From the Desk of Steven Dundas: A Meditation on Veterans Day

Steven L. Dundas has served thirty-nine years in the U.S. Army and Navy. He is a former assistant professor at the Joint Forces Staff College, National Defense University, and a retired chaplain with the U.S. Navy. For decades Dundas has been researching and writing on history, the impact of religion on society, international affairs, military operations, and ethics. He is the author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Religion and the Politics of Race in the Civil War Era and Beyond (Nebraska, 2022).

The late Senator John S. McCain said, “Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war.”

I am a veteran; almost every day of my life has been tied to the military. I was born in Oak Knoll Navy Hospital in Oakland, California. I was a Navy brat, traveling hither and yon up and down the West Coast and the Philippines with my family. That was back in the 1960s and 1970s. I joined the Army in 1981 and served as a Medical Service Corps Officer. I served as an Ambulance Company Commander in Cold War Germany and later as a personnel officer at the U.S. Army Academy of Health Sciences. There I helped write the Army’s personnel policies for HIV-infected soldiers, and I was the officer who had to counsel these soldiers on what they could and could not do if they remained in the Army. That was when there were no effective treatments, and HIV was a death sentence. The experience and subsequent encounters with patients with AIDS as a hospital chaplain, especially those rejected by their families, made me an advocate for people with HIV and an ally of LGBTQ people.

I served as a Chaplain in the Army National Guard and Reserves, in addition to the Regular Army which showed me the overall depth of personal and institutional racism in the service. When I transferred to the Navy in 1999 and served with the Marines, I saw the same institutional racism and bias against LGBTQ sailors and marines as I saw in the Army.

I did two combat tours, one on a Navy Cruiser and the other as a Chaplain to U.S. Military advisors to the Iraqi Army and Police in Al Anbar Province during the surge of 2007-2008. Those tours opened my eyes to the terrible human cost of war, and I came home with severe PTSD, mild TBI, a neurological disorder that affects my ability to process speech, and more. Likewise, I experienced the military’s indifference to help people like me and the toll that multiple combat tours and the lack of real concern and help caused many veterans. I say this not to garner sympathy for me but to draw attention to the veterans who suffer, often in silence. I know so many broken families and veterans who turned to alcohol and drugs to ease their pain, and far too many, including other Chaplains, who committed suicide to end their pain.

For me, Veterans day is somewhat melancholy. I am proud of my service and that of my late father, a Navy Chief, and my nephew, who just completed an honorable enlistment as a Marine. The same goes for the good and dedicated men and women I served alongside in the Army, Navy, and Marines. Together we achieved much, but we also lost much. Senator McCain was correct, nothing can replace those friends and comrades that lost their lives, took their lives, or whose lives and families were shattered due to their service.

Thus, when I started writing my Gettysburg Staff Ride text and the introductory chapter, which became Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: Religion and the Politics of Race in the Civil War Era and Beyond, people had to be the story. In each, I endeavored to bring the stories of people to the forefront, people who devoted at least part of their lives to serving in the military, fighting for the highest ideals embodied in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “We believe that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them, being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, those stories are encapsulated in the words of the Black men who volunteered to serve the Union and the White Union soldiers who came to admire them and who, after the war, never forgave those in the North or South who oppressed and discriminated against their Black comrades in arms.

Sergeant Isaiah Welch of the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the most distinguished Black regiments of the war, wrote a newspaper, “I pray to God the time will come when we, as soldiers of God, and for our race and country, may face the enemy with boldness. For my part I feel willing to suffer all privations incidental to a Christian and a soldier.….”

The story of two wounded Black soldiers is told “One of them looked at the stump of an arm he once had and remarked: ‘Oh, I should like to have it, but I don’t begrudge it.’ His ward mate, minus a leg, replied: ‘Well, ‘twas [lost] in a glorious cause, and if I had lost my life, I should have been satisfied. I knew what I was fighting for.’”

Their courage, honor, and sacrifice, like so many known and unknown, inspires me to continue speaking out for the rights of Blacks, women, Hispanic, Asian, Native Americans, and Gays and Lesbians, and countless others who served or continue to serve our Country under a cloud of discrimination and intolerance. I write history by telling their stories.

Like Senator McCain, I am repulsed by those that glorify war and violence. Additionally, I find strange solace in the words of General Gouverneur Warren, a hero of the battle for Little Round Top at Gettysburg. After the war, he wrote, “I wish I did not dream so much. They make me sometimes to dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish never to experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” His words feel like my own.

I pray that on this Veterans Day, we do not spend time glorifying war but rather honoring and remembering the sacrifices of all veterans, especially those who had to endure racism and intolerance just to serve.

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