BOLESŁAWIEC, Poland – Within many military members resides a driving sense of giving. Whether it’s sacrificing time away from family or physically offering themselves in selfless service, Soldiers often carry a mantle emblazoned with the fiber of fortitude.
In the coming months, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Rich West, 1st Infantry Division chaplain, encourages service members to use the opportunities presented during the holiday season to reflect on themselves and their military experience.
In 2001, while working as a civilian pastor, West recalls witnessing the events of Sept. 11. At the time, West was busy planting a church in Arizona. A former enlisted Marine, West observed from a distance as the towers fell. At this moment, he remembers wrestling with two observable fates.
On one hand, rested the compelling opportunity to re-enlist and join the fight head on as a rifleman. On the other, a calling to place his future at the helm of a more pastoral approach.
“I didn’t want to be on the sidelines,” said West. “There was enough of the Marine in me still that watching everything unfold from the news wasn’t going to be ok. Supporting as a pastor from the local church wasn’t going to be enough.”
So in 2004, with the support of his denomination, West decided to join the U.S. Army as a chaplain. A privilege, he acknowledges, which allows him to support those who serve.
Over the next 19 years, West settled into his chosen path. Before traveling to Poland in support of the 1st Infantry Division, West embarked upon two deployments to Iraq. In time, he found that deployments often become the arena in which Soldiers can test their grit and resilience.
“All deployments are inherently stressful,” said West. “You could be deployed to the beaches of the Bahamas and that’s going to have challenges. Soldiers are going to be out of kilter just by virtue of the fact that they are away from their loved ones.”
Throughout the holiday season, especially during the month of November, there are several opportunities to pause and reflect upon certain moments of history. Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the First World War, coincides with Veterans Day.
“As we go into the holiday season, it’s a great time for service members to be asking themselves what these holidays are about and to figure out the real meaning of them,” said West.
Of course, Thanksgiving Day holds these moments too.
“I love football, I love turkey, I love family and I love friends, but we lose the meaning of it if that’s all we participate in,” said West. “We only get half of the equation right.”
Especially during the holiday season, when the strain of being away from home tends to compound and contract, West often finds there exists a natural tendency within people to focus themselves on the harder and darker aspects of life.
“We have to retrain ourselves to see the good, to find the good and to hunt the good stuff,” said West. “There’s always something to be grateful for. There’s always a silver lining in the cloud. We just have to train ourselves to see it.”
To encourage a more positive outlook, West notes the importance of the U.S. Army’s presence in Europe and the Big Red One’s current mission to support NATO partners and allies.
“I think it is hugely significant that we are here,” he said. “I think our presence has had a very positive and mitigating effect.”
West notes there are benefits of being able to walk away with the understanding that through service, purpose and meaning can be brought into people’s lives.
“There should be a sense that we, as a family, are participating in something that’s bigger than ourselves, bigger than our family and bigger than our Army. That is something to be grateful for.”
According to West, every Soldier is doing that. To see the grand spectrum of service and action Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division have made trips to two significant historical locations since arriving in Europe. In addition to the present mission of the day, trips to the beaches of Normandy and the camps at Auschwitz serve to remind Soldiers of the magnitude of U.S. involvement in the world and to appreciate their own decisions to enlist in the armed forces.
“If we look at these sacrifices in positive terms then we are making these sacrifices for the greater good, for our constitution, for our country and for Europe,'' said West. “Knowing that, helps us to feel good about the sacrifices we are making. We are stewards of the gift of freedom. Each generation has to take up that mantle and steward that which we have received.”