I was able to articulate what it means to be a medical group chaplain at war when I participated in a SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreat in October 2021. Six amazing veterans and three superstar songwriters gathered for the weekend and crafted eight songs about our military experiences.
As an Iraq War veteran and the son of a World War II Navy hero, I find Memorial Day to be profoundly sacred and somber. My favorite Scripture relating to military service is: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13). This selfless devotion is one virtue that every person who serves in the military has in common. Since Memorial Day was established in 1868, we have cherished the memory and the sacrifice of the fallen.
When I was deployed to Iraq in 2004, I was inspired by the great reverence we showed our courageous sisters and brothers who were killed in action. Typically, their bodies would arrive at Balad Air Base near midnight on the way home. There would be hundreds of troops gathered to receive and honor the fallen during these "Patriot Missions." A chaplain was always present to render honors, offer prayers, and provide comfort.
For my first Patriot Mission, I was told the name of the fallen soldier and how he was killed. There was no other information available about him, so I planned to pray Psalm 23 during the service. Every chaplain serves every person regardless of her or his religious beliefs. On the way to the flight line, the sergeant said to me, "Chaplain, we just learned that the soldier is Catholic." I was honored and moved to offer the Catholic Rite for the Reception of the Body during the ceremony on the plane.
Balad Air Base was the major medical staging area for our troops. We would triage the injured as they arrived by helicopter or ground transport to the medical tent. The large tent, known as the CASF (Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility), had every possible space taken by medical cots, literally lining the hallways due to the large number of casualties. We would send troops who could survive the trip on a medevac airlift to Germany for care. We would send troops with manageable injuries to a hospital tent nearby. Troops who urgently needed life saving measures would receive an operation on the spot.
I was able to articulate what it means to be a medical group chaplain at war when I participated in a SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreat in October 2021. Six amazing veterans and three superstar songwriters gathered for the weekend and crafted eight songs about our military experiences. It was a time of great solidarity and creativity. I was co-writer of three of the songs. It was an honor to be paired with Jay Clementi for a two-hour writing session that resulted in our song, "Born to Bless the Fallen." Jay is the musical director for SongwritingWith:Soldiers and has written songs for such legendary artists as Martina McBride, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, and Darius Rucker.
Here are the lyrics to "Born to Bless the Fallen," written with Jay Clementi:
I'm the loving reminder of the holy
Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines all come to me
I'm the promise we'll leave no one behind
I'm there when the flicker of life leaves their eyes
Chorus: I'm the last face they see before the face of God
I give them peace and comfort as they're moving on
Their souls are set free from the burden and the pain
I send them off to heaven but the hurt remains
I'm at the mercy of my calling
I'm born to bless the fallen
I pray over them with the words written in red
There's a two-thousand-dollar bounty on my head
Nobody sees them when they look at me
My wounds are always here, they're just too deep to see
They showed no greater love, fought to the end
I'd do it all a thousand times again, be there for them
With Russia's assault ravaging Ukraine, we are once again reminded of the horrors of war and of those who bear its burden. As we honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for our country this Memorial Day, please pray as well for their families, for their military colleagues, and for all who loved and cared for them in life and in service. On Memorial Day, it is our special privilege and sacred duty to bless the fallen.
FATHER RICHARD M. ERIKSON IS A PRIEST OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON AND A RETIRED AIR FORCE BRIGADIER GENERAL AND CHAPLAIN. "BORN TO BLESS THE FALLEN" IS AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE AND SPOTIFY.