A few months before my retirement from the United States Air Force in 2002, I was waiting for a colleague at the Dayton International Airport. As I stood with others near where passengers deplane, a man came up and thanked me for my service to our country. I found myself suddenly filled with emotion, perhaps from the anticipatory grief of retiring after serving faithfully for 30 years. But in reflection, I also realized that no one had ever publicly thanked me for something that to me required no thanks. It had been a privilege to serve our great nation.
I grew up in a large family. My mother died when I was three, and my father, who graduated from the eighth grade, believed educating daughters was a waste of limited money (my sisters had all married and started their families at the age of 16). I saw military service as my chance for higher education.
I joined the Air Force in 1972, a time when our country was bitterly divided over the Vietnam conflict and on the tipping point of an unprecedented cultural shift. I remember being warned not to wear my uniform in public for fear of being spat upon -- or worse. What I heard at the time in pop song and protest, and what I witnessed in the public's treatment of the military, seemed to hold great irony. Why would people whose voices cried out for peace resort to using demeaning and violent behavior against those who had been sent halfway across the world (most not by choice, but by the draft) to fulfill our nation's commitment to another country? I watched so many young men return from battle with physical and emotional wounds to be met with jeers and taunts. I wept for all of them--for those who had gone reluctantly albeit obediently to serve and for the "peace mongers" who believed their violence toward service members was somehow a justifiable way to show contempt for government policies that none of us fully understood. I wondered if God was weeping too, weeping for all of us.
Before I knew it, my first enlistment was almost over. As I considered whether to stay in or separate, I realized I had learned lessons far beyond what I could have at any university or civilian corporation. I discovered the joy that comes from living a life of discipline and obedience and what it means to be part of an institution whose principles and values were far more important than personal desires or a company's bottom line. I learned what it meant to live in community, where every person, regardless of gender, race, religion, or ethnicity (and now sexuality!) mattered. Each person mattered. Imagine going to church on any given Sunday not knowing or even caring much if the celebrant was Episcopalian, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, or even Pentecostal, because being together in community to worship God was what really mattered. If you've ever worshipped on a military installation, you too have experienced the joy of true ecumenism. And although living out our guiding principles was never perfectly executed, collectively we used all the means we were given to pursue justice, largely without the constraints of politics.
I was especially thankful to belong to an institution where gender wasn't a deterrent to success, as it was in many civilian and religious institutions. I was judged not on my biological construct, but on my performance, education, leadership potential and sustained service to the local community. In other words, I was valued and encouraged to use my gifts to become the person God created me to be.
Most of all, I learned what it meant to be able to depend on another and the responsibility that comes when others trust you to do what's right. Our collective lives depended on how well we performed, and also how we cared for each other. If one failed, we all failed. Working together was not optional. Our lives were linked together; we were of necessity vulnerable to one another. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:3) This is the love I had for my brothers and sisters in arms, and they for me.
From time to time, people have asked me, "How could you as a Christian serve in the military?" English philosopher Edmund Burke said, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing." My prayer before worship includes thanksgiving that we are able to gather in our sanctuary, freely and without fear of oppression. Those who serve in the military are instruments of peace more than wagers of war. In those 30 years, I never once heard a single colleague express excitement or delight about having to deploy or about the possibility of having to harm another in self defense. I had the opportunity to serve on numerous humanitarian missions, locally and globally. During that time, I saw the worst of humanity and witnessed evil no person should ever have to experience. I have seen Christ in the faces of the desolate and desperate, and in responding with compassion, I hoped they were able to see a glimpse of Christ in return, whether they knew His name or not. I was an ambassador for the best of what America represents. In the words of William Decatur, "My country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right. But right or wrong, she is still my country."
I served because I love our country and all that it represents.
-- The Rev. Judith Doran retired in September 2002 as a Chief Master Sergeant (the fourth senior-ranking female CMSgt in the Air Force at that time). Ordained a priest in 2006, she serves as supply for Trinity in Troy, Ohio. This piece first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Interchange.