Saturday, December 3, 2016

AN EXAMINED LIFE OF A RARE MEEK MAN (part 2)

Part two  of four   

By Robert R. Schwarz

 And He [ Jesus ] has  said to me, " My grace
is sufficient for you, for power is perfected
          in weakness. " ….For when  I am  weak,
                                              then  I am strong.  ( The Apostle Paul, 2
                                             Corinthians 12: 9,10 )

             VI 
The Kuss Family: ( front row, from left ) Sister Elaine and son
Ryan; Willete, Bruce's mother; niece Connie; and Bruce, then 33.
            For the next 44 years, Bruce worked as a clerk in various departments of the Sears Roebuck and Company at the Golf Mill shopping center in Niles, Illinois.  He was, I believe, like  an orphan in need of a humanized  home. When I  once saw how his face could light up with contentment  as  he rang  up a sale for a pair of shoes  and handed it to an obviously  pleased   customer , I knew Bruce had found his  niche in life . And he now could  shield himself from his chronic  crowd-induced distress by  exercising his salesmanship skills. To his aid had also come those inanimate sales counters that emotionally walled him  off from anxious customers . Perhaps, what my friend really needed was a governor placed on his  overabundance of God-given empathy .
Sad events easily brought tears to his  eyes,  such as his hearing of as a young girl being killed  in front of a supermarket by a runaway car . Once or twice I resisted the temptation to advise him of the ancient proverb of those  three wise monkeys who , as depicted in  small tabletop  figurines ,   see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.
Whether it was the shoe , furniture or camera  ( best liked by him ) department where Bruce had been  placed precipitously by management,  he moved quickly and diligently around the   glass counters , always reaching  for the appropriate sales  item and ringing the cash register as  a  happy climax  . But the day Sears digitized its cash registers, Bruce felt  intimidated . He tried  hard to join the digital world—he never was to  own a computer—but, like many of us , was allergic to it.
His  speaking voice, particularly on the telephone ,  belied  Mr. Kuss's profile;  its mellow timbre  resonated with  self-control and perfect diction , easily reminding  one of a radio announcer or cool-headed executive.   A stranger might  hear a boorish monotone in his voice, but if attentive to it, would  hear sincerity instead.  To his credit, Bruce knew exactly who and what he was; he shared with me a thought about being short , now weighing 40 pounds  less since his army days .  " When they put me in the camera department at Sears," he related with a  frown of  self-disapproval. "I began to notice that when managers from the Sears home office visited the store, they all seemed to be six-foot-two ." 
             
VII      

A memory across the street on second floor center...
his monastic-like home for 30 years.
 
 In his simple apartment on Touhy Avenue , Bruce lived a monastic life for  three decades.  "He was  a private man, "  said his  niece  Connie Obrochta , a teacher who lived near Park Ridge.  "I got to see his apartment only once, when I helped him  move in and showed him how to work his hide-away bed. "
            I well knew my friend's typical day of  unchangeable routine . He was  up at 5 a.m. ,  put on one of  two  suits, a white shirt , and  one of four  neckties ,  each  a past Christmas  present  from Connie or  his married   sister , now living  in Michigan.   Breakfast was   a muffin—usually blueberry—and a cup of decaffeinated instant coffee. Bruce  had an aversion to cooking his own meals—caused by bad memories  of  army chow and  punishing  KP duty. After his heart attack years later, his doctor told  him that his   meal regimen of too many of those affordable  fast-foods  had likely caused the attack. 
            Bruce then  descended two  flights of stairs and  drove  his car out of a small  outdoor  parking lot across the street , often with  a worried thought about the cost  of a needed brake job for his 14-year-old Chevy .  In  ten minutes,  he would arrive at Sears. But in winter, because his  car once didn't start, forcing him to take a taxi,  Bruce now arrived  at the shopping center 90 minutes  early and  sat  in the car until the employee entrance  opened.   When I  questioned his excessive prudence, he calmly argued ,  " Bob , I wanted to make  sure I never would be late and never have to take a cab again.  "
After work  on payday,  Bruce went  to his favorite  shopping center cafĂ© for either  pasta   or his  hot beef sandwich on white bread  with  a side of  instant mashed potatoes, all  smothered with canned gravy . Arriving at his apartment building (or when leaving it in the morning),  Bruce used the backdoor to avoid encountering a woman tenant who, for unknown reasons , would hurl  insults at him on sight.  He thought her demented.  "If I saw her   a block away , I went around her . I just tried to avoid her.  She had once said I was lying to her when I told her about that lightning experience in the army.  I finally shouted at her, Leave me alone !  " Likely it was the first time in his adult life that Bruce had shouted in anger at a human being. When the  woman eventually moved  away,  Bruce said, "I felt sorry for her. " 
Keeping him company in evenings were a few hours of either  a  library-borrowed movie  from the 1940's  or  comedy television , particularly  I Love Lucy, Mash, The Nanny, or Hogan's Heroes .
On any of  his two days off, Bruce   might spend a few hours reading the Wall Street Journal at the public library  or taking the train (once a month ) to the Loop for   a corn beef-on-rye   at the renown German restaurant,  Berghoff's . This, and lunch in the Loop  every four months with a Polish immigrant friend of his who owned a small custom suit business,  were the only   luxuries Bruce could enjoy without going into debt. 

VIII    Some would say that Bruce had a few
               things in common with these three: 
                Helen Keller, Dr. Martin Luther King
                Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi . 

