My definition of veteran spirituality is that it’s a journey both in and out of uniform, during which the veteran is looking ‘within’ to understand the meaning of the soul as it’s related to military service—before, during and after service.
There are many places veteran spirituality can be found. It’s not limited to warfare, yet it may find itself in a war zone like Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. This spirituality can be found in garrison life at a stateside military post or base. It can also be found on a ship, afloat in calm waters. It’s not limited to military chapels, yet a prayer with a chaplain might be that jolt of awareness that sparks the soul.
Veteran spirituality isn’t focused on just the soldier alone; it’s a shared experience that involves loved ones and others. Civilians are also part of the veteran spirituality experience. Their souls matter, as do the souls of veterans. The ultimate experience involves the joining of veteran and civilian souls to promote a healthy journey for all.
I know of one person who truly understands veteran spirituality, from his own perspective. I interviewed Rev. Bill McDonald to better understand Veteran Spirituality from his life.
REVEREND BILL MCDONALD
Love and forgiveness: Help brother veterans heal
Mike Kim: You’re my guru on the ‘veteran spirituality’ path. You’re a Vietnam veteran with a passion for the spiritual life. What inspired you to get on that path?
Reverend Bill McDonald: Thank you, but I’m just an old warrior who’s trying to help other veterans find their own pathway to inner peace. My survival throughout the Vietnam War taught me much about being focused on what’s important in life, and to question why we’re here.
I was in Vietnam from October of 1966 through October of 1967, at a little army airfield in Phu Loi. During my tour of duty, I was wounded and blown up and shot at, and was even shot down in my Huey helicopter several times. But I always trusted the universe (the divine) to take care of me.
No matter what happened to me, I was OK, as I fully knew that everything that happened was supposed to happen. There are no accidents in this life of ours. Nothing is totally random. I believe in the Divine purpose to everything. So, when I came back home from that war, I was even more ready to continue my spiritual quest and search for life’s meaning.
More importantly, I was motivated to help my brother veterans as they tried to heal, emotionally and spiritually, from their invisible wounds.
MK: How do you see spirituality as an aid for transitioning from the military to civilian life?
RBM: I see spirituality as the key foundation to transitioning from the battlefields of war to the turbulent journey of life after war. My personal emphasis is on spirituality, and isn’t necessarily focused on religious-based dogma or teachings. In some cases, I think organized religion has its place and does well. However, everyone—regardless of faith or religion—can agree on fundamental precepts for spiritual and mental health.
To transform back into civilian life, a veteran needs the help of the ‘community’ or the ‘tribe.’ What that looks like for veterans is the support of our brothers and sisters in arms.
Things such as love and forgiveness, at all levels, are a huge starting and ending point. Without love (and that includes love for the self), any effort to find true meaning and inner peace won’t make it attainable.
To transform back into civilian life, a veteran needs the help of the ‘community’ or the ‘tribe.’ What that looks like for veterans is the support of our brothers and sisters in arms. Those who’ve walked in our combat boots understand us better than those who’ve never worn any uniform.
Reaching out to fellow veterans is truly about coming back home to ‘family.’ The military community serves as that greater family, and there’s safety and comfort in being surrounded by those who know how we feel.
Love and service
RBM: LOVE and SERVICE are truly the basic fundamental elements of my practice. Just praying and meditating isn’t enough, in and of itself, to fully achieve that inner peace. A person needs to become bigger than their own needs and extend a helping hand to others in need.
How can I truly rest and be at peace when I see so many of our veterans out there hurting? Some are obvious (the homeless and those in prisons), but many have inner wounds that are visible only when they choose to let their emotions show publicly. Many are able to fool the world around them, but when they’re alone, they aren’t at peace and the inner battles continue to be fought. Some choose to hide their pain with booze or drugs and mindless pursuits, but the unhappiness and darkness remains.
My spiritual practice is about inner and outer activism: A life filled with quiet times and meditation and prayers, but also a commitment to loving service within the veteran community.
MK: What would you tell the atheist? Or the fundamentalist?
RBM: Believe in goodness and love, regardless of any belief in GOD or god or no gods. If you’re practicing your faith-based religion, and still feel judgment and anger towards other groups, then you’re not following the law of the universe, which is love.
I don’t think the divine cares what religion you are, but only looks at the love in your own heart and actions.
I don’t think the divine (or whatever name you wish to assign to that) cares what religion you are, but only looks at the love in your own heart and actions. You only need to believe in love—no matter what we call that love.
Some in the churches or the temples will say that if you don’t accept what their faith says, you’re doomed to go to hell. To me, if you aren’t loving your fellow humans, and especially your enemies, then you’re already in some form of self-hell. A place without love for all is a very dark place for any soul.
If you’re following a particular religion, then live up to what it expounds. Don’t pick and choose what rules or commandments you think are OK for you to follow. If you’ve chosen to belong to a religion, then fully practice it or leave it; but don’t just go through the motions of being a member of that faith. If what you’re practicing doesn’t reach towards tolerance and forgiveness and love, then you may wish to step back and look at what you truly believe.
MK: During the Second World War, there were many religious communities involved with supporting veterans. How can religious congregations help veterans in their communities?
RBM: Churches, temples and other places of organized faith can become a real beacon of hope for those coming home from war. Being welcomed home by the greater community, and not just by your immediate family, is important.
Religious communities can help heal many emotional wounds just by making the warrior feel welcomed. The key for those involved in organized religion is to avoid letting their own judgments cloud their views of the wars and those who served. Their job is, for the veterans, to help re-establish a feeling of belonging to a community—this is a huge and important piece of the healing process.
For non-religious veterans, they still need to find that ‘tribal connection,’ and they should seek out veteran organizations (both official and non-traditional) for this purpose. The key is that warriors need to reconnect with the community to truly heal.
MK: Your poetry touched me, as a veteran and as a former monk. What inspires you to create poetry? Provide us with one of your favourite poetic creations.
RBM: I started writing poetry and prose in grade school. I continued throughout high school, and as I hitchhiked across the U.S. and Europe, then into the Vietnam War. I wrote when I returned home from the war, and even up to my present old age. (LOL!)
I wrote a few books of poetry, including Purple Hearts: Poetry of the Vietnam War, but my best book of poetry was given a national publisher’s award of $25,000 and declared the best book of poetry in 2004—Sacred Eye: Poetry in Search of the Divine.
Here’s one of my more upbeat poems from the pages of that award-winning book.
I only regret
All those days
Before I knew us.
They are now
Of events and emotions
Waiting to be buried
In some memory cemetery.
There were no colours then,
All was gray
Even the sun
Wasn’t as bright
Before you came.