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Keep the faith: corps beliefs guide combatants through trials, tribulations

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- It was always easy to tell when one of my former operations group commanders was dismissing me. He would say, "Keep the faith!" But to keep the faith was not an easy task. Year-after-year, dozens of times a year, Airmen from that unit went into harm's way where people were hurt and souls were scarred.

The effect of combat on faith is not a new concept. I grew up with the evening news reporting the death count in Vietnam every day. A Vietnam era solider turned Veterans Administration chaplain wrote a thoughtful book about his war-born crisis of faith long before most Americans had heard of Iraq. In II Samuel 11 we find King David, suffering from battle fatigue, failing to lead his army into battle. Other documents, more than 4,000 years old, graphically describe humankind's struggle to find meaning in the midst of the chaos and carnage of combat.

"How does a good and just God allow the existence of evil?" Theodicy seeks to answer the question. In the face of combat, theodicy is often the stumbling block of faith. The entire book of Job is devoted to the question of theodicy. In 1981, a bestseller was written that attempt to answer the question--what is God doing when bad thing happen to good people?

Time in a combat zone immerses one in a lesson on the gross inhumanity that humankind inflicts upon itself. Combat can cause a person to question basic beliefs, such as:
- The world is a safe place.
- People are good.
- God is loving and just.

Core beliefs help us categorize events and deal with them. When foundational beliefs are shaken by the earthquake of trauma, a person's belief system may be reduced to shambles. Life itself may appear uncertain or meaningless. What we believe about ourselves, others, God, and our relationships matters immensely. So, if we're confronted with unimaginable evil and see God as unable or uncaring, our sense of well-being may be shattered and our hope dashed. Before that happens, we must strengthen our faith.

We began as a nation committed to "freedom of religion" but are rapidly becoming a nation in which faith has become an "off limits" subject. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons, but I would like to focus on one reason: my faith needs to be tested! I would never consider taking a PT test without any preparation. I do not want to go into battle with equipment that someone thought was good, but has proved to be effective. Faith is crucial to me, it is at the core of my being, and I want my faith tested long before the battle.

Like our nation's founders, we come from a variety of faiths. I believe we need more than tolerance of one another's faith beliefs; we need to live what the framers of the Declaration of Independence boldly proclaimed, "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." The framers often hotly debated differences, but were held together in a tight community knowing that they ultimately stood together or hanged separately.

Untested, unexamined, unquestioned faith is a recipe for failure in combat--a time when I most need faith and our very lives depend on one another.

During my many years of public school, college, and graduate schools, I encountered lots of trainers. They were an "easy A", listen to what they said class and regurgitate it on the test. It was a "monkey see, monkey do" experience that left me unprepared for much more than passing the class.

I also encountered a few teachers who were a royal pain in the semester. These teachers understood the Socratic method. They questioned you over and over until your mind was either cogent or like minced meat. They asked you to clarify your position, they poked holes in your hypotheses, they forced hypothetical situations on you that demanded you to compromise your position, and then they really made you think.

We can sharpen each others faith by being willing to talk about our deepest beliefs and convictions, by allowing others to challenge those beliefs, to pick them apart, to confront them with hypothetical situations. This will help each of us to sharpen our own faith. We can only do this if we first understand as military members that we too "mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."