THEY SAY there are no atheists in foxholes, even though the nonbelievers have started clamoring for their own "chaplains" anyway (kind of a "Don't Pray, No Hell"). That old proverb sheds light on the way faith and combat are deeply intertwined, on the battlefield as well as in the minds of those who serve both God and country.
So, it's not really surprising that one of the most devoted champions of American heroes wore a uniform of another type: that of the Roman Catholic nun. Sister Veronica, of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, spent five decades whipping her young archdiocesan recruits (girls in plaid kilts, boys in blazers) into shape. When she retired, she moved on to the real thing: combat veterans.
Sister spent the last part of her life, almost two decades, compiling detailed and moving records of the people who received the Medal of Honor, the highest award that our country can bestow on its soldiers. Established in 1861 by Abraham Lincoln, the award was designed to honor exceptional bravery in combat, destined only for those men (and women) who, as Sister noted, "placed their lives in danger while serving in the armed forces, above and beyond the call of duty."
Some of the recipients are legendary, including Audie Murphy, Pappy Boyington and Douglas MacArthur. Others are less well-known even though their heroism was no less compelling. That's where Sister Veronica came in. It was her belief that every combatant who fought, bled, suffered and, in many cases, died for this country deserved to be remembered, and to have a face attached to his or her name. She spent countless hours, from 1970 to 1987, compiling records of these troops as the chief archivist for the Medal of Honor Grove at the Freedoms Foundation, in Valley Forge. She pored over books, articles, microfilms and everything else she could get her hands on to breathe life into the memory of these patriots. For her, as long as they were remembered, they were alive.
Some found it strange that a nun, a woman who had devoted herself to Christ, would choose a second vocation like this one, tied as it was to the horrors of the battlefield. She had an answer for them, one that conjures the image of pacifist Alvin York and Father Francis Duffy, the most decorated cleric in the history of the Army:
"I once spoke with a family that didn't want to accept a posthumous medal because of religious reasons. I told them that I, too, hate war, but I love these men who have made it possible for me to worship my God in a manner of my choosing."
That is the fundamental difference between those who are intent on pounding their swords into plowshares, at all costs, and those who understand that peace must be bargained for with the blood and treasure of courageous men and women. The fact that a Roman Catholic nun was able to articulate the symbiotic relationship between faith and freedom is a tribute not only to her, but to the men she loved.
One of those men, retired Army Col. Joe Marm, spoke with me this week from his home in North Carolina. Marm, a native of Pennsylvania, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1966, after having taken part in the la Drang Valley battle memorialized in We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. This is a part of the citation given to him: "Although severely wounded, when his grenades were expended, armed with only a rifle, he continued the momentum of his assault on the position and killed the remainder. His selfless actions reduced the fire on his platoon, broke the enemy assault, and rallied his unit to continue toward the accomplishment of this mission."
And, yet, he's a humble man. As with most heroes who tend to deflect attention outward, he wanted to talk only about Sister Veronica during the conversation. When asked why she was so important in the lives of the medal recipients, he observed:
"Sister Veronica was a legend in her own time, a mentor to veterans who they could call on, talk to, and share their tales of woe. A confidant."
Sister Veronica passed away in 2002, and was buried among her fellow nuns, even though it's been rumored that she was offered - and refused - a spot at Arlington National Cemetery. That would be typical of her, as humble as many of the men she memorialized.
Tomorrow, at Immaculata University, surviving medal recipients will lay a wreath at her grave site. It's a fitting tribute to this Mightiest of Macs.