       My first and late wife Judith and I had been living out-of-state for two  years,  and Bruce and I had lost touch until a conversation . H e had just returned from a two-day trip to Minnesota  for his sister  Elaine's funeral. She was the last of his immediate  family member and had  died at age 86 of a heart attack.  While telling me this on the  telephone, Bruce had  rare outburst of
emotion :  " I was never even warned ! "  Since many of our of soul-sharing conversations had been over coffee and a pastry ,  I suggested we meet e ww at a Caribou . At that time, Caribou  was my friend's  favorite  coffee spot ; its fireplace and knotty pine walls took him back to family days at  the Spider Lake resort  and to Frank, that convivial ,  nature-sage  resort owner of  Chippewa descent. 
As usual, Bruce insisted I choose where to sit. Bruce appeared to be in good health despite  his heart attack and angioplasty of    several years ago.    His face had  aged some ;  a few feint wrinkles  here and there, but  had remained  sculpted  with  transparent friendliness. His  eyes told me  no trespassing.  I reminded him that it was his turn to pray.  His prayer was brief , expressing gratitude for life itself and  asking blessings for my wife, Mary Alice.  I got the impression that Bruce wanted nothing that might diminish  his health or modest income . He had remained, I perceived, a man without a trace of duplicity . Of course, he was human , and  therefore   I wondered if a day of leisure or work had ever passed him when he could not resist a temptation to lie ,  or if  his pride was ever seriously wounded . Had my friend learned the art living simply and silently in the heart of a  disordered , drum-banging culture ? 
With its ambiance of rock music and  loud  ,  caffeinated  chatter , Caribou on this particular Saturday morning was not kind to our palaver, let alone prayer. Sooner of later, our coffee talk went to  Hollywood movies in the 1940's or the inflated  cost of living today .  Bruce delighted in reciting biographical data about his favorite actors such as his  favorite,  Gary Grant.  Our voices grew louder on the topic of what new cars cost in the 1950's ;   and  finally  we got philosophical about the very rich and famous  and how  they unwisely or wisely spent  their money—and how they died. Bruce  then  related  the time he found $l4 ,000 at  Sears . It was in a pouch  on the floor, dropped accidentally by  a cashier rushing to the security office. "It was anyone who wanted it, "  Bruce said, still irritated at the cashier's clumsiness.    "No one was in sight at the time ,  and the cashier would never recall where she had  dropped it. When I turned it in to security, they    grabbed the pouch  from me and  gave me a queer  look . I think they might have said 'thank you. ' " 
Bruce often was vexed about the  boldness of shoplifters at Sears . There was a thin woman who, before she was caught, had  walked out of a dressing room   wearing two layers of stolen dresses concealed under her own dress . And  there were "customers"  who switched their own shoes with those in a  shoe box.  Bruce found this disgusting.  When the topic of charity came up, it was a rare time I saw Bruce get angry. "I don't understand it," he said , laying aside a large Caribou  chocolate chip  cookie. "When  we give  change back to a customer and suggest they consider dropping just  a LITTLE of it  into this box on my  counter   to help our  veterans, they make the lamest excuses. "  Bruce rattled off the excuses. 
              We  leaned back and   drank the rest  of our coffee in silence. Eventually , I became  impatient with  the idle silence  and , giving in to  a journalist's curiosity,  asked:  "Doesn't anything ever really   upset  you , Bruce? I mean,  do you ever think about heaven or hell ?" 
Justifiably irritated for my presuming to much about the depth of  his faith, he shot back with:  "Look, I don't know much about where I'm going when I die. I'm just concerned about all the tragedy that's now in  the world. "  It sounded like a  plea .  I sensed  my friend had exposed a fear he had confronted, unwillingly , for the first time.  I became  embarrassed and retreated into  silence. My question , however, had  incited Bruce to say a few minutes  later,    "I wonder why God allows good people to suffer."
            " I don't really know ,"  I answered . "I've heard different explanations , but none satisfy me a hundred per cent. "  Glancing up at the ceiling, I said ,  " You know, Bruce, His ways are not our ways. "   Though I thought my  comment  appropriate , it echoed  back to me years  later as superficial  and lacking empathy for Bruce's unique spiritual trek.
    A few days later,  my wife and I had  Bruce over for dinner. Mary Alice asked him how his new boss was treating him .   Flashing a smile that lingered  for several seconds,  Bruce  was anxious to reply:"Well,   her name is Doris ,  and she's  maybe 28. A little assertive and doesn’t know how to say to her employees ,  ' Would you mind doing this?' or  'Why don't you…?'   But then she's  under a lot of pressure to turn things around in our department."
      Bruce always could find a kind word for  anyone, no matter how they treated him.  Over dessert , he had  more to say about Doris. 
     "Listen to this now: I come to work early one morning, set things up in  the stock room before I clock in. I didn't know there had been a mistake in the shift schedule and that I wasn't suppose to work  that day. My new boss comes in, sees me,  says she's really sorry for the mix-up and gives me a big hug. Can you imagine !   Then she says, 'We're going make it up to you with five  extra hours of work for you  next week . ' " 
Bruce badly needed  this overtime pay, and so  I clapped and Mary Alice , also  happy,  bit her lip.
      "I'm not finished, " Bruce said.  " You know that car brake job I've been putting off?  Two hundred bucks less than I thought !"  Simple  and  meticulous  ownership of his car sweetened his life.  
We escorted Bruce to the front porch.  I watched him walk into the night towards his  car. " He's wearing that same  plaid  shirt," I murmured  to my wife. " Be quiet, " she told me. 
Bruce's walk was  slower now , his back  slightly  hunched and his arms  dangling rather than swinging at his sides.  How ever does  his kind manage to  survive ?  I asked myself.  For the  first time I saw  nothing  ordinary about my  friend.  He was on a trek which, and   I had to know where it led.  

This completes the second of this four--part article.
Part three will be posted Dec. 11
 
All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz


                           




Saturday, November 26, 2016

AN EXAMINED LIFE OF A RARE MEEK MAN

Part one of four   

By Robert R. Schwarz

And He [ Jesus ] has  said to me, " My grace
is sufficient for you, for power is perfected
 in weakness. " ….For when  I am  weak,
 then  I am strong.  ( The Apostle Paul, 2
                        Corinthians 12: 9,10 )

    The meek man is not a human mouse afflicted
    with a sense of his own inferiority. Rather he
   may be in his moral life as bold as a lion and
   as strong as Samson; but he has stopped being
   fooled about himself. He has accepted God's
   estimate of his own life. He knows he is as
   weak and helpless as God declared him to be,
   but paradoxically, he knows at the same time
   that he is in the sight of God of more importance
   than angels. In himself, nothing; in God, everything.
   That is his motto. ( A.W. Tozer , 1897-1963 ,
                           American Christian pastor, author, magazine editor,
                           and spiritual mentor. ) 

Meekness is an attribute of human nature and behavior.
It has been defined several ways: righteous, humble, 
teachable, patient under suffering , and willing to follow
 gospel teachings….Meekness means restraining one's
own power, so as to allow room for others. (Wikipedia,
                        the online encyclopedia  )

