Author: vetchapel


The scenes in Kabul will be horrific as the Taliban force a suffering nation into the pit of despotism. There will be scenes that will shake us to our foundation. Brutality and butchery will fill the news. I urge all veterans of that war and families who have sacrificed loved ones to refrain from watching the unfolding debacle.

There will be a sense of futility, just as we experienced almost half a century ago, when Saigon fell and we tasted the bitterness of defeat after years of conflict. Our questions then will be asked again, “Was it worth it?”, “Why did our leaders let us down?”, “Were the lives lost in vain?” These are challenges that are always raised after a war ends, and the answers never come easily and quickly.

It is the tendency of some to surrender to cynicism in trying times like these. To lose faith in our government, our military, our national identity, and many of the other pillars we’ve come to trust through our lives and during the entire panorama of American history. Please don’t allow this to happen. The cynic is the one who has lost all hope and sees only a nihilistic future of despair.

As a disabled veteran of the Vietnam War, please let me offer some counsel to those who are most deeply affected by the events unfolding today. I had to struggle with the demons of futility, betrayal, loss, shame, and grief for years following my tour of duty. Five of my Marines didn’t make it home. I had to write letters of condolence to grieving mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. I tried to encourage them with my message that their Marine didn’t waste his life. He served honorably for a cause that our leaders believed was worth the cost: to bring freedom and hope to a sovereign country threatened by the scourge of Communism. But when I saw the helicopters evacuating our embassy that dreadful day in 1975, my heart sank. I wondered aloud if I’d been lying to those families. Maybe you’re having similar emotions.

Veterans, you will eventually need to process all of this and fit it into the narrative of your life. What seems senseless now may one day become an integral part of your journey. Give it time. Give it thought. Keep your mind clear; avoid numbing yourself with drugs and alcohol or other addictions and distractions. I wish I had done this forty years ago.

There is help available whenever you want to talk. I encourage you to connect with the VA; they are prepared to assist with the issues you’re facing. There are other veterans groups that are open to listening to your stories and your emotions; we will not understand everything, but you’ll soon learn that we have much in common with you.

Remember that you answered the call to duty. You could have said no. You are among our finest, and you follow in the footsteps of Americans who carved this nation out of the wilderness and fought to defend her. Americans have always borne arms in defense of freedom. We have always fought for one another. And we have fought because we considered it to be our sacred duty to protect our nation from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Remember that wars are frequently lost when our leaders lose their resolve. They forget our heritage of courage and perseverance. They cave to public pressure and abdicate their responsibilities. Sadly, this is the case regardless of the political party in power. But please don’t give up on our way of governance; it is imperfect because every human being is flawed. Our democratic republic is still the envy of most of the world. There is no where else we would want to live.

I encourage you, when you are ready, to find what many of us call a “survivor mission.” A reason to go on, to gather the lessons you’ve learned and apply them to helping America to heal and rebuild. As you know, our homeland needs “warriors for peace” to offer our scars and war wisdom in constructing a bridge between our warring factions.

Hold your head high. You did your best. I pray there will one day be a stately memorial in Washington, DC, to honor your service and sacrifice. We salute you.

And we need you.


I should know better by now. It’s too easy to put people into categories without knowing much about them. I’ve done it too often in my life. I did it again just the other day.

I met the veteran in a coffee shop to get better acquainted. We had been introduced to each other in a Bible study a few weeks earlier. When the topic that day unfortunately turned to politics, he proudly announced, “I am a conservative.” Most in the group would likely self-identify in the same way.

When I met with Mike, I had already pigeonholed him. After all, I’ve been with conservatives all my life. And until the definition recently changed, I was glad to be labeled as such. Our conversation began with religion and the concerns that most Americans face these days: racial strife, gun violence, ineffective government, and threats to our freedom at home and abroad. We then turned to issues that so often divide even those who follow Christ, abortion being at the top of the list.

Today’s conservatives seem to me to be inconsistent with their pro-life stance. They are adamantly opposed to abortion except in extreme cases, but they’re against gun control and are the first to rally for war when threat is perceived. Almost all of them support capital punishment.

