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RGOD2: My Family War Story

Extracted from my Memorial Day tribute at St Peter’s Lithgow NY

On my bedside table, I placed several faded photographs of my grandparents, taken almost a century ago. Photographs were rare and expensive back then. They were also often extremely formal.

One is of my paternal grandparents where my grandfather is wearing the uniform of a member of the British Army, a Cavalry Regiment, with his wife Sara Anne, dressed in her Sunday best, looking out from the beginning of the 20th century now into the 21st century.

Another framed photo is of my mother’s parents with their first son, Jimmy, who died (before his 11th birthday) of a brain hemorrhage. Horrible loss. They went on to have 8 more children. My grandfather looks very dapper in his Royal Naval uniform and many of his sons would follow his military career to fight in the Second World War.

A daughter of theirs also became an Air Raid Warden.

Uncle Albert became a pilot and allegedly fought in the Battle of Britain. The sense of pride and identity is clearly present in both photos, and over the years, as I get older, I have a deeper understanding of what their military service meant to them as men, as husbands and fathers, as loyal British subjects, fighting for a cause they deeply believed in and trying to make the world a better place for those of us who spring from their hope. They look out at us from these old photographs at us like sentries from a bygone age.

Deeper Understanding

It was only much later that I realized that I knew so little about what it meant to be in military service and especially in both World Wars that they would have experienced as a families. I was too young to ever hear them talk about the war and only fragments of community memory and family stories would trickle through to my generation. There was something in the secrecy that also protected us from what they had to go through.

There was an aspect of not knowing that was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because we did not have to go through what they went through and the struggle for freedom and human dignity that was so much threatened by the totalitarianism they were fighting against. They wanted a different kind of world where men and women would not need to resort to oppression and violence towards one another.

They also wanted to prove to themselves that they were people of courage, of care and concern for the fellow human beings that they were loyal and productive citizens of their country and to protect their wives and children from violence from “the other”. The curse was in the violence as well as the amnesia. If we don’t fully understand the story and learn from it, chances are we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

“What did you do in the war, daddy?”

My paternal grandfather, Billy Ogle, drove ambulances in the First World War and it was only when I watched the film: “War Horse” that I had a deeper knowledge of what he might have actually lived through and witnessed as a para-medic.

The film graphically depicted the sheer horror and terror of the mustard gassing, the mud, the trenches and barbed wire. The carnage of hundreds of thousands of men blowing themselves to pieces on the battle fields of Flanders and at the Somme in Northern France is difficult for us to comprehend. He would have picked up the pieces of those who survived all of this horror, bringing them to makeshift hospitals, including some his friends and his own family.

His brother, Robert also fought and I remember a family keepsake in a pocket-sized German New Testament that he brought home from the battlefields and I wondered what story it held? Who did it belong to? There was so much simply missing from their own painful stories….but this little holy book was a kind of memorial –a kind of personal recognition that he was really there and was spared.

They were also all so young. Perhaps someone gave it to him? Perhaps it was taken from the body of some young German soldier who did not survive the war? Fragments of stories never told…we will never know.

Wanderlust

My maternal grandfather loved the sea and travelling. The family myth affirms that the teenage Jimmy lied about his age so he could enlist in the Navy. One of his first tasks, we learned much later, was to be part of the salvage teams that went out to pick up the bodies and remains from the sinking off the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland.

He would have been in his teens and when he returned to Belfast, he worked for many years in the very shipyard where the ill-fated liner was built. He became an avid atheist because of his traumatic experience. How could a God allow such tragedy? I am not sure how he would feel about his grandson being a preacher! Nevertheless, the effects of war and trauma upon both sides of my family were not obvious as I was growing up as we could only catch fragments through second and third-hand accounts.

Clearly, war, violence and trauma, while struggling to make sense of a world gone mad, had a profound effect upon them and their children. War is not only about brave men and women who leave home to fight and end up doing terrible things or witnessing terrible things, but it is also about the effects the war and the unknown upon wives and families –like the villages and cities disrupted from normalcy to trauma.