           
A few  introductory words… Dear Reader, with these few  thousand words  I present to you Bruce Kuss , a kind of man many of  us  have met and instinctively trusted.  Yet, for some reason, we also instinctively avoid friendship with people like Bruce and away from ever asking  why., strangely , forever avoid asking  why.
***
I am a journalist and former  facilitator of interpersonal  communication   workshops , two influences which spurred me to know why I was one of those who perceived Bruce as someone I could trust  yet  never tolerate as a friend.   As you wade into this report, you might find it depressing.  That likely will change if you not presume that Mr. Kuss is a foolish wimp.
God's grace I thank for enabling me over several months  to research and write this report.  Also helpful was the patience of my wife , Mary Alice, who often suffered my 20-minute delays coming to the dinner table after I had shouted from my office  "be right there ! "

  
I  
Fishing at age 7 on Big Spider Lake  where he
"never did catch anything "
    In the rehab center's  dinning room, sadness and joy fluctuated  across  the aged face of my friend Bruce  as he told me about  a cherished memory…
          He was 12 years  old   and sitting  with his parents and  a few  guests around a evening  birch log fire  at the Cedar Lodge resort on Big Spider Lake , 20 miles  from Hayward in northern Wisconsin.  Everyone was talking up  their  fishing  day: "that exact location of a  lily pad"  where aggressive strikes of large-mouth bass occurred ; or  the drama of how " that Musky   followed   my Johnson spoon  almost to the boat , then dove down…That's August   fishing for you… water too warm . "  A few wives empathized with the wife of the   lodge owner, Frank Letourneau  ( he was of Chippewa descent ) when she quipped ,  " I'm thankful you men didn't catch more . You guys don't have to clean them." 
         Several decades later Bruce would visit Mr. Letourneau in a nursing home, listen to his demented Indian chanting, and weep over it.
          For an hour, Bruce absorbed the ambiance  of family-like friendship that warmed him more than the log- burning fire. He sat between his father and mother ,  Willete  and   Val Kuss, a  sales manger of an  International Harvester truck dealership in Chicago. My absent  father  was one of his salesmen and often  his fishing buddy.   Near nine o'clock,  everyone began returning to their log  cabins , some making an outhouse stop . Bruce rose reluctantly  , and when his parents exited the lodge , he  followed for a few yards , then halted  as they  disappeared into the night .
            " It was so dark that I couldn't see my hand in front of me  ,"  Bruce  later would later recall.  He looked up at the star-lit sky, so unlike his Chicago night . Somewhere from the nearby ink-dark lake came the piercing  and frantic cry of a bird , aptly named a loon. Bruce  stood still,  hoping to hear that howl of a lone wolf heard by everyone two nights ago. It never came. On this same lake , I would someday memorialize the death of my parents.   To Bruce's s right stood  the "Honeymoon Lodge" cabin, named for my parents  who honeymooned a week there as its first guests.  
         Bruce went to bed grateful for a  peaceful day,  especially for  the hours in  his father's presence. Trust them, listen to them, and things will go my way, a thought he would someday  share with me.  The thought through  ensuing years would often be put to the test ; it would also become a profound building block of his core character.

II 
With sister Elaine: "I always wanted
a big brother to tell me about the
birds and the bees "
 
   We talked for any hour that day in the rehab center.  Bruce was high-spirited and full of memories he had wanted to express ever  since arriving there.  His  eyes moistened from   thoughts of  the beauty nature he used to   shared with Mom and Dad , like  when the family drove  through the Garden of the Gods  in Colorado when Bruce was 16.
        But that particular memory darkened at  roadside lunch  stop and the soon arriving  ambulance that took his  father to a Denver hospital . It was some blood disease doctors couldn't  diagnose . His father  remained  hospitalized in Denver  for two months while mother and son waited hourly for a diagnosis that never would be determined.  Gravely ill, his father, accompanied by his  wife,  was flown back to the family's home in Normal , Illinois . In nearby Bloomington,  Mr. Kuss had bought a partnership in a farm machinery dealership. Because  Bruce had no  driver's license, the dealership dispatched an employee  to  Denver  to  drive Bruce home in the family's new Pontiac.  "The trip home was painful ,  and I never forgot it," Bruce told me.  Two months , his father died. 
            Then glancing around him in the rehab center lunch room at all the other seniors  in wheelchairs waiting for food as he was, my friend  said, "Mom told me to be true and cling to people who cling to you . My biggest challenge was trying to be like my Dad. But  I've done my best. " He bowed his head.  " Maybe things would have been different  then if  I had had a Dad. " 

III    
  Back home,  Bruce and his mother decided to move to the Chicago suburb  of Park Ridge and enroll Bruce in  his senior  high school year before September.   They made  a down payment on a home. Mr. Kuss's  death and that torturous long vigil  in Denver had bonded mother and ever tighter.  Bruce committed himself to the dual role of friend  and permanent companion  to his mother. 
            Bruce toured the Maine Township high school before enrolling . Seeing a student population at least four times that of his high school  in Normal , Bruce was quickly overshadowed with anxiety.  The hustle and  bustle of this high school was  intense, so unlike his student life in  Normal. Social interaction around Normal was a kind which Bruce had learned to trust, for it did not demand any change in behavior inimical to his temperament and moral code. Walking  through the hallway during a class-break amidst the clanging of  hundreds of lockers opening and closing and feeling  his body repeatedly jarred by a stampede  of students during class-break,  Bruce felt overwhelmed . Though  quite aware of his five-foot-five-inch  frame—he would never grown an inch   taller— he was yet to see it as  a social or employment  disadvantage  nor yet to acquire a short-person's sometimes  sense of vulnerability . At one of my future  birthday parties I saw him interact gracefully with my friends—all several inches taller than he  and  having  an assortment of imposing  temperaments.   I gradually began to admire a few traits in my friend which I lacked.  He would become a likeable salesman, even under pressure. 
            " I wanted no part of that school, " Bruce told me decades later.  " Mom and  I returned to Normal, and  we lost the house down payment. "
            In  Normal,  Bruce attended a Presbyterian church and went to Sunday School ( he described his father as not " very religious " ) ,  earned a few more Boy Scout merit badges, graduated from high school, and dated a few girls, one of whom he proposed to. She was from a wealthy family , a fact eventually causing Bruce to break off the engagement  after acknowledging  he'd never be able to give her what she would want. " But I regretted that I didn't find someone who was right for me, "  Bruce said during one of our many talks. He would remain, by choice,  a  bachelor  for the rest of his life—no boyfriends nor girlfriends.  

