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Of Chaplains and War

July 16, 2017

I cannot tell you exactly when I first “met” Chaplain Jesse E. Huston. It was at some point after I was commissioned as a Chaplain Candidate, Second Lieutenant in 1985. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota. His grave is right next to the road that circles the outer perimeter of the cemetery. This was in the days before the Internet and Personal Computers so all I knew was what the headstone said. Chaplain Jesse E. Huston, 102nd Illinois Infantry. I recognized that the headstone was a Civil War era Veterans stone.

For years I would pass by his grave on my regular jogging route. It was ironic that I discovered his grave after I had raised my right hand and sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Chaplain Huston remained in my heart and I would visit his grave countless times through my years in uniform.

I would wonder as I stopped by just what he had experienced and seen in the bitter war that had divided our nation. I have studied the Civil War for as long as I can remember. The first time I visited the Gettysburg battlefield in 1977 I was overwhelmed by the spirit of that hallowed ground. Such horror that was experienced defied imagination. In a strange way I felt a connection with this Chaplain who had served so long ago.

During our last visit to Austin in June, I stopped by his grave as we visited other dear friends I had known who now lie in Oakwood’s hallowed ground. In the custom of my Jewish sisters and brothers, I left a stone on his gravestone to signify that this person buried there had been visited and was remembered by someone. 

I have been doing some research since that visit and found out some additional information about my brother in uniform, Chaplain Jesse Huston. His full name is Jesse Eli Huston. Jesse was born in Ontario, Canada in April of 1837. That fact blew me away as I am half Canadian (Mom was born in Vancouver, British Columbia and moved to the US when she was 19). Suddenly there was another connection between Jesse Huston and me besides the uniform we wore and the nation we both served. According to the records of the 102nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Corporal Jesse Eli Huston was mustered into Company K of the 102nd on September 2nd, 1862. On December 21st, 1862, Sergeant Jesse Huston was discharged in order to accept a Commission as a Chaplain with the Regiment. Chaplain Huston resigned his Chaplain’s commission in September of 1864.

The reason for his resignation before the end of the war is unknown. Perhaps he had come to the end of his service commitment. Perhaps he had seen and experienced too much. The Regiment was mustered out in Chicago in June of 1865. During Chaplain Huston’s time in uniform, the 102nd saw action in Tennessee and Georgia (to include Battle of Kenesaw Mountain and the Atlanta Campaign).

By comparison, in my 21 years on Active service I was deployed for a total of 12 months to the war zone and only came under fire a few times (in the air when our C-130 evaded surface to air fire and when our base in Afghanistan was mortared). Many of my sister and brother Chaplains with whom I served saw a lot more combat time and have been affected by those experiences. As General William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “thank God War is Hell or we would become too fond of it.”

So why do I find myself coming back to Chaplain Huston’s grace over and over again? Why do I seek to discover more about who Jesse Eli Huston was? It is at once simple and complex. His grave is alone… I have never seen flowers or any evidence that someone has come by to remember him. As a fellow Chaplain I feel a certain sense of kinship with him. As one who has shared the burdens of the horrors of war with sisters and brothers in uniform, I mourn. 

It is rarely the fat cats of the defense industry or the old men in D.C. who send their children off to suffer and die in order that they may get rich off of the spoils of war or feel “virile” as they wave their fake sabers. It is, instead, the children of the middle class (if that indeed exists anymore) or the poor who are sent off to die.

Time and time and time again the politicians wage a war of words which will ultimately be paid for by the blood of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines. My God, when will the madness end! 

The older I get, the more I see the futility of war. Violence only begets violence. In the words of Gandhi, the concept of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will only lead to blind and toothless people.

Joining in the prayer of a former soldier and POW, St Francis of Assisi I lift this prayer. Chaplain Huston, I believe, joins in this prayer with us…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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