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On Behalf of a Grateful Nation

On Behalf of a Grateful Nation

by Owen R. Chandler, author of A Bridge to Babylon: Stories of a Military Chaplain in Iraq

“On behalf of a grateful nation…” 

I found myself reciting these words with profound respect—and honestly a tinge of heavy guilt. I closed my eyes and tried to read them again silently in my head. It really was a haunting turn of phrase. My dusty government monitor hardly seemed like a worthy display for the honor which these words embodied. I allowed the sentence to echo in my heart as it lingered within my mind. It felt jarring—and kind of spiritually disruptive. And so once more, I let them roll off my tongue… 

“On behalf of a grateful nation…” 

These words form the preamble that accompanies the handing of an American flag into the waiting, often trembling, arms of a grieving loved one. It was a powerful symbol. It sought to convey a shared sense of sacrifice on behalf of the military, the service member and the family. This relationship was inextricably forged within the covenant of duty to country. Both the flag folding and the utterance of these words were done with exact precision. Each practiced and perfected movement was a far cry from the often violent way in which war created the occasions for these memorials.

Over the last fourteen years of congregational and Reserve ministry, I have witnessed the words being given at memorial services, but at that exact moment, on a sunny, humid day in Georgia, working in an office corridor that perpetually smelled of body spray and energy drinks, the words hit differently. Maybe it was the combination of the Memorial Day holiday and my role as the on-call active-duty chaplain, but I kept asking questions that I guess I had never before considered. New roles created a new perspective and the new perspective created different questions. For example, I wondered about the soldiers who died in combat zones around the world. I tried to imagine the families that have heard these words said at memorial services. Did this spoken tradition of military decorum bring comfort or distress. Did it bring consolation for the hole within their family? Did it line their grief with a sense of honor? Did the mourning family even believe them - that in fact a nation was aware of the sacrifice being honored? I don’t know, but I know I was feeling the enormity of these questions. 

As an active-duty chaplain, I shared the responsibility of next of kin (NOK) death notifications and funeral honors. Each week, a different chaplain on the installation was on-call for one of the military’s most difficult but sacred tasks. Admittedly, I hadn’t ever done a NOK notification, though I had done many memorial services. Like a good soldier, I was researching guidance on Army regulation from the gods of Google to refresh my memory on the process. It wasn’t difficult to find. I don’t know whether it was poetic or tragic that the military was so practiced at creating a sacred moment out of an event that disrupts a family forever. And so, I practiced hearing the words through a wave of heaviness and a pang of guilt…

“On behalf of a grateful nation…”

I needed a disruption. I needed to step away from the weight these words and so I walked down the hallway. Outside of my office, there were rows of photos. The faces were young. They were diverse. The name plates listed hometowns spread across the country. They were the very face of a modern America. Now this collection of twenty-one portraits was solemnly special to my brigade. Each one was hung in memory of the ultimate sacrifice they made in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. These twenty-one souls were a small number of the four hundred and sixty-nine soldiers from our division that lost their lives during these wars.

I am reminded every day of this larger number as I ride home from the office on my bicycle. During my transits, I peddle past a striking memorial, the Warriors Walk. This testament to sacrifice was a tree lined path. Each tree contained an organizational flag and plaque etched with the soldier’s name, rank, death and war. Scattered among the trees were notes from loved ones and keepsakes that sought to keep remembrances alive. They were balms to the disruptive wounds of grief. When I rode past this monument, I could feel the faces of the photos outside of my office, like the great cloud of witnesses of my faith, wave at me among the branches and the leaves within the breeze. They were a reckoning of remembrance. 

“On behalf of a grateful nation…”

The disruption I needed failed that day, but I believe I understood why. It involved a deeper thread of guilt: shame. I imagined I was hardly alone in this struggle of conflicting emotion. My feelings centered on an aspect of remorse, especially as I thought of the soldiers we lost at war. As I walked past their photos outside of my office, I looked at the dates of each soldier’s death. I tried to reflect back on those days within my own life and to remember what I was doing at the moment that they sacrificed their lives on my behalf. Sometimes I could remember exactly where I was and what I was doing and sometimes I could not. Regardless, there was always a common denominator: my life did not stop when their life did. Not even a second. Not one breath of disruption. It was a gut punch.

Every morning I read from the Psalms. The act of grateful remembrance was theologically essential. It was a sacred pause, a disruption within the normal routine, in order to strengthen one’s covenant with the living presence of God. In Psalm 78—among so many other ones— we hear the expression, “[we will remember] we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord”. For those that recited these prayers on their hearts and paused to teach them to each new generation, the act of remembrance was an act of disruption equal to the sacredness of the story remembered. This made sense to me now, in this moment, in this time. 

For maybe that is the source of my guilt and thus shame.

Maybe my issue isn’t necessarily that my life didn’t skip a beat the moment that these soldiers’ hearts stopped beating, but that I haven’t—and I dare say we haven’t—truly allowed our lives to pause for a sacred disruption. We have not lived up to the words that carry us when the words escape us, which was what I think the preamble on my screen represented. Maybe we haven’t done a profound, practiced and perfected enough job at being disrupted equal to the sacredness of the story we are trying to remember on Memorial Day. I mean really interrupted. I think, as a country, it is pertinent for us that at least one day a year our lives are interrupted by the sacrifices these men and women made on our behalf.  

I hope this Memorial Day will be different for me. I hope the same for you. I am done with my on-call week of next of kin and memorial honors. On this four-day weekend, I will be prying myself away from the crusty computer I inherited. Come Monday, I plan on at least a morning of sacred disruption—transcending my tinge of guilt and shame—as I walk through the Warriors Walk, stopping at each granite marker, feeling the winds rock the memories of dreams no more, praying with the words… 

“On behalf of a grateful nation”. 

Owen R. Chandler is an active duty army chaplain. Previously, he served as a congregational minister for fourteen years within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination. He pastored his beloved Saguaro Christian Church, an open & affirming faith community in Tucson, Arizona, for eight years. Concurrently, he served as an army reserve chaplain for nine years, deploying to Iraq in 2016.

While in Tucson, Owen also founded the nonprofit, Sol Food Initiatives, a community kitchen that alleviates hunger, fosters nonprofit collaborations, and cultivates community. He earned an Army Bronze Star (2016) and 40 Under 40 from Arizona Daily Star (2019). 

Whether in the pulpit or in his duty uniform, Owen’s ministerial emphasis centers on discovering the healing, transformative power of the intersections between our story and God’s love. Most important to Owen’s story, he is a husband and father of three. When there is free time, he plays ukulele, obsesses over the NBA, and enjoys the outdoors with lots and lots of sunscreen. 
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