Marines bow their heads during a field service led by Chaplain Eric Malmstrom during his deployment to Iraq in 2005. (Photo courtesy of Eric Malmstrom)
By Stacey Egger Each Memorial Day, Americans remember those who have given their lives in service to their country. But for countless active military members, veterans and their families and friends, such remembrance is an everyday reality.
“We don’t need a day to remember the fallen,” said LCMS Navy Chaplain Eric Malmstrom, “because that’s every day. That’s every single day, where I see [their] faces … [and] remember their stories. … That’s a part of who we are probably for the rest of our lives.”
But, adds Malmstrom, “Memorial Day is a day that everybody else can join with us and remember them.”
Into the fray
Malmstrom, one of the nearly 150 chaplains supported by LCMS Ministry to the Armed Forces (MAF), has experienced these losses firsthand during two combat deployments with the Marines: to Iraq in 2005, and to Afghanistan in 2012. He has prayed over the bodies of friends killed in action. He has comforted men with the Gospel in their last moments and blessed them as they left for combat, not knowing whether they would return.
When Malmstrom first enrolled in chaplain school in 1998, in the midst of his seminary education and at the “pestering” of a professor, he never anticipated the things he would see in the decades to follow.
“[My former professor] always likes to tell the story that he promised me that I would never have to deploy, and it would just be one weekend a month and two weeks out of the year. … He was the one who had to sign the orders to send me to Iraq.”
“You steady yourself and head into the fray, not exactly sure what’s going to happen,” Malmstrom said. His first deployment was even more difficult than he anticipated.
“We lost 48 Marines in that first deployment to Iraq,” he said. “We anticipated that we were going to get a lot of casualties. … But nothing ever really prepares you for what happens when you’re in the middle of that.”
Even after years of training and preparation, Malmstrom recalls the difficulty of responding to the first combat death and the questions that followed. When the remains of an Iraqi soldier who was working with the U.S. were returned to the camp, he was asked to say a blessing.
“I had to think, ‘What am I going to say? What kind of a blessing can I give to this Iraqi soldier? I don’t know if he’s Christian, if he’s Muslim. … I have no idea what his faith is.’ …
“I said something like, ‘Lord, judge this child not according to his works but according to his faith and Your mercies.’ One of the Marines asked me, ‘Chaps, do you think he’s going to be in heaven?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’?”
‘Tell me about this Jesus’
The intensity of combat, Malmstrom said, in many cases only deepened the doubts of those without faith. But even as he saw despair grow in some, in the vast majority of those he served alongside, he saw Christ working faith.
In seven months of deployment in Iraq, Malmstrom said, his camp was hit with over 200 rounds of mortar rockets. The possibility of death was present at every moment and in every place — even the portable toilets were speckled with shrapnel holes.
“No matter where you go — every time you get in a vehicle, every time you use the bathroom, every time you go anywhere, you’re thinking — ‘Man, this could be it. This could be the day that I see Christ face to face.’?”
After a group of Marines was caught in an ambush in Iraq the Saturday before Mother’s Day, a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team was brought in to help the survivors process what they had gone through. Malmstrom remembers the discussion that followed:
“[The CISM team] went around the room, and each [Marine] described his experience. The first one said, ‘We drove down the street and this panel van pulled out in front of us, and it exploded. And I thought that hell had opened up. I knew I was going to die, but I knew where I was going because of my faith in Christ. And I prayed that God would help me to save as many of our guys as I could.’
“Each guy they talked to, 15 guys, all said the same thing. … When they got to the last guy, he said, ‘Man, you’re going to have to tell me about this Jesus.’?”
“Having … that firm foundation,” said Malmstrom, “really takes away the fear of dying. It enables them to be better Marines. And I had to come to terms with that myself, what faith really meant in a combat zone.”
Malmstrom remembers the dates of all the deaths — a difficult span of anniversaries every year from March 25 through September. One three-day span of skirmishes near the end of the deployment led to the death of 21 Marines.
“The anniversary days are the worst,” Malmstrom said. “And sometimes [on other days] there are things that will remind me, and those days are hard too. … On the Fourth of July, it’s the green fireworks that get me. Because they’re the same [color] as the flares that were fired off.”
A Marine kneels before the boots, helmet and gun of a fallen comrade during a memorial service conducted by Chaplain Eric Malmstrom during his deployment to Iraq in 2005. (Photo courtesy of Eric Malmstrom)
Listening to the stories
In fact, Memorial Day is not always a positive experience for combat veterans and their families.
“One reaction to [the celebration] is anger,” Malmstrom said. “To look at everyone barbecuing, buying mattresses and big screen TVs, and think, ‘How is this honoring the people that we lost? … This should be a day of mourning.’
“But there’s also the response that says, ‘These guys that we lost would want us to rejoice and give thanks that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for their country.’?”
Malmstrom said there are many things that churches and individuals can do to commemorate Memorial Day. Making a “big show” of veterans and calling them “heroes” can make them feel uncomfortable. Malmstrom suggested avoiding saying “I know how you feel” because “you never know how somebody feels.” The best thing to do, he said, is simply to listen and “let them tell their story.”
“In most of our churches,” said Chaplain Craig Muehler, director of MAF for the LCMS, “someone is connected to someone that died in service to our nation. If you go to church cemeteries, you’ll see graves from World War I, World War II, Vietnam.”
“When you go through combat,” said Chaplain Steve Hokana, assistant director of MAF, “you’d like to make that a [past] chapter of your life, but you never want to forget the men and women who died. Some people think that you want to forget about war — well, you may want to forget about combat, but you never want to forget those that died.”
Malmstrom said that giving back to the veteran community is another way to honor the fallen. Some possibilites are volunteering with a local veteran’s home, the American Legion or VFW, or hosting events like memorial runs, motorcycle rides or golf tournaments to raise money for those who have lost family members.
And at all times, churches and Christians can pray for those who have served and continue to do so.
“When I got back [from deployment], I thought I was fine,” Malmstrom said. “I thought … here I am, the chaplain. I should be the strong one. …
“But I found out I wasn’t. … Our chaplains struggle alongside everyone else. … The bullets are flying at you as well as everybody else. We need prayer as well.”
“When our country goes into crisis, it needs people who can step up and can defend [it],” said Hokana. “As Americans, we sometimes tend to thank [service members], and then [not] want them around anymore.
“Instead, we need to embrace them. These are not strangers. These are our brothers, our sisters, our dads and our mothers. Memorial Day is that opportunity for us to say, ‘We love you. We love you, family, for what you have done in defense of our country.’?”
For resources to observe Armed Forces Sunday or Memorial Day in your congregation, or for further support from or information about MAF, visit lcms.org/ministry-to-the-armed-forces.