St. Michael school in downtown Wheaton is where I did most of my 5 year sentence as an altar boy. Aside from the usual drudgery of having to wake up at 5 so I could serves 6AM mass, the job did have its upside. Great view of the babes from up there and communion time was a highlight.
We used to get to leave class if there was a wedding at St. Mike's, ..or a funeral.
Weddings were fun of course, and funerals were a real drag as you might expect. Thing about funerals is that I would actually pay attention to the words spoken by someone I didn't know about a deceased person I also didn't know. It was like getting to know a little about a person I could never know by way of the shared grief of the people they did know. I could tell when someone's death hit hard. It showed in the faces of the mourners. And there were those other times when I'd notice someone checking their watch during the funeral mass. Over the loss already.
On Saturdays, during the final years of the Vietnam War, we had what they called "Benediction and Prayers for Peace." Basically just did the stations of the cross, some incense was burned (which I can still smell Gerlich), and the really big monstrance with the over-sized Eucharist was hauled out. That was only for really serious occasions at St. Michael's church, and the parishioners really prayed their asses off on those Saturdays. I did too. That's back when I still hadn't completely ruled out the efficacy of prayers.
There were times when serving the benedictions that I would see my grade school classmates out there in the pews. Sitting alone. Sheila Murphy lived close to school, and was there quite often. Voluntarily went to church! A foreign concept to me back then. Sheila's the one who sold me my copper Vietnam POW/MIA bracelet which, in hindsight, is kind of amazing. She was in 8th grade, and yet she was already all tuned in to the conflict in Southeast Asia.
Sheila kept track of who had which POW/MIA guy, and would test us in the halls to recall the name without checking our bracelets. (Sheila thought some people were just using the things as fashion accessories apparently.)
Kelvin Maines was my guy, just in case Sheila's reading this.
Saw a lady at benediction one day way n the back just bawling her eyes out. No surprise to see Murph sit down next to her in the pew and start patting her on the shoulder. Sheila was good people. Turned out the lady had lost her son in Nam and would come to St. Mikes for these "prayers for peace" with some regularity, although I hadn't noticed her before.
Maybe it was the crying.
After mass I talked to John Prello, the greatest priest I've ever known, and asked him what it's like to be seen as a source of comfort for the bereaved. He spoke in generalities about giving comfort to people who had lost family members, mainly the elderly, and said essentially he's a sympathetic ear and a trusted friend more than a counselor.
Dealing with someone like the crying mother of son killed in Vietnam was a different story. Prello hated the Vietnam War, and while he never actually came out and said it, I got the impression he resented having to priest up because of it. Hard enough to be a pillar of strength for someone whose son died in a car crash, harder still to tell the parents of a son who came home from Vietnam in a bag that he died doing what he loves and for a good reason.
On Jan 25, 2008, Staff Sgt. Robert Miller, your basic Green Beret, was on a patrol in the Kunar province of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border along with eight Special Forces ass-kickers and about a dozen Afghan troops.
They came under heavy fire, and by various accounts it seems that Rob Miller charged the enemy, simultaneously firing his weapon and throwing hand grenades, in an effort to draw enemy fire away from his comrades. After being hit, Rob continued calling in coordinates of gun emplacements so they could be targeted for airstrikes. 5 other squad members were wounded, and those who survived credited Rob for saving their lives.According to Rob's friend, Staff Sgt. Nick McGarry, the last thing Rob Miller said to him was "If I get killed on this mission, I don't want to be remembered for dying, I want to be remembered for who I was."
Robert Miller died that day.
Today, there was a special ceremony held at the White House. Phil and Maureen Miller traveled to Washington to meet with President Obama, and to accept the posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor their son earned that day in Kunar province near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.
In addressing Rob's parents, President Obama said.."Today and in the years to come, may you find some comfort in knowing that Rob gave his life doing what he loved -- protecting his friends and defending his country. You gave your oldest son to America, and America is forever in your debt."
Today in Wheaton they held a special ceremony to celebrate the life of Staff Sgt. Robert Miller, killed at the age of 24. This afternoon, a mass was held in St. Michael's church to honor the memory of Rob, who graduated from there in 1998. I don't know if they still have benedictions and prayers for peace on Saturday at St. Mikes, but I wonder what John Prello would say about Rob's death.They're calling Rob a hometown hero in Wheaton, but to completely honest about it, I don't know what the fuck that even means anymore.
Robert J Miller- 1984-2008