You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
The Vietnam War was in full swing when my father was in college. He played baseball for Maryland but was restless and felt he should do something of greater purpose with his life. Most of the men in his family had served at one time or another in the military and his brother had just entered the Navy. So, my father decided to join the Army.
During basic training, he had to participate in a field escape and evasion exercise. His entire company was taken into the middle of the woods and dropped. They then had three days to get back to base without being captured. My father immediately made his way to a creek, dug a hole in the side of the bank and spent the night. He said that he heard lots of movement over him throughout the night, but didn’t get caught. The next morning, he made his way to the boundary fence, jumped it, hitch-hiked back to base, and spent the night in his own bunk. In the morning he bought a keg and iced it, left it in the barrack, and hitch hiked back to the evac point, where he climbed a tree and watched and waited. Pretty soon, the “prisoners” were led to the evac point and a bus pulled in. The officers started to holler for my dad, the only one who had not been caught, and who was watching from the tree. After about an hour, he climbed down and as he claims, got the worst cussin’ of his life. He was also recruited into the Rangers, a special forces unit.
When he landed in Vietnam, he was ordered to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where he sat by himself for several months before almost getting caught. He was one of several Rangers who sat on the trail reporting on the movements of Viet Cong convoys up and down the trail. He didn’t wear dog tags, because monitoring the trail meant going into places the US didn’t officially go–such as Cambodia and Laos–so getting caught dead or alive meant having nothing on you that could identify you as American. The Rangers on the trail were to report any movement, its location, its size, and the exact time. In that way, the movement could be monitored and targets determined so that Napalm could be dropped on specific sites. After a while, the Viet Cong figured out that the enemy had to be monitoring the trail and so they started hunting the Rangers.
My father realized his location had been compromised when he heard VC shouts, the shouts that would deliver him to salvation. He scrambled from his tree and took off for his camp site which was across a river. A Vietnamese gun boat came around the bend and he just barely made it to the other side. When he arrived at his base camp, he realized it had been compromised as well and called the pick-up chopper to arrange the alternate point. He made it to the alternate pick-up point but was surrounded by enemy fire. The chopper pilot landed and though my dad attempted to wave him off, wouldn’t go. Instead, the chopper crew laid down cover fire and my dad made a run for it. He was wounded in the gun battle that ensued, but he made it out alive. Years and years later, he would see that chopper pilot again in a bar in Nigeria. He didn’t remember him, but the pilot knew my dad, called him by name, told him, “you never forget a man whose life you’ve saved.”
You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
Though my dad survived Vietnam, he never left it. I didn’t understand this for years. It wasn’t until the summer between my first and second years of seminary when I had to do a program called CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education that I even gained an inkling into who my father was. CPE is a mandatory program for seminarians in the Episcopal Church. It is intense and lasts about ten weeks. In that time, you typically work in a hospital setting providing pastoral care and working with a mentor in group sessions to discover your own hidden attitudes and beliefs regarding the problem of pain.
I did my CPE work at a VA Hospital in Nashville. One of the services this particular VA offered was out-patient group therapy for veterans. I enquired as to whether or not I could sit in on sessions with a group of Vietnam Veterans. I could attend if the veterans agreed. When they heard my father was a Vietnam veteran and had been in special forces, they agreed, but were a little hesitant. They were worried I wouldn’t understand who they were and they did not want to relive their experiences “in country” as they called it. I assured them I was not trying to be nosey, but simply wanted to listen to what they were going through in hopes that I might understand my own father a little better.
What we both discovered, the veterans and I, in that brief summer together was how disconnected Vietnam veterans are from their children. Over and over again, a veteran would preface a remark in group by saying, “I could never say this to my son or daughter, but I need to say it” and then, looking at me would say, “ so I will say it to you.” I learned how painful it was for these men not to be able to break the down the walls of their hearts and simply talk, tell their story, or even love their children because for them, their lives stopped the day they landed in Vietnam and they had never started again. Every experience, every idea, every joy and every sorrow for those men was marred by the memories and the pain of Vietnam. They had not been in Vietnam for forty years, but it might as well have been only forty minutes.
