Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gold Star Religion

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’ ~~James 1:27

Have you ever noticed how life imitates Scripture? Or do I mean to say, have you ever noticed how when you hear – or read – something in the Bible, you are reminded of an example of it—either good or bad—in your own life?

Does that ever happen to you?

It happens to me all the time.

Usually, I am reminded of someone I love, or admire, who lives out the positive exhortation, the Gospel command. Most often, that ‘someone’ is my husband, the Godliest man I know.

Last night at Mass when we heard that lovely definition of pure and undefiled religion, I thought of my Bear the afternoon 21 years ago almost to the day when he came home to our little German apartment sweaty, dirty, and distraught beyond words, trying to communicate the horror he had just witnessed at the worst air show disaster ever.

He had done what he could for the injured, the dying, the terrified and their rescuers. It hadn’t been enough. It took him months before he could sleep again without nightmares—and he knew how blessed he was. We both did.

A little over a year ago, a B-52, Raider 21, went down just off Guam with all crew lost. The B-52 Stratofortress, the “Buff” – as it’s been affectionately nicknamed by those associated with it – has one of the safest flying records of all the airplanes in the United States Air Force. It was the last aircraft I was privileged to work with while I was still on active duty and it’s my favorite of all. It’s old, 40’s technology, brought into the inventory even before I was born in 1955, but reliable. So when we learned about Raider 21 going down on 21 July 2008, it felt like a family loss. Even though my husband is now retired from the Air Force, he still works on and with issues involving the B-52’s. He knows the history of most of the planes, the aircrew, missions and other bits of minutiae that would put an aviation trivia expert to shame. He’s been to the USAF Aircraft Accident Investigation School and he followed the investigation of this mishap with his usual micro precision. In tribute to the men who died and recognition of their sacrifice, Bear painted the above picture and had prints made.

Fast-forward a year. Last month, I overheard a colleague mention to our supervisor she was still trying to get out of jury duty so that she could fly to Guam for an Air Force ceremony in honor of her son. I kept eavesdropping. This sweet, reserved woman, some years senior to me doesn’t speak often. She's always there to lend a hand, has a ready smile but goes her own quiet way. I learned her son had been on Raider 21 and died last year—her only son.

I told Bear. I knew he’d want to help. He knows a lot of people. He started making some phone calls and pretty soon, she was off jury duty and on her way to Guam.

Last night, Bear and I had the distinct pleasure of taking that lovely Gold Star Mom out for dinner. We didn’t know a lot about her before the night began, but we learned that she’s been a widow for many years now. Up until his death, her son was her best friend, yet she didn’t whine, complain or bemoan her fate. She shared her pictures of the trip with us, told us how lovely everyone had treated her and her father, and all the other surviving family members from Raider 21. She was gracious, eager to tell us about her son and his children, but also wanted to hear all about our Air Force experiences. Even the restaurant we tentatively suggested, she said, was her favorite and one she’d go to her by herself just for the food, she liked it so much. Was she just being nice? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think she’s just one of those genuinely good souls.

Later she showed us the home her son had bought her. She was very proud of it—and him. She still didn’t have a lot of things on her walls, but we saw the print of my husband’s Raider 21 painting and her Gold Star Mom banner.

I can say I have met a Gold Star Mom. She really is Gold Star all the way.

And so is my Bear. At one point, this bereaved mother asked about the body of her son, which the authorities had recommended her not view. My husband got a little choked up when he explained a few things to her, but she remained calm, and she said she appreciated his technical explanations.

As I reread St. James’ definition above, I see the world’s ‘staining’ not so much as sin—because we all sin while we walk this earth—but as becoming embittered by the horrors we encounter. My dear husband has seen things which make him cry, strong man though he is, yet he is able to rise above his own pain and help widows and orphans in their affliction. I am his witness. May God bless and preserve him in this life and reward him richly in the next.

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