Bearing Witness

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written by L. Chris Cannida, LPC – May 23, 2015

Without a witness, it just disappears.” – the character of Charles in Taking Chance 

I’d attended several by the time that day rolled around. Memorial services for fallen warriors had become an all-too-common event during my time working on military installations. This one, happening near Memorial Day weekend of that year, was grand, profound, and sustained by every military honor one could imagine exists at these events. The ground on which the service took place was very near historic Civil War grounds, which made it even more surreal and haunting.

Requested to attend were a plethora of civilian counselors (hence, my presence) and military Chaplains, there to support the Gold Star families (surviving spouses, parents, and immediate family members of warriors killed in combat operations) and active duty members grieving the loss of their own battle companions. Every flag, every wreath, every white glove worn by the soldiers tasked with executing the service was perfect, as I’d come to expect. What I did not expect was to be approached by an older officer, a Chaplain, with whom I’d worked on several occasions at briefings and trainings, who began to curse and grumble quite passionately about his contempt for these events.   I’d naively assumed after years of service that he’d built a strong psychological toughness in order to suppress his own years of mourning, leaving him able to comfort those families and soldiers he served. He began to voice his confusion about why the services were held and questioned the motives of anyone granting permission for them to become a common part of the military culture.

Admittedly, I’d been so focused on those who expressed their grief more traditionally that it never occurred to me grief over a fallen warrior might sound so gruff.  I might have otherwise grown irritated with this man who was invading my serene reflection with his angry lamentations, but I’d also developed an affinity for the harsh demeanor of the American warrior.  I credit God with gifting me the discernment and patience to create the space “Chappy” (as I’d heard men in his battalion call him with great affection) might need to work through the pain he was feeling. At first, I was tempted to defend my presence and that of others, to let him know some of us had pure intention.  God had also blessed me with the power of self-correction so that I did not destroy others’ moments meant for healing. I guess I used those gifts that day.

I just listened.

I listened to what turned out to be Chap’s emotional inventory of a life in service to our nation. He’d not always been a Chaplain. He’d begun his military career in a rescue unit some 25 years prior and had seen his fair share of combat loss. I began to realize he wasn’t loathing the memorial. He was exhausted from mourning so often and rightly so, wanting to ensure anyone showing up to the event did so with a clear understanding of the mission. The pomp and circumstance had become overwhelming and he feared the mission’s goal was lost.

To remember, express gratitude, and bear witness to all that is done for us by those who’ve said “Yes, I’ll go”.

This chaplain’s storytelling never quite softened as we stood waiting for the service to begin.  He spoke as long as I suppose he needed to speak before moving on to do his good work in serving the families being honored that day.  I moved forward, as well, t0 offer a listening ear to others and very few words of comfort (mainly, because there aren’t any worthy enough).  Chappy and I continued to work together serving side-by-side at various times during my stay on this installation.  Eventually, I moved on to another army post to be further blessed by this work that took my own life by surprise.  My work with our military members was forever changed and enriched because Chap took time to share his thoughts with me. Hopefully, I’ve been able to use those lessons learned in my work as I’ve matured in realizing war and combat will not soon disappear.  There will be more warriors give the ultimate sacrifice in our lifetime. More battle buddies will ache with grief when they look to their left and to their right only to see absence and hear the haunting silence in Roll Call.  The tender list of Gold Star families will sadly add names.

On this Memorial Day weekend, 2015, I warmly remember Chappy, his wrinkled, discerning face and careful eye, scanning the spiritual ground he was tasked with protecting.  I heard you, Sir, and am ever aware that my only mission this weekend is to bear witness to the sacrifices made by so many.  Sacrifices made for me by those who would never know my name.

“Without a witness, it just disappears.” 

* Please note there is no direct relationship between the photograph used and the person or event referenced in this writing.

* Photo used with permission granted by Chaplain David Meyer. Photograph taken by the AZ National Guard PAO at the time of the service in which Chaplain Meyer officiated. Chaplain Meyer continues to serve and is one of many who graciously chose to continue teaching me about bearing witness and serving those who serve my country.  I am grateful.

About chris cannida

I am a psychotherapist, trainer, and consultant hoping to help others find a peaceful and meaningful sense of self, while improving the quality of their lives. My background includes extensive work with post 9/11 active duty service members and veterans. All writings on this site are currently dedicated to the mission of helping our military community remain mission-ready and resilient.
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