IV
           Bruce enrolled at the University of Illinois and braved its campus for 4 years.  He studied business administration and  participated in the   R.O.T.C. program for two years. After graduating,  he volunteered  for the draft and soon wore an Army private's  uniform at Fort Carson, Colorado. Coincidentally, I was taking my basic training there at the same time   and, by chance, bumped into Bruce on an Army bus taking  us trainees with weekend passes to Colorado Springs.  We hadn't seen each other in several years  , and after a hurried  conversation,  wouldn't see each other for another three years.   All I remember from our meeting was Bruce's account of a fatal lightning strike he had witnessed  while on a training  maneuver at another camp a few weeks  ago.
            He recalled it one day in the rehab center: " We were marching into camp.  Three guys were a short distance behind me  when a lightning bolt hit them. It killed them right  there  ! "  His face showed   confusion  and deep thought, expressions which  Bruce , it seemed,  always kept sealed in mind and heart.  His voice trailed off saying, " Bad things happen to good people… "  Though these words for years would beg him to ask why? , I don’t believe he ever got a comforting answer.
         Bruce had  spent his draft time in  Germany driving a jeep for Army personnel,  an assignment he thought  " humdrum . " But  thereafter  he would honor any  military fund-raising  request with a few dollars of his always-meager  salary. 

V      Now living with his mother in a Park Ridge apartment,  Bruce went to work selling lawn care products for the Scotts Company. He had found his life's niche  in interacting with  people who needed something he could give them.  Customers sensed that this   smiling salesman  with the  blue eyes and  brown hair—now  a bit pudgy for a five-foot-five body  carrying  175 pounds—was someone who really wanted them to make a wise purchase  at a fair price. It was the kind of salesmanship his father and mine presented when selling International Harvester trucks , that is, telling  a customer the truth about the highly technical topic of gear ratios ; it would have all too easy to promote a much more expensive and— unnecessary— gear ratio.  Salesmanship like this would remain one of Bruce's  prime joys in his life . He would, however, be persecuted  for it .
            My friend was heading of a life-long , successful career at Scotts  when it begun laying off employees.  As his niece Connie Obrochta  remembers : "My nephew was always the "consummate gentleman,  gentle and thoughtful,  a hard worker who never complained. "  Arguably, my friend's  future  might have been colored  quite differently if he had done  some complaining  at the right times.  Being mild-mannered did not explain his behavior . An explanation for it was unfathomable to me at the time .
        When Scotts began unexpectedly  to lay off employees,  Bruce quit. " I quit before they fired me," he told me . Prudence  remained a virtue of his, along with a mouth which I never heard utter a profanity nor eyes I ever saw wink at someone's  uncharitable act. Quote honestly, there were times when all this goodness of Bruce's  discomforted me . Bruce made me think of   Pinocchio ,  the puppet who became a human being  because he  listened to his constant cricket companion and nag , Jiminy  Cricket, a conscience given to him by an angel. On a few occasions,  I judged Bruce's  behavior as foolish and weak, only later to be self- convicted of ignoring  my mother's exhortation when I was a child: Robert, soften your heart and  look for the good in people .
            Bruce and   his mother continued to share their apartment  for 23 years . "He was always the apple of his mom's  eye ," said Connie. Mother and son took  vacations  together   throughout the country. His sister, Elaine, now married, would often accompany them. " I didn't like to take vacations by myself, " Bruce said . They saw  Las Vegas three times  and took vacations to  Spider Lake in Wisconsin to relive  early family  memories.  Bruce loved to drop  a dollar into a slot machine or  bet two dollars on a horse race   (usually on a five-to-four  favorite )  when at the Arlington Park Race Track near his home . A  lifestyle of necessary frugality prevented him to wager more.  
            As his mother aged , Bruce assumed the role of caregiver, cook, and  part-time housekeeper . They became each other's best friend.  Then, at age 86, Willete  suffered a fatal heart attack . Bruce felt absolutely  abandoned . For reasons neither I nor his remaining family members would know,  Bruce from now on ,  lived a solitary life . 
          My friend tried to resume the church attendance with which he had been raised  but could not pray once inside.  "  I  became depressed inside  when  I thought of  all the people I knew who had died ," he said during one of our talks at his rehab center.  " Then I found out that I didn't have to be in church to pray but could pray in my   home. " Home now was a Spartan,  one-room , low rent , second-floor walkup apartment near the center of Park Ridge. His quarters  consisted of one large walk-in closet, a bath and shower, a hide-away bed , a refrigerator and a microwave oven he said he never used.  A block away was a bank where Bruce had a small checking account, and across this  six-corner intersection  was the  art deco Pickwick movie theater , built in 1928.  Bruce saw only  one movie here. His sister                                      invited him to see the life of cook and author  Julia Childs .  Next to it  was the Pickwick Restaurant where , when not  eating at  a McDonald's , Bruce dined on his favorites: either a hot beef sandwich or a bowl of pasta . 

This completes the first of this four-part article.
Part II will be posted Dec. 4.
 
All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz



Friday, October 28, 2016

Moral Wounds: Elusive Curse of Our Combat Soldiers

Not Exactly Your Usual PTSD
By Robert R. Schwarz

At the Megong Delta, Vietnam. Capt. Mukoyama in rear ( with
helmet ). Photo by Shunsuke Akatsuka . 


