A Meditation on Life and Loss

By Lola M. Wells
A reflection for Memorial Day 2006

Psalm 34

I will bless Yahweh at all times,
praise continually on my lips,
I will praise Yahweh from my heart;
let the humble hear and rejoice.

Proclaim with me the greatness of Yahweh,
let us acclaim Yahweh's name together.
I seek Yahweh and Yahweh answers me,
frees me from all my fears.

Fix your gaze on Yahweh and your face will grow bright,
you will never hang your head in shame.
Paupers call out and Yahweh hears,
saves them from all their troubles.

The angel of Yahweh encamps
around those who fear him, and rescues them.
Taste and see that Yahweh is good.
How blessed are those who take refuge in Yahweh.

Fear Yahweh, you holy ones,
those who fear Yahweh lack for nothing.
Young lions may go needy and hungry,
but those who seek Yahweh lack nothing good.

Come, my children, listen to me,
I will teach you the fear of Yahweh.
Who among you delights in life,
longs for time to enjoy prosperity?

Guard your tongue from evil,
your lips from any breath of deceit.
Turn away from evil and do good,
seek peace and pursue it.

The eyes of Yahweh are on the upright,
Yahweh's ear turned to their cry.
But Yahweh's face is set against those who do evil,
to cut off the memory of them from the earth,

They cry in anguish and Yahweh hears'
and rescues them from all their troubles.
Yahweh is near to the brokenhearted.
Yahweh helps those whose spirit is crushed.

Though hardships without number beset the upright,
Yahweh brings rescue from them all.
Yahweh takes care of all their bones,
not one of them will be broken.

But to the wicked evil brings death,
those who hate the upright will pay the penalty.
Yahweh ransom the lives of those who serve,
and there will be no penalty for those who take refuge in Yahweh.
New Jerusalem Bible

I have been graced to know many, many veterans. They have tickled my wit, challenged my intellect and deeply saddened my heart. My heart and soul are more fragile and humble as a result of our shared journeys. I abhor war and believe it is absolutely immoral. I do not, however, direct my moral outrage at the men and women the nations send to fight the wars. There are a myriad reasons why individuals go to war. Some genuinely believe the cause is just, some are drafted, and a few go because everyone on the block has already gone. There are others who are in trouble and believe the military life can straighten them out; just as there are those who are drawn by the promise of education and financial bonuses. The veteran population reflects the general population. There are a number of disappointed and/or angry veterans. Their disappointment and anger is mostly directed at a nation that either has forgotten them and their war, did not welcome them home or is taking back benefits promised.

There are some veterans who brag about their "kill." Some of these individuals talk about the enemy with disparaging nicknames such as "gooks," "chinks" or "ragheads." For these men the enemy does not have a human face. A few veterans have done this in order to cope with what they did in combat. If the enemy is evil and nameless then what I did is not as horrible as what I think it is, and I can continue to live. Truth is that there are also a few mean-spirited veterans who were probably bullies as kids, were bullies in combat, and now brag about their deeds like any neighborhood tormentor.

Psalm 34 is the scripture passage that speaks most clearly to me about Yahweh and veterans. Yahweh does not call for wars, nor does Yahweh take sides in combat. Every human life is precious to Yahweh who waits for our gaze to turn toward him. Yahweh does, however, favor those who turn from evil to do good, who seek peace and pursue it. I do not know a veteran who went to war in order to have more war. They went in the cause of peace. They thought they knew the face of evil and were intent on destroying it.

As we celebrate this Memorial Day I invite you to spend a few minutes with a few veterans I know. Except for "Would you believe I am a hero" each anecdote tells of loss and of dark memories that have been carried for years.

Please note that nothing here is a direct quote even those I use quotation marks for the purpose of more easily telling stories. All is from memory.


I served in the South Pacific. I was there in '42 when we surrendered the islands to Japan. You know about the Baatan Death March; I wasn't part of that. About 300 of us were captured. The plan was to send us to the POW camps in Japan on what we called the Hell Ships. There wasn't room for all 300 of us. So they counted us off -"you go this way, you go that way" until we had two groups. It was like picking sides for a giant baseball team.

The Americans had been building a landing strip so there was this piece of land with trenches all around it. They made the guys in the other group crawl down into those trenches. Then they poured gasoline on them and set them on fire. Any poor bastards who tried to climb out [pause/tears] they shot them. Sometimes I can still hear their cries.

Do you understand the sheer arbitrariness of my coming home, having a family, and living into my eighties? In 1942, there wasn't time to meditate on the fragility of life. Those of us who did not die that day were determined to live and tell our buddies' story. Many of us survived the Hell Ship and the POW Camp to come home. Not many of us are living now; just a few of us. But last year I went to the Reunion. My sons took me because I couldn't get there myself. Those men are buried in a mass grave. Those who did not die that day have gone to their gravesite to honor them every year or every other year. We had to do this. Promise me that when you have a chance to tell their story you will. I don't know if I will ever get to go there again. Please tell their story. They must not be forgotten.

At the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis Missouri there is a mass grave that holds the remains of 139 of the 147 POW's burned to death or shot that day in 1942.


Tim was in the Corps of Engineers in France. "I don't know how there could be any trees left standing in France. They blew our bridges; we blew our bridges. Sometimes we would rebuild the same bridge twice in the same day!" By the time we met, Tim was gently demented, and he would say to the group, all younger than he was, have I told you this before. Even when we had head the same story two or three times, none of us seemed to mind hearing it again.

