White House retreat to help veterans focus on prayer and faith

Sid Hastings

With the Vietnam Traveling Wall as a backdrop at West Park in Festus, Jesuit Father Joe Laramie quietly visited with folks paying respects to friends, relatives or just plain strangers among soldiers who died in the war.

Originally, he had planned to be there to share information about an upcoming retreat, exclusively for veterans, just before Independence Day, July 1-3 at the White House Jesuit Retreat.

But as often happens with priests, he spent time ministering — "light ministry," he called it — to men and women who had come to see the wall.

"Just walking around chatting with the guys, asking about what branch they were in, things like that," said Father Laramie, who leads retreats and is a spiritual director at White House though he isn't leading this retreat.

He was merely kibitzing in what is called "the ministry of presence," just being present to listen.

Almost 50 years later, pain and trauma suffered in the long-ago conflict are often as present and fresh as if occurring yesterday for veterans from Vietnam or other conflicts. World War II and Korean War veteran stoically forged ahead in civilian life, simply not talking about the wounds deep within. Meanwhile, Vietnam War veterans experienced the horrors of war but unlike the "Greatest Generation" returned home, not to a heroes welcome but to blatant derision, being spat upon and called names.

More recently, men and women have returned from serving their country in wars in Iraq or Afghanistan to standing ovations and recognition at sporting events on the jumbo-tron.

The modern military also recognizes problems with which soldiers have to deal in returning to civilian life: post-traumatic stress disorder, primary among them. Soldiers can't un-see the horrors they have seen, or un-experience the horrors they have experienced. Fire fights, roadside bombs, destruction and death.

"That whole experience has changed anyone who was served," Bill Schmitt said.

Which is where the White House comes in with its first veterans's retreat, on the heels of its initial first-responders retreat this past fall. Both are destined to become annual affairs.

Schmitt, the first lay director at the White House, initiated the veteran's retreat. A veteran himself — of the Marines in the Vietnam Era, though he never served in combat — he has taken to heart the mandate to "be bold and creative," with the veteran's retreat appropriately filling the bill.

"St. Ignatius himself was a veteran," Schmitt said. "He was injured in battle and wanted books of heroism and chivalry, and they brought him books on the saints. He got interested and received a spirtual awakening while he was recovering."

While sainthood probably isn't the goal for retreatants, being closer to God is.

"God is a very powerful source of strength, especially to people who are recovering either from illness or other types of trauma in their lives," said Schmitt, noting that adding "a tool to the veteran's tool box to rely on God and prayer rather than some of the destructive ways to deal with those issues."

Jesuit Father Jim Conroy, out of the Boston area, helped "brain-storm this thing," said Schmitt, noting that Father Conroy has led similar retreats around the country. "I said, 'Come down here to the White House and lead one.'"

The timing also was perfect, with a rare open weekend at White House "right before our nation's birthday; it makes a lot of sense to do it at that time," Schmitt said.

The retreat is non-denominational, open to all religions not just Catholic, World War II to any of the current deployments. Retreat guides also are veterans who previously have been on retreats, and White House has worked closely with VA chaplain Father Robert Collingwood.

At the Vietnam Wall, Father Laramie talked briefly with Allan Jones of Desoto. A Naval veteran of the Vietnam War, Jones came to pay his respects to his first cousin, who died on March 16, 1967. He choked up just giving that date for Jim Goetz, "who was like a brother to me."

He also spoke with First Class Naval Petty Officer Tim Gant, who serves in the Festus Naval recruiting office. He knows of no relative on the wall, but "came out to pay my respects," he said, adding that the retreat is "worth looking into. A lot of people come out with issues. They leave part of themslves over there." 

Veterans retreat

What: non-denominational, co-ed spiritual retreat for veterans

When: Friday, July 1 to Sunday, July 3

Where: White House Jesuit Retreat, 7400 Christopher Drive in south St. Louis County

Cost: $50 for registration. White House operates on a free-will offering basis. Donations are welcome. Lodging and meals are provided.

Information/registration: contact Joe Parisi at (314) 416-6400 or joep@whretreat.org 

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