Moral Injury stems from the participation in acts of combat
 that conflict with a soldier's deeply held principles. This
unseen impairment leads to a sense of guilt, shame, and
grief which can manifest itself as self-harm or suicide if
not addressed. (Military Outreach USA)

You learn to kill, and you kill people, and it’s like, I don’t
care. I’ve seen people get shot, I’ve seen little kids get shot.
You see a kid and his father sitting together and he gets shot…
And once you’re able to do that, what is morally right anymore?
How good is your value system if you train people to kill
 another human being, the one thing we are taught not to do?
When you create an organization based around the one taboo
that all societies have?”  ( Comments from a veteran with a
moral wound, quoted by David Wood  in the Huff Post )

Our service members in combat are confronted with split
second life and death decisions every day. The enemy is
often dehumanized , and there are unconventional terrorist
 actions disregarding all rules of human decency that often
result in an attitude among our military that forces a strict
concentration  on accomplishing the mission to protect
 one's fellow unit members  regardless of one's moral code .
( Fr. Matt Foley, church  pastor and former Army chaplain who
served in Afghanistan ) 

Veteran suicides due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD)
and its related moral wounds may be as high as 22 a day, according
to a 2012 VA Suicide Data Report, which also reported that  suicide
rates are difficult to track and get revised from time to time.



            On last September 19, a retired U.S. Army general, a clinical psychologist,  a church pastor, and the executive director of Military Outreach USA met in Chicago to discuss what they believe is an elusive and often life-threatening  casualty of American combat veterans: the so-called moral wound.
         A small audience of veterans and family members along with various health-care professionals crowded the Pritzker Military  Museum and Library auditorium  to prompt some answers about moral wounds for which there is no Purple Heart and which has  existed and been largely ignored for centuries. Strictly speaking,  this is not  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD).   A moral injury can go undiagnosed for 30 years , according  to  several published research studies.
     Leading the panel discussion  was Major General Jim Mukoyama ( ret ) , a Vietnam veteran  who the narrowly survived a moral wound and went on to become a highly decorated  soldier and  the then youngest Army general and its very first  Asian-American to command an Army division. Soon after his retirement, Gen. Mukoyama founded Military Outreach USA , a national not-for-profit, faith-based  organization focused  on caring for veterans with moral wounds and educating the public about them.   [ www.militaryoutreachusa.org  ] 

[ A separate article describing the firefight  with which Gen. Mukoyama was confronted in Vietnam appears at the end of this article. ] 
     
Major Gen. Mukoyama, then the youngest Army
general and first Asian-American to command
an Army division. 


  Other panel members were John Patrick Bair, clinical psychologist with the mental health and stress disorders program at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center ; Joseph Palmer, executive director of Military Outreach USA and author of  the book "They Don't Receive Purple Hearts " ; and Fr. Matt Foley, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.  [ This event will televised  Dec. 4 on WYCC channel 20 at 11 a.m. ]

Prayer, Forgiveness, Counseling Needed
  For years, Gen. Mukoyama has maintained that "the main approach for moral injury is not a medical doctor with prescription drugs, but rather one that includes the forgiveness and grace of a moral authority , a loving God, the counseling of clergy and a sensitive  therapist, and the fellowship of a spiritual community . "  The  church has a major  role in healing veterans of moral wounds, "  he says .  Recalling how his own church welcomed him back from Vietnam with "open arms " , he stressed that  " one should never underestimate the power of prayer. "
      Himself an active Christian  worker since childhood, the general explained that the best—and perhaps only—way for the aging veteran who has been  struggling  for years with unresolved  guilt  from killing  someone in combat,  lies in service to other people , and  in becoming part of a forgiving  community . The general believes  that in the church  this veteran can not only regain the devastating loss of his or her  self-worth but can find forgiveness , if not resolution and healing  of his wound.   He said that when a  soldier "does  a terrible act ,  the soldier  believes he is worthless , that nobody can love them, that God can't love them. In fact, they get mad at God . "
     
Fr. Foley answering questions for two audience members 


 The panel discussion at Pritzker also pointed out that throughout history of warfare, soldiers  were exposed to moral wounds . Cited were examples as the battle of Midian  (mentioned in  the Biblical book of  Numbers 31:19-24 ;  Moses commanding his soldiers returning from battle  to "purify" themselves by a harsh cleansing of their clothing and other articles; and knights returning from the Crusades who could not participate in the church's holy sacraments  until they performed acts of penance and confession of sins they committed as warriors . 
       Gen. Mukoyama's  organization provides free resources, training, and education to  houses of worship.  The goal of  Military Outreach USA is to increase its current national network of 400 churches to 20,000.  " Churches can be the beacons of light and demonstrate God's love, "  he said.
            Just before undergoing   heart surgery, the general  (also wounded by  Agent Orange in Vietnam ), when asked by  the doctor leaning over him how he felt,  his  patient replied: " Since you asked…I am a Christian, Christ is my savior. You are a skilled surgeon, your nurses are skilled. But God's in charge, and whatever He decides, I'm, okay with it. "   The doctor nodded and smiled.
Moral Justification  to Kill ?

The moral justification  of  killing in warfare— a multi-faceted, debatable  topic —often took center stage .  
            "  A moral wound breaks down the best of our thinking, " VA clinical psychologist John Patrick Bair told the audience.  Dr. Bair, a Unitarian,  annually treats nearly 300 veterans with PTSD and moral wounds at his federal health care center in  North Chicago. Patients normally remain there for seven weeks.
       Former Army Ranger Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman writes in his book , "On Killing " (Open Road Integrated Media, Inc., New York, copyright 2009 )  that "the vast majority of soldiers are loath to kill in battle " but then adds, " unfortunately, modern armies, using Pavlovian and operant conditioning, have developed sophisticated ways of overcoming this instinctive aversion." 
       The soldier learns a " warrior code "  says Gen. Mukoyama. " You don't have to be the one who pulls the trigger. You might be a witness or someone who could have prevented [ a killing ] . But in combat, one does not have time  to reflect on this, and so you repress it . Later,  you have more time on your hands to think, and then  the moral  injury bubbles up to the surface. Almost 70 percent of veteran suicides are of vets older than 50. The suicide  rate among our veterans is at epidemic levels. We have lost more veterans due to suicide  in one  year than all the combat deaths since 9-11. "
        Fr. Foley , who served five and a half  years   as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan  and has since counseled several veterans with moral wounds,  said in a later interview  that a soldier  in a firefight with the enemy "can't hesitate. "  Firing his weapon at the enemy  "is an instinct ", he said.  He noted that the military can't talk about Christian values due Constitutional provisions about the relationship church and state.  More than anything else he remembers about moral wounded veterans  is  " their incredible  pain and inability to remember the act that caused this pain. "

A Problem for the Military
       Two questions that  were begged that  evening at Pritzker ( and not answered clearly ) were:  (1) how should the military deal with a young soldier with Christian values and a moral code going into battle and not wanting to kill one of the enemy ?   and  (2)  how would our  government   deal with a possible future  situation  where several thousand of our military had to quickly prepare for  an aggressive attack on the enemy when the majority of them had very strong moral codes against killing  ?
   
