When Fear Says Its Prayers

Do you ever read the obituaries in your local paper? I do. And I make it a habit to read the ones with the American flags next to them. What does it take, 90 seconds? It’s the least we can do to honor those who put their lives on the line for God and country.

I bring this up because I recently heard the story of a fellow from my hometown. I’ll call him Pete. Pete died last month at 90. He was a small business owner and a friend to many, including my father, who was shocked to learn from his obituary that Pete had parachuted into Normandy during the D-Day invasion of France in 1944.

Imagine the surprise. My dad knew Pete well. They’d had frequent discussions about lots of things. But Pete never once talked about his service during World War II. Such silence is not uncommon among guys who saw real action.

You know the type. The old timer in the stands at the Little League game. The guy with the pins in his baseball hat. The gentlemanly usher who always greeted your family with a smile at Mass on Sunday morning.

That guy didn’t want to argue politics. That guy didn’t want to bicker about religion. He’d done enough fighting to last a lifetime, maybe two. He just wanted to watch a ball game on the weekend. He just wanted to serve his Church. He just wanted some sunshine on his face.

We owe those guys something. We owe guys like Pete. But since they don’t talk about what they saw and did for us, sometimes we don’t remember to be as grateful as we should be. It’s too bad, because soon they’ll be gone. My uncle Joe joined the Navy in 1945 at the age of 17. That makes him about as young a WWII veteran as you can be. He’s 86 now.

But it’s not just the WWII guys—the so-called Greatest Generation—who are leaving us. Navy pilot Lt. Commander Edwin A. “Ned” Shuman III died last year at 82. Shuman spent 17 months in solitary confinement over the course of his five years in the North Vietnamese prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton. These guys never really got the thanks they deserved.

Around Christmas 1970, Shuman and his fellow prisoners were contemplating holding a church service in their cell. This was strictly forbidden. They knew it would invoke the ire of their guards, who were not prone to Christian charity or normal human kindness. Shuman wanted to make sure the men appreciated what was at stake.

“Are we really committed to having church Sunday?” he wanted to know. He went around the cell asking all 42 of his fellow prisoners whether they were ready to face the consequences. The vote was unanimous in favor.

“At that instant,” said someone who was there, “Ned knew he would end up in the torture cells.”

I think often about how unsuited I am to the sacrifice required of military life. Every time I get a sniffle or a sneeze it occurs to me just how miserable I’d be without my soft slippers or a warm cup of tea. I’d be terrible company in a fox hole. I’d be useless on a submarine.

Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to these obituaries. If I’d parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day I’d never stop talking about it. If I’d been tortured in a POW camp, I’d hold a grudge till the day I died (and maybe beyond). If I had seen what some of these guys had seen, I’d want everyone to know.

Where did these guys get their strength? Where did they find that emotional fortitude? I read somewhere that courage is fear that has said its prayers.

“To make it, I prayed by the hour,” U.S. Air Force General Robinson Risner wrote in his 2004 autobiography, The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese. “It was automatic, almost subconscious. I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me strength to endure it. When it would get so bad that I did not think I could stand it, I would ask God to ease it and somehow I would make it. He kept me.”

Because I was born in the early seventies, I managed to avoid serving my country in uniform. Oh, I could have served, but I chose not to. Guys like Pete, Ned Shuman, Robinson Risner, and my uncle Joe—they didn’t really have that choice. They were called and they went. Many didn’t come back.

He kept them. May He continue to keep them as they rest in eternal peace. May they know how grateful we are.

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