By Javier Casanova
As I mentioned at the beginning of this rollo, I’m a 23-year veteran of the US Air Force. I served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, were I participated in hundreds of missions as a Combat Rescue Helicopter Pilot. By the grace of God and the help of my Guardian Angel, I returned home after each tour to a loving family and a grateful country. The Air Force showered me with recognition and at my retirement I resembled a South American Military Dictator, with medals that covered most of my uniform. Outwardly I was proud to the point of cockiness about my service and never shy to share my contributions to anyone who asked.
But inside of me there were dark places. Places filled with the sounds of rocket explosions, the screams of the injured, and the smell of death. With each combat tour these dark images would multiply. Like a good Airman, I was able to compartmentalize those images, to put them away in a shelf. I could select when and where to revisit them, especially whenever one of my buddies needed to talk. But something changed after I retired from the service.
When I moved to Palm Beach in 2013 it was the first time I lived in a community separated from the military community I loved. “Civilian” life was different. The feeling of belonging, accomplishment and service to higher cause were not there. It was then that the enemy moved in. The dark memories would no longer stay in their designated drawer or wait for the right moment. They would visit me at any time of the day, but especially at night. While I was simultaneously working hard at restoring my faith life in my new community, it seemed like the closer I got to God, the less control I had over them. They controlled my sleep, my mood, my thoughts and my personality. They would remind me that no matter how close I tried to get to God, I had a past, I had done things contrary to God’s teachings. Things I had never confessed. I was not worthy of His grace.
I sought medical treatment at the VA Hospital, and they gave me all the pills I needed. They even scheduled me with a wonderful therapist, who was truly working hard to get me to overcome my feelings of guilt and unworthiness. But each time I would discuss my struggles with God and my faith, the conversation would grow distant and uncomfortable quiet.
In the meantime, one of my new friends who was involved with church ministries, asked me to attend a retreat for combat veterans called, The Welcome Home Initiative. She said there would be no cost to attending and she had personally witnessed many vets who had benefited from it. But in the words of Mathew Kelly, I “resisted happiness”, and gracefully declined. “I’m so busy with work”, I told her, “there’s no way I can get away.” I was so happy to steer the conversation away, while inside thinking, “that’s not for me”, “That’s for those poor Vietnam vets that were spit upon when they returned home”, I thought. I was a proud veteran of the great wars against terror. The TV was full of our accomplishments and Hollywood started to make movies of them with cool guys like Matt Damon and Mark Walberg. No, those retreats with a bunch of strangers who were not even Catholic, were not for me. Meanwhile, my medicine cabinet filled up and the memories ran rampant, terrorizing me at night and ribbing me of peace.
My friend kept asking. She wouldn’t relent. And a year later, I finally ran out of excuses. On June 2nd of last year, I overcame resistance and attended the retreat at The Villages, north of Orlando. I was met at the hotel by a group of strangers who showered me with hugs, gifts and escorted me to my room. That afternoon we gathered for introductions at the Episcopalian church next door to the hotel. The room was filled men of all ages, representing every major war since 1950. Soon we were no longer strangers, but brothers, holding up each other as we relived those dark memories. The difficult journey home had started and the healing power of Jesus was finally allowed to wash our souls and bring light to the darkness. I can gratefully say to you that I came home from the war on June 4th, 2016, four years after my last combat mission. I returned home to my family for the last time, was freed from needing any medication to sleep and enjoy life, and happily say “Good Bye” to my psychiatrist.
But the healing came with a mission. A mission to share my story with anyone who would listen. To bring as many of my brothers in arms to finally come home to the healing power that we receive from the unconditional love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The world will receive the good news of Christ, not through Christians who are sad, discouraged, impatient, angry or anxious, but through those whose lives radiate the joy, peace and love of Christ; those whose lives are dedicated and consecrated to Him.
Please write this down: “Christ and I are an overwhelming majority.” Repeat it with me–“Christ and I are an overwhelming majority.”