( The panelists, from left : Joseph Palmer, John Bair, Fr. Foley,
and Gen. Mukoyama (ret ). 


  In a telephone conversation after the panel discussion, Joseph Palmer asserted that the military  should have trained the soldiers for this battle. He also asserted the clarity of  the  Commandment  Thou Shall Not Kill  .   " It is perfectly permissible to defend your country in a 'just war' and to save someone's life . In defense of your country, saving  someone's life is neither a sin nor a crime. "
What about  WWI Hero Sgt. York ?
       Military historian Col. Douglas V. Mastraino  last October told an Army  veteran audience how the World War hero Sgt. Alvin York  ( depicted by Gary Cooper in the 1941 movie "Sergeant York " )  unsuccessfully resisted   being drafted into the Army after being converted to Christianity. According to Col. Mastriano,  who spent 12 years researching his  book, "Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of Argonne ",  York  replied to the Draft Board, "Okay, I'll serve but not kill. "  York, however, when seeing his fellow soldiers being killed by German machine gun fire,  shot dead several of the enemy and heroically captured 132 German soldiers.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor. 


Military historian Col.  Douglas Mastriano 
      

      "The truth of your moral character comes out in battle, " Col. Mastriano told the veterans
            —most of them having served with the lst Infantry Division— and their wives at Cantigny                   Park,  Illinois ,  a large  garden  and military museum  complex .  " A hero is someone who                 has built his  moral character all this life. " 
       Lt. Col. Grossman in his book referenced the Bible  ( Romans 13: 4 )  , that  governing authorities  do not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.  He also reminds readers of Jesus' words (John 15:13), that Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down  his life for his friends. 
Fr. Foley told fellow panel members that his warfare experience in Afghanistan   showed him that  killing to save the  life of one's   buddy in  combat  will override any other moral code of a soldier. 
       A 2004 study of Vietnam veterans by  Ilona Plvar, now a psychologist with Dept. of Veterans  Affairs, found that grief over losing a combat buddy was comparable , more than 30 years later, to that of a bereaved spouse whose partner had died in the previous six months.
     As Fr. Foley and I walked out of the Pritzker museum that night , we agreed that moral injuries are regularly inflicted upon people in their ordinary , daily lives. " Such as?" I asked. "Such as abortion, " he replied with conviction. We sort of  summed up the recent  panel discussion by admitting  War , indeed, is Hell.  I went home and thought about what my Christian faith had explained to me decades ago about why we still  have wars when so many on this planet, especially governments,  plead and even pray  for  peace: An explanation came to me  from James 4:3: You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives.
The End
All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz


The Vietnam battle scene for which the  then Captain Mukoyama  was awarded a purple heart and  narrowly avoiding a moral wound .
Note: The following article  was written after an earlier interview with  Gen. Mukoyama.

' Serving God Is My Greatest Commission '
How a Retired U.S. Army General Is Helping
To Heal the Moral Wounds of War

By Robert R. Schwarz

Something had hardened my heart, where only moments earlier these were live   human beings , children of God ; they had families, they had loved ones, they had emotions, and  yet I was treating them like they were bumps on a log. Then I remembered Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, where He told us to pray for our enemies. So in the middle of  all this stuff going on,  I just said a  silent prayer  for the three Vietcong and their families—and for myself .  [ The words of Gen Mukoyama , who today will tell you that in that  prayerful moment  he avoided being  wounded morally.  It was a grace that shaped the rest of his life.  ]     

Jim Mukoyama, then a captain in June 1969
at a fire support base danger at My Tho.
                                   

           In June of 1969 in  the 14th year of the Vietnam War,  150 American soldiers of  Company B, 4th Battalion of the 39th Infantry,  9th Division,  are  led silently through  the Mekong Delta jungle in search of their Vietcong enemy. Their three platoons are being led by  Capt. James Hidefumi Mukoyama, Jr. , who will  became one of the youngest major  generals in the U.S. Army .
            Each man carries from 25  to 30 pounds of gear, which includes hand grenades  and  M16 semi- automatic rifles ; Capt. Mukoyama's weapon is  an AR15,  a modified version of  his men's rifles.    The enemy they are about to encounter kills with the Russian-developed , semi-automatic and gas-operated  AK-47  (also known as the Kalashnikov ).
            Since early morning,  Company B has moved in a fan-shaped patrol with fox-like alertness. This particular  enemy are  guerrillas who operate in small units  of perhaps 27 men who have shed military uniforms. They attack by ambush. Their strategy is  simple—but always violent—to  disrupt operations of larger American units and then to flee quickly.
            The sun is  much higher than when Company B started out and has likely  drawn the Fahrenheit up  to 90 and the humidity to a Delta average of 84 degrees.  Their captain has a report that " the enemy is in  the area " and keeps the patrol moving aggressively through the dense jungle of palm trees and impenetrable walls of  bush-thickets.  If anything diminishes the men's mission focus,  it is the sudden , occasional monkey  screeches and exotic bird squawks.  Nearby are the Delta rice paddies and near them,   disease-ridden swamp waters with snakes, leeches, and malarial mosquitoes.   Here and there the Vietcong have placed a  skull and crossed bones on a sign  it to warn their own men of a booby trap. But Company B  has discovered that some of the signs  falsely indicate booby traps and purposely exist to detour  this American patrol  closer  towards harm's way .  But after ten months of combat in this delta,   Capt. Mukoyama's men  are   hardened to the environment  and know how to cope with any threat.   
          Capt. Mukoyama would later recall  that the constant  pumping of his adrenaline  left little room  for fear or doubts about the value of this patrol's mission.  Freedom is not free, he would tell himself.  Yet ,  as the men now neared the likelihood of a firefight,  some of  them,  no doubt,  experienced , if  for a split second ,  a  vivid  flashback of a past  firefight. For their captain,  it was the memory of   that  ground-concealed   hand grenade booby trap  that exploded, mortally wounding one of  his men and piercing Capt. Mukoyama's arm with  shrapnel . And there was that tripped booby trap which wounded six of his  men , killing one of them ,  the only fatality suffered by his company in Vietnam.   
      Suddenly, one of  the platoon point men  shouts " Enemy !"   No more than 50 yards ahead is an encampment of  maybe 25 Vietcong guerrillas  caught by surprise.  Both   sides began firing at the same time; for several seconds no human voices are heard.  Capt. Mukoyama instinctively acts: He keeps his men advancing while he stays in contact with his platoon leaders and makes sure  all three platoons are engaged in the fight. The fight moves with the rapid precision of a professional football team . It is permanently etched  in the captain's mind . 
         (In 2015 , this captain will edit the publication , "They Don't Receive  Purple Hearts" ,  ©2015 Military Outreach USA . In the  publication , he and Joseph Palmer, another veteran and  the manual's author,  share their first-hand knowledge about a soldier's moral injury and the knowledge they gleaned from  79 experts and  other sources. )

