By Fr. Joe Rogers
Growing up in Ottumwa, Iowa, during the 1940s, I was well aware that the United States was at war with Germany and Japan.
In the Sunday Gospels I heard Jesus say, “Love your enemies.” But my country was being threatened. I felt I had no choice but to respond.
Upon graduation from high school, I entered the Army and trained as an infantry soldier. Later, I was assigned to the 71st Infantry Division which was sent to France, awaiting the invasion of Germany. On April 2, 1945, our infantry company was ordered to observe German soldiers marching away from a small, German village. Two snipers fired on us to protect their retreat. The snipers concentrated their fire on Sergeant Melvin Densloe, a friend of mine, who died. This was my first experience with the death of an Army buddy.
After the war I took advantage of the GI Bill and graduated from St. Louis University. Then followed St. Ambrose College and St. Paul Seminary, St. Paul, Minn. I was ordained a priest of the Davenport Diocese on June 5, 1954. In October 1957, Bishop Ralph Hayes allowed me to return to the Army to help support my mother.
As a Catholic chaplain, I was assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam, from 1965-1966. At that time, more battles were fought in south Vietnam. The Viet Cong took advantage of dense, jungle foliage to provide cover as they moved about, free from observation by our planes flying overhead.
To eliminate this jungle cover, U.S. planes sprayed more than 19 million gallons of herbicides, called Agent Orange. Breathing this chemical were American soldiers searching for the enemy. Also, Vietnamese men, women and children living in the jungle area inhaled the poison into their lungs.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs recognizes the effects of this herbicide on American military personnel. The department treats heart disease, Parkinson’s and chronic B-cell leukemia. Diabetes has been treated for years, as are several types of cancer.
Thousands of innocent Vietnamese men, women and children who breathed Agent Orange into their lungs suffer from the same diseases as American soldiers. Future generations of Vietnamese will inherit many of these serious health problems.
However, the United States government refuses to provide any medical treatment for these Vietnamese victims. We ignore any responsibility for restoring their health. And the poison is passed on to future generations.
Today in Iraq and Afghanistan thousands of innocent men, women and children suffer serious injury and die from the war we are fighting in their homelands. Extensive civilian suffering and death come with every war in which we are engaged. We call it unfortunate, collateral damage and ignore any responsibilities.
If we truly wish to follow Jesus — if we want to become like him in what we say and do, we must take seriously his words in Luke’s Gospel, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-36) Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-48).
Loving our enemies involves sending men and women into developing countries to encourage their efforts for a better life with opportunities for basic education, improved health care, increased crop yields and small business opportunities. These programs will be expensive, but not nearly as costly as waging war. The results will be much more beneficial for those people and for us.
To love our enemies requires a radical change of heart, not easy … but with Jesus all things are possible.
(Fr. Joe Rogers is chaplain at the Kahl Home in Davenport.)