You might picture St. Francis of Assisi as a preacher to the birds or as the poor man who forsook his birthright. But he has another identity that is especially meaningful to me, and that is “combat veteran.” Like St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Martin of Tours, he returned from battle a changed man. As an Iraq War veteran, I can identify with this.
But ultimately God intervened to help Francis rebuild his life, and it was the same with me. Only in my case, Francis himself played a role in my healing journey. He helped me discover how to keep serving even after I left the service.
“Keep the Spirit of Prayer Alive.” My life in the military started in 1986, when I was living in Milwaukee. I had been a Franciscan priest for twelve years. It was my routine to begin each day reading Scripture and then taking a run through the city. This gave me welcome time alone to ponder God’s word. One day during my run, I stepped inside the Navy Marine Corps Reserve Center to look for a drink of water—and I walked back outside with information about the Navy chaplaincy.
I decided to pursue it. Not long afterward, I was commissioned as a chaplain in the United States Navy and found that this form of priestly ministry suited me well. I enjoyed the physical activity, and because I came of age in the Vietnam era (but never served), I wanted to “pay my dues.” In 2004, my most formidable chance to do so arrived—our regiment deployed overseas for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
We were assigned to the heaviest combat mission in the Iraq War: the Battle for Fallujah. As the only Catholic priest in our operation area, I had to be mobile, even as explosions were wounding and killing people all around me.
It was a challenging time for me, but I stayed spiritually grounded by following the advice of my Franciscan superiors: “Keep the spirit of prayer alive in all circumstances.” This advice helped keep me sane as I spent days on end in life-and-death situations. I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours in Humvees in hundred-degree heat. I prayed with the wounded. I prayed with the fallen. Constant prayer helped me to keep ministering even in the most traumatic harrowing situations.
St. Francis, the Wounded Warrior. During deployment, when computer access became available, I would wait in long lines for my turn to read my email. This had become another source of spiritual nourishment for me as my spiritual director back in the States sent me reflections on St. Francis of Assisi’s experience in combat.
He described Francis as a wild fun guy who wanted to be a knight, but found out the hard way that it’s not all that glorious. Francis spent a year as a prisoner of war, and that experience marked him for life. He came home more reserved, even non-communicative. Years later, long after he had become a friar, Francis was haunted by dreams of rats crawling over him. Did he have post-traumatic stress disorder? We’ll never know, but it’s possible.
These struggles of Francis resonated with me. During the height of the war, I found out my mother was dying, and briefly went home to say goodbye before returning to the combat zone. My family remarked then that I looked awful. If I looked half as bad as I felt, they were right. I faced death everywhere I turned, and with each tragedy I lost a piece of myself. My spiritual director described the wounds I was experiencing as a type of stigmata. He also encouraged me to reflect more on Francis after I returned home.
Reflecting on Sacred Ground. After Iraq, though, I did other active-duty assignments for five years. Very slowly I began putting myself back together, starting with my exercise routine. According to one therapist, my body had returned home before my soul. It really wasn’t until I retired from the military in July 2010 that I started processing the deeper interior wounds of my combat experience.
To do this, I requested permission to walk the five-hundred mile path of the Camino de Santiago in Spain—as St. Francis is believed to have done. During those weeks, I spent time in prayer, reflection, and solitude. When I was exhausted and wanted to give up, my walking companion would tell me, “Keep going.” I heard those words as coming from God. So I persisted in the pilgrimage, told my story to other pilgrims, and heard their stories too. Through this, God showed me that we’re all poor and in need of healing.
I’ll never forget the day that I came to a new insight about Francis that helped me enormously. It had to do with that image of war wounds as a kind of stigmata: the wounds of Christ. Just as the wounds of Jesus never went away—even after his resurrection—the wounds of war never completely disappear. This reality is embodied in Francis, who was the first person (and significantly, a combat veteran) who was recorded to have experienced the stigmata.
But in the case of Jesus, and in the case of Francis, the wounds that remained were redeemed through loving service to their friends. After his experience in war, Francis imitated the risen Jesus by living a life of service with his friars. His famous rebuilding of San Damiano Chapel and founding of his religious order arose out of his desire to serve, despite his wounds. We combat veterans can also find meaning through serving after our return—even if our wounds don’t go away.
“Rebuild this House.” The pilgrimage experience was so helpful to me that the director of the Franciscan pilgrimage programs asked me afterward to lead more pilgrimages to Assisi for combat veterans. On these trips, we retrace the footsteps of Francis from the battlefield to prison, all the way to La Verna, where he received the stigmata.
One of the most moving stops along the way is in the town of Poggio Bustone. It is there that Francis had a life-changing experience of God’s forgiveness for all his past sins—including those that may have occurred in battle. It is here that many veterans offer up the struggle of their own unforgiving past and receive a measure of God’s peace and pardon.
For them and me, this healing journey is a living experience of the words that Jesus spoke to Francis in the rundown chapel of San Damiano: “Rebuild this house.” Francis thought that Jesus was referring to the physical house of God, and he was. But Jesus was also inviting him, and each of us, to rebuild ourselves and rebuild the world by giving our lives in service once again. Through these pilgrimages, I’ve found my new place to serve.
Fr. Conrad Targonski, OFM, is a university chaplain at Viterbo in La Crosse, Wisconsin. For more information about the military pilgrimages visit franciscanpilgrimages.com.
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