                        The military culture, like any other culture, has its own sets of
                        rules and codes. What makes the military  culture  different ,
                        however,  is that it teaches, trains, encourages, and rewards
                        the killing of other human beings….Service members, of any
                        military, are conditioned to act without considering the moral
                        repercussions of their action; they are enabled to kill without
                        making a conscious decision to do so. In and of  itself, such
                        training is appropriate and morally permissible. ..( from "They
                        Don't Receive Purple Hearts " )

     The men of Company B keep firing and advancing until they are  about 20 yards away from the guerrillas , who soon retreat.  The firefight lasts 10, maybe 15 minutes at most.  There are no American casualties—this time. Three dead, bloodied Vietcong bodies lie at  the feet of Capt. Mukoyama . He would later admit that he stood over them for a moment or two without any compassion, seeing them as lifeless animals . 
  
                       ( more from "They Don't Receive Purple Hearts ) Conscience
                       can be overridden or suppressed by circumstance or emotional
                      condition. …."The rush of battle " may cause conscience to be  
                     " blanked out". It may be only after the battle is over that one's
                     conscience will play on the mind and begin to cause guilt or
                     shame.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
          The young captain  quickly shouts orders to his platoon leaders: " Reorganize your units! Take care of any  wounded ! Redistribute ammunition! " Then ,  aware that in the wake of a combat  victory  is when soldiers are most at risk of a counter-attack, he  leads his troops away...      
In Vietnam, Captain Mukoyama is awarded the Bronze Star by
a general 

          Decades later , Capt. Mukoyama recalls  this scene during our interview, especially what happened immediately after his evacuation orders to his men… " I'm  saying  all this stuff, and then I stop and look at those three bodies at my feet and realize that something had happened to me. Something had hardened my heart, where only moments earlier these were live   human beings , children of God ; they had families, they had loved ones, they had emotions, and  yet I was treating them like they were bumps on a log. Then I remembered Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, where He told us to pray for our enemies. So in the middle of  all this stuff going on,  I just said a  silent prayer  for the three Vietcong and their families—and for myself. I  didn't make a big ceremony out of this. I didn't get on my knees. All of this  maybe lasted  45 seconds,but it remained me with me for the rest of my life. " 
            That  captain today at age 71 will   joyfully  tell you that in that  prayerful moment  he avoided being wounded morally. He would also say it was a grace that shaped  the rest of his life….


For that "rest' of his life", read on …
The General's March from Cub Scout to 2-Star General, 1953-1995


Some of the 200 veterans whom Gen Mukoyama
addressed on Veterans Day in 2015 in Arlington Heights, IL.

          

       Forty-six years later,  this captain is  a highly decorated, 71-year-old retired major general now  standing before  an estimated 200 veterans in a church auditorium with new "marching" orders. He is there to tell them , among other encouraging things,  how he himself  avoided a moral wound and how they and/or  their veteran buddies can heal their these wounds.
          The occasion is the Annual Arlington Heights ( IL ) Veterans Breakfast , and General Jim Mukoyama is now  president and chief executive officer of Military Outreach USA  (www.militaryoutreachusa.org ) , a national, faith-based nonprofit ministry he recently founded to help veterans and their families recover from moral injuries.   On his Army dress jacket are more than  20 military decorations  and badges, including the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Purple Heart, and four  decorations from the Republic of Vietnam.  When  asked for a description of the events which earned him these honors, the general replied modestly, "  Let me just say that I was in the  wrong place at the right time  and had great non-commissioned  officers who made me look good. "
          To his audience, he makes no mention of having been  a victim of Agent Orange  (the deadly defoliation  spray used against the Vietcong  ) , which eventually led to his  heart attack,  a  kidney transplant, and  his current 80 per cent veteran disability. Nor will the veterans  here learn about his  B.A. in English literature from the University of Illinois or that his retirement resume includes so much activity with   financial services and charitably agencies , that  it begs the question  if  he ever slept.
      He also  participated for 15 years in the Military Ministry of CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) and as a volunteer instructor at the U.S. Navy Great Lakes Recruit Training Center.  
            One soon notices that this retired  soldier , however, does not fit the Hollywood movie  profile of  a combat general. Those who interacted with him earlier at breakfast saw a bespectacled ,  five-foot-four-inch man with smiling brown eyes  and  a  genuinely cheerful and  warm personality.  
            He takes his audience back to that Mekong Delta fire  fight  and sums it up with :   "The concept is that when you have a moral injury  in combat ,  you don't have time  to address it and think about it. So what do you do ? You suppress it, and it becomes unresolved grief.  Often it does not bubble up until these veterans are  55 or retired,  and then [ for the moral wound to heal],  they must have coping skills such  as performing a service for others,  church involvement,  or confession ."
           He emphasizes  the importance  of the morally wounded veteran (or anyone wounded morally)  to rebuilding   a sense of worthiness , of  self-worth. The absence of this , Jim Mukoyama  cautions, has proven to be a factor in suicide among veterans and also  among men, women , and children  who have  "no moral compass " or have discarded it and now have given up hope.   
Helping  Homeless ' Move In '

              During one month early in 2016,  Military  Outreach USA helped more than  2,000 homeless  veterans move into decent living quarters by providing  them with full-size beds with linens  and  items  such as cleaning materials, utensils, toilet paper, and towels.  It prompted  the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, to have  signed a Memorandum of Agreement in January , 2016 that recognized Military Outreach USA as a contact for all VA centers nation-wide.
   General Mukoyama has  formally stated: " As a Christian organization, we integrate scriptures and religious references, but as we are ecumenical and  serving anyone who has worn the uniform of the Armed Forces of our nation and their family members, we do not force our religious beliefs on others or have a religious criteria for our services.  Our goal is to demonstrate God’s love through our words, actions, and serving. "

How the General's 'Moral Compass' Was Formed
     The  "moral compass" which Gen. Mukoyama believes defines one's  life ,  likely defined 
him while growing up in a lower-middle class family in Chicago's  Logan Square
Fr. Foley, a former Army Chaplain, and  the general . Both belong
to  Military Outreach USA,  which  Gen. Mukoyama founded
neighborhood. Then, with nostalgia ,  he describes how he  led the  life  depicted  in the still-celebrated paintings  of Americana  by Norman Rockwell . "Every Sunday we'd put on our best Sunday clothes and walk—as a family—to church  . I was baptized  and confirmed and sang in the choir. "  He was a Cub Scout and Boy Scout , had a newspaper route, attended Schurz High School , and played the saxophone and clarinet at Polish weddings.  ( At a guest appearance in 2015  at Schurz, he admonished the students:  "Complete your  education and  compete in life. ")
            Born in Japan, his father immigrated here in 1918 and moved to Chicago  in the early 1930's ; his mother , of Japanese descent, was born in Madison, Wisconsin. In Chicago, the senior Mukoyama  opened a retail gift store , which  after 30 years  became  unprofitable due to the nearby  large  chain-owned  stores that had sprung up. "My father could have easily declared bankruptcy  but he didn't for the  sake of family honor and his integrity, " the general says.  His father belonged to the   local chamber of commerce and to a  committee to help settle  Japanese Americans who had been interned  on the West Coast during the World War II and had come to Chicago  "with nothing" .  All of this, he  says, " Is a lesson  I'll never forget. " Both his parents  and grandparents remained married for 55 years.            
     After that, he rose fast  through the ranks and, in 1986 ,  became  the then  youngest   general in the Army;  and two years later, he was  the first Asian-American in  United States history to command an Army division.   When asked later in life  what his biggest challenge had been , Jim Mukoyama said,   " I really don't think there's been a lot of challenges. I've always felt that if I worked hard and studied hard enough, I'd be successful in life. "  

At Last, His 'Greatest Commission '

And we know that God causes all things  to work
together for good to those who love God, to those
            who are called according to His purpose…
             (Romans 8:28, and what the general believes ) 

      With uncharacteristic emotion ,  Jim refers his  founding of Military Outreach USA as  "my greatest commission. "  He describes its  unique effectiveness this way:  " The main prescription for moral wounds is not a doctor or medical drugs but forgiveness from a loving God, Christian counselors , and the fellowship of a spiritual  community .   Big government is not the answer; it's the local community.  The good news is that there's a church in every local community.  We provided  a lot of help,  it's free of charge ! " 
        After a year of Jim Mukoyama's leadership,  the military  outreach  is active in 80 churches, and today  more than 400 churches in 40 states have  signed on to its national network. Civic organizations such as Lions Clubs have also joined .    The goal of Military  Outreach USA and its cadre of volunteer workers is to enlist  20,000 thousand  churches who reach out to veterans and their families with near-comprehensive help that includes help for  homeless veterans.   "When I was in Vietnam my church members were  sending me packages and praying for me….  A lot  of Vietnam vets who came back were spit on and called  'baby killers. '  My church  welcomed me with open arms . "
         Reflecting back on his entire life,  Jim says, "All these things God has woven together.  I came to Christ when I was nine years old at the Moody Bible summer day camp. I still have the  Bible cover from that camp. As a teenager I wanted to become a minister.  But I also loved the military.  I finally said to God, ' I guess you don't want me to do the ministry thing, so I'll just move on with the military thing. ' "   

His Constant  Battle Cry through  the Years: 'Cling to Your Faith '
          We sat down and continued talking. When asked if the military code of behavior had  ever  hampered  the religious  callings he had  had since youth, Jim exclaimed, "Not at all!  I remained active in church. "  He said he encouraged his soldiers to stay fit  physically,  professionally, attitudinally ( i.e., positive thinking ) , and spiritually.
         " As I  went higher in rank, I was able to talk more to the troops about my spirituality, but without proselytizing  anyone. I only mentioned the name of Jesus if I was personally asked about my own faith.  When I did, one or more soldiers would later tell me ,  'We're happy you said  that . ' "

Minutes Before Heart Surgery: ' Every Day Is a Great Day'
     What makes him happy ?  " When I see God being glorified, like in nature such as a sunrise, a baby being born ,  seeing people serving others.  A dozen times a day I say, Every day is a great day!" He recalled  how he said this even when his wife was driving him to the hospital after his  heart attack four years ago.   "When I had that heart attack and was being wheeled into  the operating room, I asked myself,  'Can you say today is a great day?'  My answer was an unequivocal  'Yes, I can.'   I had been given  40-plus  years of borrowed time since Vietnam, when many of my comrades died,  and today  I have a wonderful wife and children , live in the finest country in the world and , most importantly,  a relationship with my God through my faith.  "  Those words remain his life's  mantra .
            Just before his   surgery  and after the doctor had  asked  Jim some routine   questions , Jim repeated what he had told himself minutes ago. It prompted the surprised physician   to ask Jim , " What is  your faith ? " 
            Jim   expressed it this way: " Since you asked… I am a Christian,  Christ is my savior , you are a skilled physician, your nurses here are skilled.  But God's in charge, and whatever He decides I'm okay with it. So, let's get on  with it.  " 

Hanging Old Glory outside his Glenview, Illinois home


Note: following this interview, Jim Mukoyama
was also interviewed in March , 2016 on
Faith Marketplace radio,


THE END


© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz