We can work for peace and still support our troops

Even as the church pursues nonviolence, our troops deserve support.
Peace & Justice

Today, as a middle-aged journalist who covers news in the Catholic Church, I often work from a comfortable home office. But 25 years ago, I was a 21-year-old U.S. Army soldier in Kuwait.

In February 1998, President Bill Clinton mobilized my mechanized infantry unit, normally stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia, to the Persian Gulf. Tensions in the region had risen to a near-boiling point over Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s resistance to a UN Security Council mandate to eliminate his purported stockpile of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Our presence gave then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan the leverage he needed to convince the Iraqi strongman to back down, at least for a time.

More than 20 years later, I often think about that deployment, which coincided with the final months of my three-year active-duty enlistment. Today I reflect on my military service from the perspective of a practicing Catholic who, in his mid-40s, has taken to heart Pope Francis’ teaching in Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship) that “countering violence with violence” results in greater evils and enormous suffering.

I sometimes ask myself: Would I still enlist in the Army at 17 if I knew then what I have since internalized about the superiority of nonviolence to armed conflict, as well as Pope Francis’ words in his 2020 encyclical that it is now “very difficult” at best for nations to justify military action given the brutality of modern combat?


The short answer is yes. I would still raise my hand and take the oath to defend the United States Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I would do so because I believe serving in a nation’s military is an honorable calling that can preserve the peace and protect the innocent. But military service might not be well understood by people of good faith who have never served and may have reservations about any association with the armed forces.

The first and most important thing to know is that the average military service member does not enlist with the desire to wage violent combat. The main reason I joined the Army after graduating high school was to earn college money and, in my teenage naivety, to experience adventure and “see the world.” Like many other young people, especially in a pre-9/11 world, I did not necessarily equate military service with warfare.

With few exceptions, almost no one in uniform wants to be deployed to a war zone. Given the choice, I would have spent my final months of active duty not in Kuwait but working a regular 40-hour week on base and enjoying a normal social life, spending time with my then-girlfriend, or going to the movies.

Most troops would rather be home with their families instead of persevering through the deprivations of war. That is why care packages, letters, photographs, birthday cards, phone calls, magazines, DVDs, internet access, and other goods from the home front are such morale boosters for troops. “Mail call” was the highlight of my days in Kuwait, because it reminded me of life back home. Resting at night on an uncomfortable aluminum and canvas cot, I found great solace reading with a flashlight a one-page handwritten letter from a friend.


One does not need to approve of a particular mission—or war for that matter—to show that kind of support for the individual service members whom our nation continually puts in harm’s way. The troops are not nameless figures in the ranks, all body armor, fatigues, and weapons. They are human beings with their own life stories, hopes, and dreams. These are people we know. They are our relatives, friends, coworkers, and classmates. The individual serviceperson is the neighbor whom God commands us to love as much as ourselves.

I sometimes urge people not to conflate the troops with the lies and miscalculations of politicians. Rarely did I or the soldiers in my unit talk or argue about politics. Most of us were young single men in our late teens and early 20s. Our conversations and interactions dealt mostly with topics such as girls, sports, partying, drinking, sex, duty assignments, and grievances over our platoon leaders and company commanders.

In Kuwait, I remember soldiers often asking commanding officers if they had any word on when we could return home. Early in that deployment, our battalion commander told us that he had no idea how long we would be staying in the desert. Our morale took a big hit that day. I have a vivid memory of my platoon marching back to our company area in total silence.

Sometime after Easter 1998, a congressional delegation traveled to our desert base to see for themselves how the troops were holding up. Despite our commanders’ best efforts to censor our criticisms, enough of our unvarnished opinions reached the ears of those congressional leaders and their aides, then made their way into print and helped build some political pressure for the White House to bring us back home.


Besides letters and mail packages, I am convinced that political action—even something as simple as writing a letter to the editor or calling your elected representative—is a great way to show support for the troops. Without sufficient pushback from constituents, some politicians will not hesitate to send our military servicepeople to fight unjust wars.

Civilians speaking up for their loved ones in the military can also cast a public spotlight on issues that many people in uniform are often discouraged from talking about. These include mental health concerns such as addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, not to mention the repeated failures of military officials to fully investigate physical abuse and sexual assault allegations in the ranks.

In hindsight, I believe the post-9/11 environment—jingoistic and thirsty for revenge—made it easier for our nation’s leaders to attack Iraq in 2003. St. Pope John Paul II rightly condemned that “preemptive” war as an unjust invasion. But too many of us ignored his warning. Our government’s lies and obfuscations in the years that followed resulted in generations of Americans needlessly fighting and dying.

The nation’s military families also deserve our understanding and support. Even in peacetime, military personnel are constantly deploying for field training exercises and going weeks, if not months, without seeing their loved ones. Serving in a combat unit that often trained for rapid deployment, I saw multiple marriages fail and the devastating personal effects that had on the soldiers. I remember conversations with some of the married soldiers’ wives, who described often feeling alone and isolated, especially since most did not have friends and relatives near the base.


Most of our “fighting” people in uniform are young, barely out of high school, and on their own for the first time. Their lack of real-world experience and savvy makes them extremely vulnerable to predatory lenders and exploitative financial advisors. As a 19-year-old Army private, I fell victim to those schemes and had money problems throughout my enlistment.

Youth, relative immaturity, and the stresses of military life all contribute to social pathologies on and around military installations such as drunk driving offenses, ill-advised relationships and short-lived marriages, and financial difficulties. Drunk driving was such a particular problem that the individual companies in my battalion all posted signs advertising how many days since one of their soldiers had been arrested for driving under the influence. As a society, I believe we can help those young service members by reaching out, providing safe spaces, and mentoring them to avoid the pitfalls that ensnare so many 18- and 19-year-olds fresh out of boot camp or basic training.


Despite my own mistakes as a young adult, I served out my enlistment and received an honorable discharge, thanks in large part to the support of family and friends who were there when I needed them most, especially when my fellow soldiers and I had to answer the nation’s call in 1998.

This article also appears in the March 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 3, pages 19-20). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.


Images: Courtesy of Brian Fraga

About the author

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga is a staff reporter at the National Catholic Reporter. He covers news pertaining to the Catholic Church in the United States. He was previously a contributing editor at Our Sunday Visitor and has written for a variety of Catholic publications over the last decade.

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