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Military mindfulness

December 7th, 2012, Pearl Harbor Day

This morning while riding MUNI I met a WWII vet who joined two days after Pearl Harbor. He was a jovial guy in really terrific shape for his late 80’s. Everyone on the 37 Corbett thanked him for his service and he beamed. Just beamed from ear to ear. I asked him what his job was when he was in the Navy and he said he worked on amphibious assaults delivering tanks and troops onto islands throughout the Pacific. When I mentioned that our current Navy used those same skills to land supplies and relief to the Rockaways after Superstorm Sandy, he smiled again and said, “well that sure is a great way to use that”. What an excellent way to mark the 71st anniversary of that “day of infamy”.

My cousin, Tom “Trapper” Valliant (the big guy on the left) is an U.S. Marine currently serving in Afghanistan and he remains at the top of my prayer lists each day that he will stay safe and come home soon. When he graduated from boot camp, I went down to San Diego for the festivities. As a follower of Jesus and an almost pacifist, I often feel very conflicted about the military. I am not conflicted about Trapper. I love him, respect him and am behind him 100%. He is a fine young man and his accomplishments in the Marine Corps are truly admirable. So when we went on base, I went with an open heart, I set aside my misgivings and I put all my focus on simply getting to know these young men.

All weekend long I was impressed by the competence, kindness, politeness, and the general eagerness to serve that these new Marines displayed. While in the base espresso shop, we needed an extra chair. I asked a Marine sitting alone at a table if we could borrow the empty one across from him. He jumped to his feet, grabbed the chair, and asked me “where would you like me to put this, ma’am”? I pointed to our group, he carried the chair there, and then I thanked him. He said, “no problem, ma’am. Thank YOU for letting me serve”.

This is not how it usually goes in my local coffee place and quite honestly, almost no one I know – including a massive number of religious professionals – is genuinely looking for how they can gratefully serve in every moment of the day. When I came home, I spoke with a Buddhist monk friend of mine about the amazing mindfulness these Marines display. He told me, “military training, monk training – same thing”. For the warriors, this mindfulness will keep them safe as they are constantly scanning for trouble and danger. For a monk, the mindfulness means a constant vigilance for peace and right action. Same thing, different mission. So we can and should argue about the missions that our political leaders devise, but not about the amazing value of these soldiers.

I walked away from Trapper’s boot camp graduation thinking that we all need the training he received and that my only problem is with their mission which is of course something that is completely beyond their control. Both Marines and monks are taught total obedience and so a problem with mission is a struggle with leadership, not the rank and file. It was clear to me, those Marines can do anything and it breaks my heart that all that mindfulness and training and in fact, all those young and gifted men and women get used up in violence and war. Watching the U.S. Navy complete a successful amphibious landing after Superstorm Sandy, however, gives me hope. Yes, we need a strong defense, but may those skills primarily be used to help and heal rather than wound and destroy. And even as we still are engaged in places like Afghanistan, I pray for the success and well-being of every soldier and for a lasting peace that will bring these mindful warriors to a new (and maybe more monkly?) mission of peace.

So on this Pearl Harbor day, I want to be mindful and grateful for all those who serve. Whether in the military, monastery, or beyond. And in honor of their service, I want to be able to apply that mindfulness to a world full of hurt and pain and learn to say with gratitude, “thanks for letting me serve.”

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