When it is over, years later, there is still the ghostly fallout for subsequent generations who live with both the memories and the questions. I have no patience for those who peddle the glories of war and trivialize what ordinary working people had to suffer through, often without recognition. The superficial patriotism and glorification of war remains a deep problem for us, even today.

Different forms of violence

My parents were born in 1933 so were too young to be enlisted in the Second World War, but as seven year olds, they recounted to me how they witnessed the Arial bombing of their neighborhood by enemy planes, intent on destroying Belfast shipyards.

Our parish church was hit by an incendiary bomb and my aunt was one of the local civil defense team who helped to save the building. My parents, like thousands of British kids, were evacuated into the rural areas around industrial cities like Belfast and my grandmother and her sisters had a whole slew of children to care for with no men around to help.

They made a makeshift home in in a barn for years until it was safe for women and children to come back to the city. My grandfather would have worked as civilian in the shipyards building ships to protect the transatlantic corridor that became a lifeline to finally ending the war. What a life they all had!

War in my lifetime

Fast forward to 1969 when Northern Ireland erupted in sectarian violence. Restaurants filled with women and children after a busy morning’s shopping would be simply blown up and for most of my teenage years, all I knew was the fear of being caught in a car bombing or a tit-for-tat shooting in my hometown. Anyone could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. War is traumatic and tragic.

Nothing about these experiences for me or my family was easy or about glory. Over three generations, my family and millions of other families have had to deal with and to heal from the realities of local and global violence, fear, animosity and a way to find solutions so prevent this from happening again. Most of my ministry has been focused on reconciliation and how warring factions can make peace.

I began simply with bringing Protestant and Catholic kids together so they might get to know each other. There was the hope, as we commemorate Memorial Day this week in the US, that future generations would not have to go through this endless cycle of violence and the destruction of lives their generations went through.

For every flag decorating a veteran’s grave this week all over the US, there are stories like mine and untold stories like my grandparents and we sift through history, film, art, and family memories and secrets to understand what had to be sacrificed so we might be spared.

We will never know the cost and the implications all of this has had for our families and for our common life, just as we do not fully understand today what families who have loved ones fighting in other places in the world against totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism like ISIS, -of what they are sacrificing so others need not go through what they are going through.

A way to heal

In the cathedral in San Diego, there is a group of clergy and existing and former military who get together monthly to find a safe space to talk about the kinds of things that many of us have been spared from. Some of us don’t want even to know about. This support group has also used drama to communicate what is has been like for them and how difficult it is for them to return to society after serving their country.

Hundreds of thousands of young men and women and their families are living parallel lives to many of us. In the week celebrating Memorial Day as we remember those who have died in the service of their country and for the deep convictions of their beliefs, we need to do all we can to welcome them into our homes and communities, into our workplaces so they find meaningful employment, into our faith communities so they might find healing and peace, and to integrate them as fully as possible.

This also applies to their families, who share often in their sense of isolation and disconnection. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS) takes many forms. For my grandfather, it destroyed his faith. What I am describing is hard intergenerational work. When the madness of war is over, this is all we have. Fragments of people we once knew, and their wounded memories. To sentimentalize them or to ignore them and wish they would simply just go away is one of the great tragedies of our day. The Book of Revelation reflects:

“These are they who have come out of the great tribulation (translate the great ordeal) and have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb……and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes”.

Revelation’s words are often read in religious services on Memorial Day. This is both the promise of God and the commitment of the People of God namely to recognize those who remain largely invisible in our communities and we should not have to wait until they are dead to honor them in the way we do our departed ancestors today.

How do we say: “These are they who have come through the great ordeal and help to wipe away their tears?” I told my congregation this past Sunday, as we sat under a tent in our cemetery, that this is part of our duty as Christians and as Americans while ensuring future generations will be spared their suffering –their vicarious suffering. We hope it can make the world a better place.

RGOD2 looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view and is written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle, Vicar of St. Peter’s, Lithgow in Millbrook, New York. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of San Diego-based St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.