By McKenna MIDDLETON
From the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. to the Two Strike Park War Memorial in La Crescenta, the names of fallen heroes serve as immortalized reminders of those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting their country. However, these are not just names; behind these thousands of names stand families and friends, love and loss.
For some, time in the military offers a chance to grow spiritually and personally in ways that affect decisions down the road. Crescenta Valley High School track and field coach Dennis Oliver found his time in the Army during the Vietnam War gave him a distinct perspective and skill set that he later applied to his lifelong teaching career.
“There’s a lot of growing up that happens with that military experience that makes it worthwhile and important,” Oliver said. “It was a unique experience because you serve your country, but you are also seeing a different picture of life which, for me, made me thankful and count my blessings.”
Apart from providing a space to encourage spiritual maturity, the military reinforces a sense of purpose that Christianity expounds. Bill Flanders, pastor of First Baptist Church at La Crescenta, also served five and a half years as a pilot in the Marine Corps in California just after the Vietnam War.
“My faith as a Christian tells me that God has a purpose and design for our lives so that what we do is a calling,” Flanders said. “So I felt like the time that I was in the Marine Corps was as much a calling as the time that I’m a pastor, that I was called during that season of my life to serve my country, to be a source of influence for good while I was in the Marine Corps.”
While faith and the military share some core values, not everything lines up. In his role as a pastor, Flanders encourages parents and children who serve in the military to balance the two to allow for personal and spiritual growth.
“In some ways there’s a high correlation between the military and religion and being Christian and in other ways there are a lot of differences in there,” Flanders said. “So I guess the faith part is you just focus on the side where there’s congruence, the idea of honor and caring and self-sacrifice.”
The American Legion explains the flag folding ceremony on its website as an example of such correlation. Each fold of the flag symbolizes some aspect of “the same religious principles on which our great country was originally founded.” The fourth fold, for instance, represents a dependence on God’s guidance in times of war and peace.
In the face of loss, in particular, the dependence on faith by those in the military can become equally crucial and challenging.
“The rallying cry of the gospel is that death isn’t the end,” Christian Assembly youth pastor Levi Walker said. “Death has been beaten and so even though it’s still a point of grief for a time, it’s not ultimately hopeless; it’s ultimately very hopeful… It feels like death wins in the moment, but the truth is that it doesn’t. And that is a foundation for hope that Christians stand on.”
As John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” teaches, the principle of self-sacrifice connotes a point of continuity between Christianity and the military.
“The idea which is heavily involved in the Christian faith is that of self-sacrifice,” Flanders said. “Obviously, the example of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins on our behalf and for us to have eternal life for our faith in him, it sets that standard of self-sacrifice. You’re doing this to serve others and there’s a cost, but that’s what our faith is about.”