Last Friday was Veterans’ Day in the United States, which is a day off for those of us who work for Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i. I wasn’t relaxing on a beach, however (which isn’t where I relax in any case). I was presiding at a funeral.
The funeral of a veteran. A different kind of veteran.
On Veterans’ Day we honor those who serve the country and defend it from war, “who stand between their loved homes and the war’s desolation” (Francis Scott Key). And as Abraham Lincoln observed at Gettysburg, it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. Yet there are others who endure the impact of the world’s and the nation’s conflict, and receive no honors, no recognition, no holy day. Evelyn was one of these.
Evelyn was a native-born American citizen interned by the United States Government during World War II.
Between 110,000 and 120,000 people whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had been born in Japan, 62% of them U.S. citizens, were ordered from their homes in Pacific coastal states (though not Hawai’i, where it was simply impractical) and housed in camps from Louisiana to California. Evelyn, a college-age young woman, observed that disabled children received no schooling at the Tule Lake, California, camp where her family was sent. So she taught them.
Thinking about Evelyn led me to think about so many others who endure the stresses of war. Gold Star families endure terrible losses in each conflict. Parents, siblings, spouses, and children live each day with anxiety for those they love who go in harm’s way. Support people, some who wear the uniform and some who do not, labor to support those who return. Some they treat for wounds. Some they assuage the psyche. Some they help find housing, or to resume interrupted careers. Some they aid to understand the now-unfamiliar ways of civilian life.
There are other veterans, too. These are the people who live where the war occurs, where if somebody had stood between their homes and the war’s desolation, their efforts failed and desolation came. These are the ones we see bloodied in films and photographs from Syria. These are the ones who come weeping for their dead to shuttered government houses. These are the ones swimming desperately to shore from overcrowded boats, and mourning their drowned children who lie silently on the beach.
In many conflicts, more civilians die than soldiers. They die from bullets and grenades that come their way, they die from bombs and shells, and they die from malnutrition and disease. The catastrophe we call World War II claimed the lives of 21 to 25 million people in uniform. It slew 50 to 55 million civilians, including 19 to 28 million who died from contagion or hunger.
Today, I honor these civilian veterans: the refugees, the interned, the families, the supporters, and those who pray that the shooting and shelling around them will just stop.
Today I honor them, and for their sake, I pray that God’s children will learn the ways of peace, and make no new civilian veterans to endure the sorrows of war.