For three years I served as the chaplain to the Wounded Warrior Regiment at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. My job was to provide pastoral care to Wounded, Ill and Injured Marines (WII), their family members and the military and civilian staff who advocated and cared for them. It was a sacred privilege to have served in this capacity.
Although I was there to give support to these Marines, I cannot overstate the valuable lessons I learned from them, which remain with me still:
I learned that injury and illness may place restrictions on a person’s activities, but do not define them. When Marines arrive at the hospital, they initially see themselves as patients. At the point they remember they are still Marines, healing increases its pace. The reminder is usually from a Gunnery Sergeant who asks the family members to go downstairs for coffee and then counsels the Marine on his unsatisfactory haircut and lack of visits to the gym. When the WII Marine points out his medical issues, which are often grave, the Gunny reminds him (as only Gunnys can do) that he is still a United States Marine who earned that title, and his responsibility is to adhere to the standards of the Corps. Within days, the patient is again referring to himself as Lance Corporal ____, he has a fresh “high and tight” haircut and he is asking the chaplain how soon he can get on the seated volleyball team. Self-definition matters. The first time I met a quadruple amputee making his way through the corridor with prosthetics, he held the door open for me. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) removed his limbs, but had no effect on his desire to be a gentleman.
I learned that one of the best ways to decrease difficulties in whatever forms they present themselves is to increase joy. One way is through athletic activities. The thrill of competition, of pushing oneself beyond perceived limits, of cheering for your team is healing. At Regimental events we knew we had succeeded when a Marine referred to him/herself as a swimmer or a basketball player and not in relation to his/her injuries. A key component to increasing joy is the ability to maintain a healthy sense of humor. Case in point, one of the favorite t-shirts for combat injured Marines at Walter Reed states: “Wounded Warrior, some assembly required,” and on the back it says: “I had a blast in Afghanistan.”
I learned that healthy connections are essential. Those who fare the best, whether WII Marines, family or staff members are those who make the best connections. I do not mean those who have the most friends, but those who remain connected to what matters most: the values that define them, the people who love them, the hope for the future that awaits them and the vision of their best selves. As a person of faith, I would also add those who feel connected to the God who never lets them go.
I learned that the call of God upon a person’s life is not voided by illness or injury. It may be redefined and redirected, but it remains. When our WII Marines can discern and answer that call, becoming agents of care for others instead of than just recipients, everyone benefits, especially them.
These lessons about self-definition, joy, connection and calling are among many I will carry with me for the rest of my life. May God continue to strengthen and bless all those whose service to country has wounded them in body, mind or spirit and those who care for them.
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