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Student Life
Chapel Talks

Veterans Day Homily

By The Rev. Melissa Hollerith, Upper School Chaplain

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13

Today is Veterans Day, a day established to honor American Veterans of all wars. It was originally called “Armistice Day” in thanksgiving for the peace that was signed between the Allied and Axis powers. When President Woodrow Wilson made the second Armistice Day (November 11, 1919) an official celebration, we were a hopeful people. The horribly tragic “War to End All Wars” had concluded the previous year. Things were looking up. Americans had every right to expect that no civilized person would ever want war again. Then, just twenty years later, a deranged German Army Corporal, a veteran of that very same war, set out to conquer the world and brought us into WWII. And so went the 20th century, arguably the most violent century ever.

Undoubtedly, those wars and all subsequent ones made us wonder what in the world can we trust. We were so hopeful that goodness and truth would come out of violence and evil. And it didn’t happen. It never lasted.

My father served as a Navy Corpsman, or Medical Corpsman, during the Korean War. He was dispatched with a group of Marines. He was only 18 years old, close to the age of many of you, and had just finished his first year of college when he and a friend enlisted. When I was growing up, he didn’t talk about what went on while he was there, but I would discover little things like a small New Testament with a hard metal cover was meant to fit in his breast pocket and a purple heart tucked inside a beat-up box—both buried in the back of his sock drawer. But as I got older, I learned his story. His entire platoon, consisting of approximately fifty young men, was captured not long after they arrived. Their objective had been to overtake Reno, Carson, and Vegas—three hills named for the “gamble” they were to occupy. While they successfully repelled at least three assaults, in the end, each hill was overrun by the Chinese and North Koreans.

The time my dad spent as a P.O.W. was a very painful one. He was tortured both physically and mentally. He had no fingernail on is left hand, ring finger. They would shove bamboo under his nail and light it on fire, and ultimately, they pulled it off completely with pliers. He had no peripheral vision and small turquoise dots under both eyes that was shrapnel the doctors couldn’t remove. He had no hearing in one ear because of the shelling. And he was put in front of a firing squad, naked and humiliated, at least two dozen times. During one of those occasions, his closest friend was shot at point blank range because he had an American flag tattooed on his arm. Every morning the P.O.W.s would salute that flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. And they killed him because of that.

My dad’s uniform as a Corpsman looked different from the others in his unit. He was a large man, a strong man, about 6’4”, 240 pounds, which I imagine made carrying soldiers easier. But he always wondered if he was being tortured to such an extent because they thought perhaps he knew more or was an officer, since his uniform was different.

At the end of his captivity, all of the P.O.W.s in his camp were shot and left for dead. The North Koreans had gotten word that the American troops were closing in, and it would be impossible for them to travel with all of these weak soldiers. They left all of them in a big pit, and when our soldiers came through, my dad was the only man still alive.

As I mentioned, I never knew any of this until I was an adult. My dad never discussed it. I imagine he didn’t think it was polite conversation to have with his wife and daughters, or maybe it was just generational. The father I grew up with delivered babies. And whenever I asked him why he decided to be an obstetrician\gynecologist he always told me this story and none of the one I just shared. When he was a medic during the Korean War, during his training, he had the opportunity to help deliver a baby. He said it was the most incredible experience in the world. He knew he always wanted to be a doctor, but he said after he came back from Korea—having seen so much death, even having had to kill people in hand-to-hand combat—he knew that all he wanted to do was to help bring life into the world, not watch it leave the world. He said he never felt more connected with God than when he helped bring new life into the world.

My dad was an avid fisherman; we called him the Old Man in the Sea. When I was newlywed, he took my husband, who also loves to fish, fishing off the coast of Louisiana; he had a camp down at Cocodrie. It was his solace, his church or sanctuary, and a great escape from the three chatterboxes he lived with. He told my husband the whole story—this is around 1988. And of course, my husband came home and told me. I think sharing it with Randy felt right. I think he needed to unpack what happened to him. I think he wanted to wrestle with some of the hard stuff, to talk about the atrocities of war, and the theodicy, the problem of evil, and how God fits in the narrative. In 1994, Saving Private Ryan came out, and I remember telling my mom, I think dad will relate. He was the lone survivor too, and the guilt of that can be so hard. And then the next year, in 1995, he was asked to write a piece for the unveiling of the Korean War Memorial here in D.C. His good friend and fishing buddy, General Robert Barrow, the Marine Corps Commandant, from St. Francisville, La., asked him to do it. As you all know, writing is cathartic. If you can’t say it, write it. And that was a good day. So much was laid bare. That memorial went up years after the Vietnam Memorial. Korea was a forgotten war, in many ways, in fact it was called a conflict, not a war, for years. I think it was just too close to WWII to be called a war at the time; Americans couldn’t handle another war. But if you were there, you didn’t forget.

The big takeaway for me in his remarks that day, and if my dad was standing here instead of resting in peace in Arlington, he would tell you: ‘The best way to honor a veteran is to thank him or her for their service.’ So many sacrifices have been made so that we may enjoy the freedoms we have. We must never take that for granted. And then he would say: ‘If you want to find the deepest meaning in this life, find a way to serve, to live beyond self, to make a difference for the greater good, for that is where the joy lies.’ Giving of oneself sacrificially is a life well-lived.

Our veterans deserve our deepest respect because they are the guarantors of the freedoms we enjoy. Our veterans do the bidding of politicians and diplomats, who we pray have our best interests in mind. In the words of St. John, “Their love is so great that they would not hesitate to lay down their lives.”

So, on this 104th commemoration of Veterans Day, let us give thanks to God for their service and keep them in our prayers. Now go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Located in Washington D.C.,  St. Albans School is a private, all boys day and boarding school. For more than a century, St. Albans has offered a distinctive educational experience for young men in grades 4 through 12. While our students reach exceptional academic goals and exhibit first-rate athletic and artistic achievements, as an Episcopal school we place equal emphasis upon moral and spiritual education.