(This story is dedicated to the men of faith who have also served.)
I think I shall probably die with blood-stained hands. This is not a metaphorical statement, but on observation of fact. Were I at home, such a comment would seem preposterous; being a chaplain assigned to the Pacific Theater, however, makes such possibilities all too real.
I prefer to hear a man’s confession before the bullets start flying. His thoughts are more concise and it is easier to grant absolution for his sins. During the battle, when the world is in chaos, we do our best to reach those wounded unto death. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes, a superior officer commands us to stay where we are. That is a hard thing to do when the sounds of combat fade and all you can hear is the cry of the injured wanting to make a final confession. I have found it so unbearable at times that I have had to remind the officer that “we ought to obey God rather than men.” Once the battle is over, I can’t hear the confessions of those already gone, all I can do is pray that God is merciful.
Today’s battle is over and my trousers are soaked. It feels like hours that I have been on this beach. I and my brothers in Christ are working our way along the beach, assisting the medics with the wounded when possible, administering Last Rites otherwise. My arms ache as, many times, I have wrestled with the tide to keep some poor soul from being dragged away from shore and his body claimed by the deep. As if in a pact with the sea, numerous sharks have gathered to claim their portion of the spoils of war.
I come upon the body of a young man laying partially face down in the wet sand, the cold surf tugging at his boots. Before rolling him over on his back, I stick my finger in his mouth and scrape away the small pile of sand that has begun to collect in his cheek. A thought comes to me—years ago, this young man was a mother’s newborn baby. That’s probably how she will think of him when she hears the news. As I place my arms beneath him, I try to be as gentle as she was the first time she held him.
I realize two things when I turn him over; the muscles beneath his brow are trying to clinch tighter than possible from pain, and there is no way this young man should still be alive. A portion of his lung is visible through the hole in his chest.
“I’m here,” I whisper.
His lips begin to move, but it is several seconds before his words form. He is battling death for every syllable.
“Fah…Father, for…forgive me.” His eyes slowly open. “I have sinned.”
I start to respond, but he continues.
“Yesterday, I killed a man,” he says and tries to sob. The extent of his chest wound prevents him from doing so. It’s a miracle he is even able to speak.
I start to tell him a lot of men were killed today, that it was the ugly nature of war. Before I can tell him any of this, however, he begins speaking again.
“He did not see me. He doesn’t seem to even be paying attention to the battle at all.” The young man pauses as though he is catching his breath. “He was knelt down behind a bush. I thought he was burying a landmine.” He tries to sob again.
“Was he?” I ask.
“I…I shot him while he was praying,” he cries.
How can I—how could any priest—offer words of comfort to such a soul-wrenching confession as that? I know the forgiveness is there, but what words do we speak to reassure someone of this?
The soldiers’ question catches me off guard. For just a moment I can see clarity in his eyes and I am dumbstruck. Nothing he has said has been intended for my ears. He doesn’t even know I am here.
“He does?” the soldier asks.
My mind begins to doubt. Is his faith so much greater than mine that God speaks directly to him? Are the deepest recesses of his mind trying to give him a measure of peace at the end of his life? Is he merely delusional? And as these thoughts run through my mind, I am filled with an overwhelming sense of shame. For the last few minutes, I have not been the priest I intended; I have been nothing more than a voyeur—an intruder into the culmination of a man’s dedication to his creator.
“I see him,” the soldier says. “He beckons for me to join him. Tell him I will be there soon.”
War is a hopeless thing. No matter the reason we wage it, it is a destroyer. Yet, there are moments in its midst that are beacons to humanity. Moments that are reminders of a greater purpose. This is such a moment.
I am not at this young man’s side by chance. I am not here to bring him peace and absolution. I am here by Divine Providence. The peace to be found on this beach of the dead and dying is for me. This soldier’s dying confession is meant to bring me hope.
The young man ceases to speak. The clarity in his eyes is gone. He is beyond this war. I remove a small notepad from my shirt pocket and begin to record the information on his dog tags. This evening, I shall write a letter to whatever family he has left behind. I shall tell them of the peace he found in his final moments, that he was a caring person until the end. I shall tell them that he waits for them. And I shall let them know that he will never be forgotten.