he no longer believes in God at all. War has changed him as well, and he is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as are so many other soldiers like him. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but the man so used to ministering to others was in need of ministering himself. How could he have fallen so far?
There are no easy solutions in this book, though the reader would like for nothing more than for Benimoff to recover fully from the stresses of war by the last page of the manuscript. Through proper treatment and support from his family he slowly begins to return to the duties of his professional calling and his adult responsibilities to his family. Even though he makes peace with God, I’m never convinced that he has as much conviction at the end of the book as he did at the beginning. In time though daisies will grow on the fields that bodies once laid, right?
The book ends, but the war still wages on. Soldiers are fighting in the war-zones, facing life threatening dangers every day. Other chaplains are making every effort to keep them spiritually sane in the most difficult of circumstances. The chaplain corps is grossly understaffed according to Benimoff because of the sheer numbers of troops involved as well as strict requirements for enlistees interested in the job. This means more likely than not, many veterans are not being provided with access to the spiritual guidance they need as this war chews them up and spits them out. Benimoff is proof that even people with rock solid foundations can be tested to the extreme.
Coming away from Faith Under Fire has left me with several distinct impressions. As a man of faith myself, I know how challenging life events can be to a person’s belief system. It would be so easy to walk away all together when adversity comes around. Had Roger Benimoff not come so close to losing it all, I don’t think I would have respected him as much as I do. He is lucky to have had strong people around him for support as he struggled to come back from the badlands. That he came back from the badlands at all is a tremendous testimony to God’s grace, because many people don’t have the strength to do it, nor do they have the willingness to let God help. These people tragically drift away into oblivion.
Beyond respect for the author however, I am filled with a deepened belief that something must be done to rescue our warriors, who are no doubt weary from this aging war. Some are returning for good, while others come home for a short while before returning to the front lines. Are those of us lucky enough to be here in the safety of the homeland preparing to welcome the troops with open arms when this campaign ends? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder creeps up on a soldier silently and without warning. For Benimoff it meant shutting down emotionally and constant temper fits towards his family.
If you picked up a newspaper today you know that other soldiers have decided to go on killing sprees in Fort Hood, TX.
I asked myself before reading Faith Under Fire what I was doing to welcome soldiers back to their lives in a time of peace, hoping to gain some perspective and insight into whether or not a need truly existed. Where I may never see active military duty, may never become a chaplain myself, I do believe that the troops will need us to be there for them as they leave the battlefield behind. Starting today, I’m beginning to think about small ways I can do just that.