I took the words to heart and accepted them to mean I was unfit as a minister and I was unfit as a person.
“The Officer is unfit because this condition prevents him from being able to perform the required activities of his AOC (56A, Chaplain Officer).” The first time I read these words on my Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) report on 03 October 2014 just one day after my 47th birthday I was devastated. I had spent 21 years in the Army giving my all, doing everything I needed to do in order to be fit for service. In just one moment, someone I had never met, signed his name to the PEB and sealed my fate and future as a Chaplain in the United States Army. I was now officially deemed to be unfit to continue serving in the Army. My career had come to an unceremonious end, it was over and all the schooling, training, experience and work had come to a crashing halt. There would be no retirement ceremony, no retirement party, no gathering of friends and family congratulating me for a career well done. There would not be any wacky gifts or cards, no rocking chair to sit in to anticipate the reminder of my life. There would be no awarding of the Legion of Merit in appreciation for a full and successful military career. I will always be 3 ½ years short of twenty years on active duty, I will never be a retired officer, I will always be a medically retired officer who is unfit for continued military service.
This simple phrase “unfit for continued military service” has haunted me for years and will continue to haunt me for many years to come. I loved being in the Army, I loved being a chaplain, I loved the discipline, the structure of the Army, the camaraderie of being a part of a team that is larger than oneself, the pride that comes from wearing the uniform of the United States Army. Was the Army perfect? Not even close. Was everyday roses and unicorns? No, although some days were. Were there days that I came home declaring this is it I’m done with the Army? Yes, there were more than a few days. Was I tired of being deployed, missing birthdays, holidays and special days? Yes. But I still loved being in the Army. I miss the good days, the great days, the excitement and the pride of being a Soldier. I miss standing in formation, hearing a command and instantly responding to the command along with everyone else in the formation. I was not ready to stop being a part of the active Army; I was still looking forward to years of active service.
I am still frustrated with myself for having these feelings!
The term unfit for military service has bothered me since the first time I read those words on 03 October 2014. These words threw me into a depression. I found myself devastated, I took those words to heart and accepted them to mean I was unfit to be a Soldier, I was unfit as a minister and I was unfit as person. I took those words to simply mean I was unfit for life. For the last few years I tried to stuff these feeling down and ignore them. But I was completely unsuccessful, the feelings and resentment continued to raise its ugly head on nearly a daily basis
About six months ago, I felt like I was beginning to get a handle on these feeling. I was beginning to feel as though I may not be unfit and there was still a purpose for me. I was making progress, slow progress but progress never the less. Until last week when I received a letter from the VA, requesting a copy of my PEB. As I made a copy of my PEB to give to the VA, I reread the report thinking I would have a different response than the first time I read it. However, the same words cut just as deeply as they did the first time I read them. The resentment and the pain they caused the first time continued to do so today. My sense of “losing” my career and lifestyle I chose is just as real today as it was the first day I read them. I am frustrated with myself for still having these feelings. It will be three years in October since I read those words. I am slowly moving on and accepting the reality that I will never serve another day in the Army. This should no longer bother me, I should have moved on and accept that God’s will has been accomplished. I should rest in the assurance that there is still life for me beyond the military and God has great plans for me in the future.
I know what some will say and I have heard what some have told me. I’ve been told God still has plans for me. I’ve been told the Army is not who I am as a person. I’ve been told God knows exactly what I need and He will never lead me astray. I’ve been told not to focus on what I once had, but to focus on what I have now and what I will have in the future. However, this post is not an exploration of my theological perceptive of God’s will and how he leads and prepares us for the future. It is not about my trust in God or how spiritual I am. It is not about trusting God fully with my life. This post is not about any of those things. It is simply about loss. What I have lost and my process of grieving over something I held with great significance. It is about how I feel when someone I have never met determined that I am no longer fit for military service. It is about how I feel to read the words I am no longer fit to serve as a chaplain. Some say it just the impression of one person who only knows you by your medical and mental health records. Others say it is not a judgment of you as a person or as a minister. Yet it feels that way. Some will say it is God in His perfect wisdom leading you to a new ministry and a new way of life. But some days it does not feel that way at all. Some days it feels as though I’ve been abandoned. The reality is those words hurt and brings pain, the simple declaration that I am unfit for military service will always be words that grate against my soul.
So the question I ask myself, “how do I live knowing these words will forever be a part of my story and will forever be in my military records?” Was I truly unfit for military service? Am I still unfit for military service? Was I really unfit to perform my duties as a chaplain? In my moments of clarity and rational thinking I freely admit; due to actions beyond my control, the traumatic experiences that I suffered and the severe symptoms of my PTSD left me unable to effectively perform my duties as a military chaplain. I knew this at the time and I know this now, but that does not make the phrase any easier to accept. If I am honest with myself, I have to accept the truth. The PEB findings states, “It is likely the conditions would deteriorate if he were to return to the stresses of active military service.” So here is the dilemma, there is truth in the statement that I was unfit for continued military service. The PEB states what makes me unfit for continued military service is my severe PTSD symptoms. These symptoms are the same symptoms I am still struggling with today. So how do I go on?
I am not unfit
I acknowledge and accept the overwhelming evidence that demonstrates I am not unfit. I am not unfit to be a husband, my wife Beth loves me very much and we continue to look forward to our 50th wedding anniversary which is only 23 years away. I am not unfit to be a father. My adult children unashamedly love me and continue to seek my advice and want to spend time with me. I am not unfit to continue to care for my family. I do my best to meet their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. I may not be able to provide everything I wish I could, but I still take care of their needs and they can trust and count on me. I am not unfit to live my life, I do not have to hide in my house and avoid people. Beth and I have future plans, we still have dreams to accomplish and we look forward to the success of our children. We also look forward to the day that we will become grandparents. I am not unfit to be a person, as I am not rejected by people I meet. I am not unfit to still be a lifelong member of the United Sates Army. I still hold and will continue to hold my rank as a Lieutenant Colonel and will forever be an Army Chaplain. Each month, I receive my retirement pay in acknowledgment that I was and continue to be fit to receive military benefits for my 21 years of service.
I am not unfit to be a minister. From the time I retired I have preached, taught, counseled, loved and guided people in their spiritual journey. I have made a difference in the lives of recovering addicts that I have worked with; I have made a difference in the lives of veterans I have known and gone through treatment with. I make a difference and encourage people through my blog and eventually through a full-time ministry to veterans. I have not been found unfit by God to serve or to be a minister, my calling was not taken away nor was it found to be unfitting. For the Apostle Paul boldly proclaims in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 “Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, so that no one can boast in his presence. He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (NEV)