For most, their return home was filled with rejection and dejection. There was no healthy reentry process for most of these men. No psychiatric care. These men had lost an unpopular war, that wasn’t even a war. The military had little to do with them. Society spit on them. They were not recognized for their courage or honored for their sacrifice. No one killed a fatted calf or placed a ring on their fingers. No Father ran out to embrace them. The older brother told them they should have thrown flowers not bullets, yelled for peace, not war. Instead, these men and women continued to hide, they may no longer have hid in the jungle, up in a tree, –now they hid in alcohol, in drugs, in depression, away from society, no longer fully alive and trying hard to find some way to survive. As the psalmist says, they kept silence, their bodies wasted away, they groaned all day long. And we let them.
There is little redemption in the way we treated the men and women who gave themselves in service of our country. But there is some. The military realized its error several years after the war and has since worked to make vast improvements in its care for veterans. But it is the veteran who has to make the first step and that is the hardest part. Many of the men I talked with, told me that when they first attempted to enter the VA, they couldn’t do it. They described multiple attempts just to make that first phone call to schedule an appointment. Once they had finally scheduled the appointment, then they knew they had to actually go. This was an even harder step. They didn’t want to have to tell their story and they knew that was the first thing they would have to do. They had rarely told anyone their story, keeping it bottled up inside, bearing the weight of that war each man to himself.
The veterans I got to know that summer said it took them at least three times to drive to the VA, before they could even get out of the car. And then, it took at least one more attempt before they could walk through the door. Talking about their experiences in country, even just where they were stationed, was one of the hardest things they ever did. But, once they acknowledged it, once they no longer tried to hide what had happened and what they had done, they began to find release from the guilt they carried, they began to forgive themselves.
In our psalm today, this is the turning point. It is only those who confess and stop trying to hide their iniquities, that forgiveness can be found, happiness can be attained. It doesn’t mean that we won’t be pained by our experiences. It doesn’t mean that we won’t need to work through some form of penance internally and maybe even out in the world to find our redemption. But, for the psalmist, confession is the way in which we can open ourselves back to God, the way in which we can hide ourselves under the shadow of his wing. Once we have confessed, we will be preserved, no matter the consequences, no matter the pain. When we come to God with a righteous heart, no matter our past, we will find a protector and defender.
It is only when we have confessed our miseries to God, that we are able to open ourselves to God’s instruction and counsel. It is only when we have released the demons of doubt and darkness that we can allow in the light. And with that light comes truth and love. “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.” (vs. 10)
It takes a lot of courage to confess your darkness, your doubt, your despair because it means facing your fears, experiencing soul-rending pain. But God will not allow you to drown in that pain, in that fear; “the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.” Instead, God offers a refuge, a hiding place, preservation and deliverance. Those veterans I got to know in Nashville that summer, demonstrated a great deal of courage–more courage than they ever did in a jungle half a world away, more courage than I will ever know. They faced themselves, each one individually on the day they finally made it to the admitting office of the VA. Then they faced one another and found that God had provided a refuge, a place to hide and work out their doubts in safety so that they might be delivered.
The good news is that for these men, they allowed God to enter in, to teach and instruct, to surround them with steadfast love. They figured out that they had stopped living in Vietnam, and the only way they could live again was in acknowledging their pain, their doubts. For too long they had maintained silence and there bones had withered away. They had never left the heat of the jungle and they were dried up. But then they began to talk, they began to open up to one another in a place that was safe. They found Jesus in their midst and they began to live their lives for themselves and for others. And in so doing, they give voice to the true words of the psalmist, “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” Because for them, as for us, we know that we can only be righteous by God’s grace, but it takes our confession of that knowledge in order to enter the peaceable kingdom, God’s hiding place for us, where we are preserved from trouble and surrounded with glad cries of deliverance.
Lent 4C: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, March 31, 2019 (Originally preached in seminary)
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer