The Wall

By Jerry D. Haight

Puzzled over an observation of the people of a small church, the traveler couldn’t help making inquiry of the priest. “Sir”, he said “I’ve noticed when parishioners enter, they momentarily face the wall on the east side of the foyer, cross themselves and kneel before entering the nave, yet the wall is bare. Please explain”. The priest said “I came ten years ago and noticed that as well, and certainly not wanting to offend anyone, I, too, follow the practice”. The priest, now curious, wrote to the bishop. The bishop could not answer the question even though he, too, served at the small church for about ten years and he forwarded the question to the vicar who preceded him. The vicar could not answer the question either. Finally, the priest asked an old parishioner, who replied, “I don’t know, but before we painted, there was a crucifix there. It is now at the front of the church”.  The foregoing story of unknown origin has been with me a very long time and now and then, a situation comes along that requires a longer look at the wall and what is behind it for the explanation as to why I am crossing myself and kneeling there. Recently behind my wall was time and experiences in the Navy and the twenty five years Vince, my son, dedicated to his Navy career. During his career, he served on ballistic missile submarines in which he was out to sea for six months out of every year and on other submarines that were at sea even longer. All told, he was at sea for more than 65 percent of the time or more than 15 ½ years at sea. I came to know and appreciate the sacrifice of these men and women make for the sake of their country.

When a ship departs for sea, what is called a deployment, the crew that is most visible consists of the men and women standing at attention on deck. But behind the scenes are the families that remain on shore. The separation of deployment is very hard on both crew and families and often fatal to their marriages. During the day on board ship, the macho mantra is readily apparent but in the quiet of a long mid watch, a deep yearning for loved ones calls out the pictures of family and is a time of longing and tears. During the day at home all the burdens of child rearing, bill paying, grocery shopping; all the duties of the household falls to the spouse. At night, the creaks and groans of a lonely house and the emptiness of the other side of the bed make sleep difficult and the nights long. It is said that family emergencies, like emergency room visits with a sick child, breakdowns of the car, washing machine, dishwasher and plumbing wait and happen during the deployment when the spouse has to contend with them alone and often with income at poverty level.   

Duty on board ship is always fraught with hazards as the it meets its wide variety of assignments throughout the world Including search and rescue, peace keeping, hurricane relief, professional training or, sometimes war, but when a ship returns safely from sea, reconnecting loved ones, it is always a time of rejoicing and celebration, as was the case on that day in May of 2003.

That was the day the USS Abraham Lincoln arrived at San Diego after the longest deployment for an aircraft carrier since the Vietnam War. The carrier air wing and battle group earned the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation and the prestigious Arleigh Burke Award as the most improved command in the Pacific Fleet. These coveted awards and the achievement on which they were based occurred before the war in Iraq started.  During the ten month deployment, three of which were in combat, the crew handled and flew over 16,500 carrier takeoffs and about the same number of landings. These occurred in fair weather and foul, in daylight and at night, in rough seas as well as smooth. These operations are always perilous and sometimes deadly. Ship handlers, often unheralded, accomplished ship to ship supply transfers including tons and tons of food and more than 1 million pounds of fuel. These operations are also perilous and sometimes deadly. When the ship arrived returning more than 7000 men and women safely to their families of more than 21,000 wives, husbands and children it was time for great celebration and fanfare. At the arrival of even the smallest vessel from sea, a “welcome home” is frequently offered by someone of rank. The welcome home is often expressed as “well done” or “mission accomplished”. It was in this spirit that a sign appeared on the outside of the bridge of the Abraham Lincoln that read “Mission Accomplished” referring to the crew and their safe arrival home. It was in the same spirit that their commander and chief chose to honor them by his presence and to welcome them home on behalf of his entire constituency.  As Navy Commander Conrad Chun said the banner referred specifically to the aircraft carrier’s 10-month deployment and all the accomplishments of her crew during that time and not just the war itself. “It truly did signify a mission accomplished for the crew”. Sadly, the event also was chosen as a political bone on which to chew.

According to a CNN report, at the time of the event, Democrats worried President Bush would use the occasion and the dramatic landing of the Abraham Lincoln for political gain. So on October 28, 2003, some six months later, apparently, hoping to turn the issue into a political liability for President Bush they began another campaign to castigate him. Taking comments made by him the preceding day in the White House Rose Garden out of context, coupling them with the homecoming of the Abraham Lincoln and the “Mission Accomplished” banner, also taken out of context they attempted to set up accusations of bravado. It was on that day, two senators and presidential hopefuls simultaneously issued their critical statements.

Last week, I saw hatred and anger, both quite ugly compelling me to look deep behind the wall to examine reasons behind my reaction. Behind my wall was a deep respect for the men and women of our Navy, their unwavering dedication and the sacrifice of the families left behind, and yes, a heart that supports and prays for their safety. That their moment of recognition and homecoming would be overshadowed by hatred of their commander in chief aroused a passionate anger within me. Seeing behind my wall more clearly now, it is time to move on to the crucifix kneel there and ask forgiveness for anger, grace to forgive and wisdom to recognize there are always at least two sides to every truth. Some day nations will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nations will not lift up weapons against one another nor will they study war any more. In those days families will not be separated by deployments nor be put in peril by land, sea or air. But as long as men and women harbor hate and anger, however justified, such a day may long be postponed.