A former Army chaplain shares hope and healing with other veterans
Father David Peters took the long way from Pennsylvania to Central Texas, via Iraq. When the attacks occurred on September 11, 2001, he had been out of the Marine Corps for two years and was serving as a youth minister in a Mennonite congregation. He was a young husband and father when he signed on after the attacks. Just 27 years old, David was the second youngest Army chaplain at the time; but he felt strongly that “those young soldiers would need someone to bring God’s grace into a place that didn’t have much.”
Journeying through war and rebuilding his life afterward provoked diverse reactions: resolve and numbness. Anxiety and anger. Betrayal and identity loss. Healing and, finally, a “renewed sense of God’s love” during his two years as associate rector at Grace Episcopal.
Along the way, Father David remarried, and he and his wife have a baby. He won a national competition for the inaugural Reconciliation Preaching Prize and presented a 9/11 memorial sermon in 2015 at St. Paul’s Chapel in Trinity Parish on Wall Street. The parish dates from 1697, and the chapel served first responders as a rest station during the days following 9/11. Last November, near Veterans Day, Father David spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He helped start the Episcopal Veteran Fellowship; four groups now meet in Killeen, Georgetown, Round Rock, and Austin. He’s currently working on an advanced degree at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. And he’s written a book, Death Letter: God, Sex, and War (2014), which has been adapted as a movie.
Yet even these successes, in the retelling, forced him to relive that year in Iraq (2005–2006) and its aftermath. He still watches the door during his classes, perhaps remembering his drill instructor’s mantra: “Use everything you have in a fight; never back down, never surrender.” Evening traffic slowing to a crawl makes him anxious and combative as he remembers driving among burning vehicles at dusk en route to another base. He knows that veterans “have a hard time—with the world threats today, you’re always on alert.”
Father David speaks of soldiers being trained for war, “removing the lid of civilization,” and later finding it “hard to put the lid back on.” Although he recognizes that the everyday soldier “couldn’t get too philosophical,” he still feels frustration about American idealism in thinking that “we could create a safe democracy over there.” Each day in war zones requires that men and women focus on the mission at hand, “enmeshed with those you count on.” In his case, it was his friend Kurt who helped him balance their bleak existence. He says that Iraq was “like Vegas, like a 24-hour lottery. It was surreal at first, then an alternate normal, even mundane. I remember shocking events in retrospect, often unnoticed at the time.”
Several events remain forever etched in David’s mind. On one occasion, a soldier standing guard in a tower fired at an enemy combatant some distance away. The soldier was shocked that he had actually killed the man, despite knowing that he had acted appropriately. Father David witnessed frequent misuse of power as well. Once while he was driving a supply truck, his small convoy slowly approached an Iraqi checkpoint. An Iraqi soldier glanced at Father David’s female assistant, turned toward an old man to whom he was talking, and punched him in the stomach. There seemed to be no reason except that the soldier could do so with impunity.
Other events brought tragedy numbingly close. Father David served a construction platoon whose convoys were often tasked with clearing the sides of roads, and it was his custom to “walk the truck line” before they left the base, chatting with soldiers and offering prayers. He remembers one young mechanic, sitting on the front of a truck, laughing and talking. After the convoy left, the young man went to quarters and committed suicide after opening an email.
Soldiers are trained to compartmentalize, to survive, and not to quit. In interacting with other veterans now, Father David understands that life during war is fatalistic, lived with a sense of impending doom, “a slow drip of anxiety.” Father David also understands that these feelings often follow soldiers home. Some reintegrate easily into daily life; some live each day with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In Father David’s view, soldiers need training for reconciliation as well as for war, a process he admits is hard. He said in his 9/11 sermon, “Most combat veterans have very little anger or hatred toward the insurgents who tried to kill us in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those men were just doing their job; we were just doing ours. . . . Anger is more personal, toward losing, toward loved ones . . . toward ourselves.” Because he had choices in how to minister, Father David wonders if he could have done more as a chaplain, yet ultimately, he feels he did a good job. After he left his unit, no one needed him in quite the same way, so he has sought new purpose. For him, reconciliation is ongoing: confessing to another priest, being “in community,” and bringing experiences to God for “meaningful change.”
Reconciliation was hardest in 2007. Father David, just back from Iraq, was asked to assist with communion in an Episcopal-Lutheran service at the Fort Hood chapel. It was an exciting event because both Presidents Bush and other members of their family were in attendance. Being home felt great, yet within the next week, David discovered that “home” had ended because of his former wife’s infidelity during his absence.
Her betrayal and their divorce spun him downward for months through denial, anger, weight loss, and too much drinking. He ran, miles and miles and miles; sought help from counselors; prayed; and began a new assignment as a chaplain at Walter Reed Hospital. His comeback was slow and painful, and he still speaks of losing his identity for a while, of losing control, but he never lost the certainty that God was in charge. He says wryly, “In Iraq, it was like the Jerry Springer Show to listen each day in my office—post-Iraq, Iwas the Jerry Springer Show.”
Eventually, Father David left the military and pursued ordination as an Episcopal priest. Even as a teenager, he felt called to ministry. He loved the stories, the traditions, and “ancient things,” but in those young years, he also felt the need “to toughen up.” David saw relatively few opportunities in modern America to prove his masculine identity, but leaving for Marine boot camp the day after high school graduation seemed an answer to his quest. Little did he know that the trajectory of his life would be further altered by events on September 11, 2001, by travails of war, and by a painful divorce. Today, his journey combines faith and military experience and allows him to reach other veterans with a voice of truth. He walked the walk, and he offers scarred warriors a path toward healing.
Father David Peters left Grace Episcopal in January. He continues his ministry at St. Mark’s in Austin and through the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship.