Uncertainty Is What Comes Next

There's much unknown in the life of a soldier

When I approached the Army ROTC offices in the basement of the West Duke Building in 2002, my sophomore year, I had one purpose in mind—finding a way to stay in college. 9-11 was a fresh memory, but the prospect of war seemed distant and unlikely. I wanted to secure my future, and a degree from Duke was a major part of my plan. I needed a scholarship, and the Army seemed like my best bet. None of my immediate family had served in the military, so I didn’t really have a clue what I was joining.

Seventeen years later, I counsel and minister to young soldiers who are in a similar boat. My soldiers come from diverse backgrounds. Some are deeply patriotic. Others are looking for a way to pay for college and join the ranks of professional America. No matter what motivates a person to serve, once in uniform, certain truths become apparent.

The first truth is deployment. Whether it is to a combat zone, to a disaster area, or to any other mission, deploying, often to harm’s way, is our purpose. Though many soldiers initially join to secure a better future for themselves, those plans are put on hold, at least for a while. Soldiers don’t get to choose where they will go, what their mission will be, or who will be working on their team. Instead, soldiers trust that the work they do safeguards the future for everyone.

As a chaplain, part of my job is to help them make sense of what they encounter—extreme poverty, injustice, oppression, and violence. While I was deployed in Afghanistan, I worked with service members in an outreach project called Operation Pencil. During our time off, we would organize school supplies and books sent by churches and other nonprofit organizations and deliver them to school-aged Afghan children. In the midst of war, these soldiers found ways to cultivate hope.

The second truth is about loss. Being in an Army at war has a high cost. I didn’t understand that when I joined. Watching Saving Private Ryan, or any other war movie, doesn’t prepare any of us for what might happen when we deploy. Certainly, soldiers miss out on a lot—families, anniversaries, the births of children, and more. Loss isn’t only about bodily death. It is also about losing who one was before war or who one thought he or she might become. After deployment, there is no going back. There is only figuring out what comes next, scars and all.

Despite loss, love—the final truth—is powerful. The love that binds soldiers gives them the strength they need to do what has to be done. Loving someone more than you love yourself has a way of dispelling fear, even fear of what might be lost.

This past Memorial Day, my Facebook page was flooded with pictures and memories posted by my soldiers, remembering those whose young lives were cut short, who never had a chance to see their future. Guilt for surviving is common among those who return home. The future is complicated for soldiers who carry the realities of deployment, loss, and love with them. Yet, part of the work of the living is to look toward the future with hope, energy, and determination. When we live well, and cherish every opportunity, we honor them.

O’Malley ’05, M.Div. ’08 is a chaplain in the U.S. Army. Her current assignment is at Arlington National Cemetery.

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