I will close with one final story. The story of my friend, Donna Gardner, the one who would not take no for an answer, and to who I owe my coming home to Christ.
When I asked her, “how did you come in contact with the Welcome Home Initiative?” She replied, “I believe God brought WHI to me.” This June she will celebrate 8 years of volunteering in prison; ministering to post abortive inmates and since last year, combat veterans. In her years of prison ministry leading Rachel’s Vineyard, a retreat for those who have had abortions or have been hurt by abortion. It was very clear to her that many of the men were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress or PTS. She saw the worst cases of PTS in prison. Men with paranoia beyond belief, afraid of their own shadows, who hadn’t slept for years.
She shared with her prison team that this wasn’t normal PTSD, these men were suffering, and began to dig a bit deeper. Their stories started to have the same components…. childhood abuse, absent or abusive fathers, combat experience, abortion and finally multiple years of incarceration. Theperfect recipe for complex PTS.
About this time, she heard of an Episcopal priest who had a healing ministry for veterans and would be in Boca for a healing service. The service was a 3-hour event including a talk and a healing service that included the anointing of the trigger fingers. After the service one of the members of her prison team began to open up about his combat experiences in Vietnam. She had known him for almost 15 years, yetnever knew he was a veteran or of the trauma he experienced from his combat experiences in Vietnam. He was a quiet man and it was obvious he was deeply moved by the service. On the way home, he shared how Fr Nigel’s talk and prayers had brought relief and healing to his heart.
The events of that day energized her to learn more about this ministry. Through a mutual friend, Fr. Nigel heard of her interest in the ministry and asked her if she would be interested in ministering to the veteran’s wives during the retreat. She immediately said yes, and asked if she could bring along members of her prison ministry. They too were military veterans and after attending the retreat for themselves, felt it would be a perfect fit for our veterans in prison.
After much prayer and study, she proposed to Fr. Nigel the idea of taking the Welcome Home Initiative to military veterans in prison in May 2016. The retreat touched the lives of 12 veterans, and the next one is scheduled for September.
I’d like to finish the story in her own words:
“I believe that my call to the ministry was the very act of apostolic action that we learn about in Cursillo… that the Mercy I received from our Father in Heaven for my own wounds of PTSD is the same mercy I desired to share from that same healing.”
“As a healing minister, I felt called to find a way to bring healing to these men that God had brought into my life. so, I simply asked… Lord you put me here, I’m seeing clearly their wounds… Rachel’s Vineyard is healing their hearts for their abortion experienced but they need more… what do you have for them? Very shortly after the WHI was brought to my attention…”
“I didn’t view my life as already busy… I saw God expanding my territory.”
1 Chronicles 4:10
Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.
I know some of you may be asking: “How does this apply to me? I’m not a leader.” So, let me ask you another question, what would have been Saint Peter’s answer the morning he met an itinerant preacher named Jesus? What about Ambrose the morning of the Bishop’s election? Do you think he saw himself giving up all his earthly power and riches to become a poor bishop of a divided dioceses? What about Ignatius the morning before going to combat for the last time? What if Donna had said “NO” to another ministry? What if I’d never taken that drive to The Villages?
So, I ask you again, how does this apply to you? Are you a Christian leader? YES—you are! You are a baptized member of the One, holy Catholic and Apostolic faith. You were called to this Cursillo weekend for a reason, and you are being given all the tools you need to respond to that call to be a Christian leader. What did Peter, Ambrose, Ignatius and my friend Donna have in common? They had Christ.
“Christ and I are an overwhelming majority—and he’s counting on you and me to respond to His call.
The day when Christ can count on a group of leaders who put into action their love of God and their talents, guided by the Holy Spirit, will the prophecy be fulfilled; “Even greater things you will see.” (John 1:50). May we be always open to the will of God in our lives. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of us your faithful and kindle in us the fire or Your love. Send forth your spirit and we shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.