The pictures would seem to clear up my ambiguous headline: is this post about being a person of faith who is in the military, or about having faith in the Army as an institution.
The answer is yes to both. And then again, no.
Some recent comments by several friends indicate that I am complaining more about my current stint of active duty than about Iraq, Fort Sill, and every I have served since I re-enlisted.
Long-time readers of this blog will also remember that my intent in re-enlisting was to serve, to face the hardships of an old man in a young man's game, and that I would strengthen my faith.
If you are laughing at the idea of joining the Army to become a stronger man of faith, you should be. But the error was an honest one on my part. Joining the military more than 40years ago was the path I took from vague agnosticism to faith.
All through my first years in the military, I made many friends who were serious believers. They were mostly young men, though some were older (not as old as I am, of course!), and were ready to do things like fast, pray, and read the Bible cover to cover.
I have met many believers since leaving the Army, but the two men I call my best friends are men of faith from my three-year tour in Germany in the 1970s. The only person I know who is as strong as Abel and Cliff spiritually is my wife Annalisa.
So I thought that re-enlisting would allow me to serve and possibly to meet men like Cliff and Abel.
But from the first, the experiment went wrong. It turns out, re-enlisting was not the hardship I expected. I am in much better physical shape than I was when I was a 20-year-old smoker. And the soldiers I serve with are generally in worse shape than the men in my tank unit 35 years ago.
So within a few months, far from suffering, I was one of the top people in my unit in physical training. Fitness is status in the Army, especially for old guys. Far from the Army being a place where I would be the old guy who could barely keep up and thereby gain in humility, I was pacing runs that 20-year-olds were dropping out of.
Not that I was actually anywhere near the best in fitness. The young men and women who were in shape were in WAY better shape than me. But the average soldier was fat, lazy and pale from playing video games.
A few months after I joined, our unit got a mobilization order for Iraq. So I was going to Iraq at 55!! Not a big occasion for humility there. C.S. Lewis correctly says pride is the first and central sin and humility is the route to real spirituality.
Every step further into the Army became a step away from the kind of faith I was supposed to be seeking.
During the deployment and after, I grew and grew in confidence in myself. After returning from Iraq, I began running half marathons. After nine of them, I ran a marathon. I limped home in just under six hours, but I made it. So now I am training for an Ironman. I am much better with weapons than I was the first time around, both the rifle and the SAW machine gun.
I fasted one day every week for two months before calling the recruiter in 2007. I haven't fasted about a single decision since.
At this 90-day school, I have finally reached something like the kind of difficulty I thought I would face when I first joined. Getting up at 4 am is far more difficult for me than staying up till 3 am. The whole school experience is really difficult because i am perpetually tired.
This is suffering for real. I should be embracing it.
I am bitching.
In three weeks when this school is over, I will be celebrating. Not just because this school is over, but because I now know that the Army is really not the place to be more spiritual. Taking care of widows and orphans is the most often-repeated path to pleasing God in the Bible. Next month should end my last stint of active duty.
After all this time, I can finally see that ending this Army experiment is for the best.