When Mike and I began discussing the death penalty, I was certain of where he stood. But I was wrong. His words stunned me, and I’ll remember them for a long time. In a shaking voice, this man who had served his country as both a soldier and a law enforcement officer, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Russ, I’m against capital punishment. If I’m not willing to be the one to flip the switch or inject the poison or fire the fatal shot, then it would be wrong for me to ask someone else, including the government, to do it for me.”

And I learned yet another lesson on judging others before I know them.


As I approach a milestone birthday, I’m flooded with memories. One that comes to mind this morning is a time when my father and I were at a farm on County Line Road. We were getting milk from a distant relative; he generously provided it when we couldn’t afford to buy it.

His name was Louis. He was a veteran of World War II, as was Dad. They were both suffering the aftermath of battle and the stresses of seeing and doing horrific things. Both men were patriots in the best sense of the word.

I was there one evening when Dad and Louis were reminiscing. What I heard my military father say lingers with me still. He asked his friend, “Louis, did you kill any Germans.” The response was “Yes.” And Dad then said, “That’s too bad. Germans are good people.”

And a sacred silence filled the room as we all pondered the depth and the breadth of those few words. They bless and haunt me to this very day.

Memento Mori

Whenever I post anything related to death, I know it won’t get a lot of “likes.” Most of us want to avoid the topic. It’s too painful. Frightening. Even when we claim to hold a strong faith, we’d still rather ignore the truth that we are all destined to die. I suppose that’s one reason that the strongest of Christians would rather skip Good Friday and move right to the Easter lilies.

I don’t know why I was introduced to life’s termination so early. A second-grade friend of mine died, and I remember Mom and Dad walking to her house to offer their condolences. And I vividly recall the day my first dog, Lassie, was struck by a car on West Church Street. A man never forgets his first pet. And he still sheds an uninvited tear from time to time.

I was raised in a household where “Remember Pearl Harbor” was spoken occasionally, and I read the faded newspaper accounts and sorted through the grim and grainy photos of that hellish day, when body parts filled the waters of Oahu. Two of my brothers were named after World War II generals, and from the beginning I somehow knew I would stare death in the face when I became a man. My prayer was that I would be able to “outstare the darkness” and become a man among men.

In high school and beyond there were many reminders. The “Weekly Reader” began including articles about a place called Vietnam, where our nation was sending military advisors to stop the spread of global communism. It seemed so far away, but when the photos of the bodies started appearing in the evening news, I felt as though I could reach out and touch them. Just the way I was allowed to touch the hand of a great-grandfather as he lay in his casket. Death and I were no strangers to each other.

On December 11, 1960, the snow was falling in Corry, Pennsylvania. It always fell deep in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I was asleep in my upstairs bedroom when I was awakened by sirens and noises of commotion just down the hill, on the railroad tracks that ran through our town. A sense of darkness fell over me, much darker than the night itself. It felt like the end of life, maybe the end of the world for someone. The following day we all learned that two young men had died that night when their car was struck by a passenger train. Corry Area High School would never be the same after Terry and Mike perished, at least not for me.

And then came the death of President Kennedy, the hero who was leading us to a New Frontier…and to the Moon and back. I was sitting in French class during my senior year when the voice of our principal, Mr. Peck, came over the intercom to inform us of the tragedy in Dallas. Death had won again and had reminded us that our dreams can be shattered in the blink of an eye. Or the flash from a rifle.

In many ways, my service in Vietnam was in the natural flow of my voyage with death. I was never afraid of enemy snipers and mortar fire. I was careful, and I tried to instill this caution in the Marines I was leading. But I knew a Savior who had died for me and had risen from the dead, and I believed Him when He promised a place for me on the far side of the river.

More would come, of course. I’ve officiated many funerals, I’ve sat with families as a loved one slipped away. I’ve been on the scene after horrific accidents. I’ve felt the heartbreak when a friend has left a void that can’t be filled by anyone else. And there are times when the Grim Reaper seems to have the last word.

But then I remember that his conclusion is only the next-to-the-last. For the God who created life will one day reclaim all of life, especially those of men and women who were crafted in the divine image. So we can live with the awareness that our final ending will not be final at all. In the meantime, we can live each day to its fullest and drink the cup of joy gladly. We can pray to make each day an investment in eternity, and we can live deeply.

“Those who refuse to face death live shallow.”