One night Tim told us about coming home on the troop ships sailing up the Hudson River. "There were factories all along the river, but when we came by everything was silent. The workers would be at the windows or on the lawns watching us go by. The only sound I heard was the sound of the men sobbing around me." Tim then turned to the Vietnam veterans in the group and said, "I'm sorry you did not get the welcome home I did. You should have. Please, would you let me say to you now, Welcome Home." The Vietnam veterans, with mist-filled eyes, were pleased to accept his welcome home.

The last night in group Tim said to me, "Lola, would you believe that I am a hero? Well, I am. The Unit I was with liberated a concentration camp. I was at the back so I really didn't do much. I had three rolls of film for my camera so I took pictures. There were bodies all over. You couldn't tell the living from the dead unless you went up to them. Many of them were barely breathing. Our military docs, nurses and medics, well, it's amazing how many people they saved.

When they opened the Holocaust Museum in Squirrel Hill, I gave them some of my pictures. When they opened the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, well, they have some of my pictures, too. When they had the official opening, they invited me to come, and there in the lobby, along with the pictures of lots of dignitaries and important people is my picture. And Lola, there underneath my picture it says hero.


When W.W. II ended no one wanted another war but those politicians in Washington. The nation has forgotten us. No, really. In the national thinking, there was W.W. II and then Vietnam. Don't you think that someone would remember that almost 40,000 of us were killed there?

We were the war where nothing was won, nothing was lost. It's about the same now as when we went there.

It wasn't until 1995 that they remembered to build us a monument.


Story 1. There is a woman across from me in a tree with a gun aimed at me. It is my life or hers. I aim and shoot. She falls from the tree dead. I have this dream every night. It is wrong to kill a woman. Maybe I should have let her kill me.

Story 2. You know the boats that Senator Kerry was on? That was my boat, too. I was there after him. We guys in the Navy had it good compared to the Marines and Army. I did get shot at a lot. I was in some tight spots, but I got home okay. A couple years ago I was diagnosed with diabetes. No one in my family, no one, has ever had diabetes. They told me it was because of Agent Orange. That's one of the troubles with Vietnam. You can get wounded years after you come home. I got off easy. What about all the guys who died from the cancers caused by Agent Orange?

Story 3. I wasn't supposed to live. I couldn't sit or stand I was banged up so bad. When they got me to Philly they took me to the hospital on a bus. Inside the bus there were 12 of us on stretchers, stacked 3 high. The outside of the bus was painted white with a red cross. Anyone would have known it was a hospital bus. We were in some part of the city. I don't know where because we couldn't see out. A crowd gathered, and they started yelling stuff at us. You know, like baby killers and stuff like that. Then they started to push against the bus. It started to sway. I thought it was going to tip over. I was terrified they were gonna kill me. My God, this happened in Philadelphia!

It was pretty rough in that hospital. I got off pretty good. My mother and girlfriend came to see me, and it was okay. This one guy was such a mess, hit in the face. His girlfriend came, looked at him from a distance and left. Shit! She didn't even have the guts to walk up to him and say hello. That was really awful. She wasn't the one that was hurt! That happened to a lot of guys.

IRAQ - 2 short stories…

Story 1. She was a schoolteacher. After 9/11 she thought it was her duty to join the military. It was never what she expected it to be. There just wasn't the camaraderie one sees in the movies. She was told again and again that she wasn't tough enough. Her supply unit was sent to Iraq. "We're the ones you see on TV moving stuff all over the place over there. We're the ones who get blown up all the time. I was scared pretty much shitless the entire time I was over there." After she came home she was raped - another victim of military sexual trauma.

Story 2. He was explaining how the army had failed him in his training, and that distant look came across his face, the look that tells you only part of him was in the room with you. Part of him was in Iraq revisiting the terror of the event. "Now believe me, they gave me excellent training on how to kill and how to protect myself, but they didn't train me for this. We had just gotten there, not even assigned where we would be bunked down, and the bombs started. You could hear then coming up the road toward us, one hit, another hit, coming ever closer. There was pandemonium. I was frozen in place watching. My commanding officers panicked. People were running every which way. I remember thinking that the Army had not trained me for this. As excellent as my training had been, no one had prepared me for bombs being dropped on me. "

I have not passed on to you the more brutal memories that have been shared with me. Partly because this is not the medium for such revelations, but mostly because deep humility, pain and self-revelation was involved in letting another human glimpse the suffering of war. It is sacred territory and will remain so for me, The stories I have told are individual yet somewhat generic except for the two W.W. II vets. I know who told me these stories. Perhaps you know someone who shared a similar story with you.

We pray together for these veterans, for all their buddies living and dead, and for all soldiers and veterans:

we praise you at all times,
your praise is continually on our lips,
we praise you from our hearts.
Hear now, YHWH, and answer us
as we pray for veterans, living and dead-
-may they never be in combat
-may they return to family and friends hale and hearty
-may they live in nations where justice and peace is the prime value
-may those who have died in combat experience the ransoming love of Yahweh
-may those who mourn their loss know that Yahweh is near to the brokenhearted
-may the nation/people they served never forget them no matter how unpopular the conflict
-may those who find war morally evil remember that in the US the warrior is most often the kid next door.