In Assisi, there’s a statue of St. Francis like no other. There’s no tonsure, no brown robe, no birds, no halo. Many visitors and pilgrims don’t at first recognize this bronze of an armored soldier on his horse as the saint at all.
The statue depicts a turning point in the year 1204. Francis was on his way to fight in the Crusades. He was young, about 23. Two years earlier, he had fought in a battle between his hometown of Assisi and neighboring Perugia and was captured and imprisoned for a year until his father paid a hefty ransom. Afterward, Francis suffered a long illness. Scholars believe he was left hurt and broken, possibly suffering physical ailments as well as what we know today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By joining the Crusades, Francis might have wanted to prove he was a worthy soldier, but on his ride there, he received a divine message and came to realize that his aspirations as a knight were not to be accomplished by the sword. He turned around and headed back to Assisi.
Today, military veterans are finding a compelling and relatable figure in St. Francis. The story of the soldier who became the eminent figure for peace and humility has been especially transformative for those involved with veterans programs at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Arizona.
“I consider him my 800-year-old friend,” says Terry Araman, a combat medic in the Vietnam War and a leading advocate for veterans in Arizona. “He’s still very much alive to me.”
Located in metro Phoenix on the site of a former dude ranch, the Franciscan Renewal Center has long served as an oasis, a place to reflect, heal, and learn. It was established by Franciscan friars in 1951 under the name Casa de Paz y Bien(Home of Peace and Good). To many, it is simply known as the Casa (TheCasa.org), an integral part of the local community attracting members and support from the surrounding area.
One of those drawn to the center’s charisms—spiritual growth, healing, transformation, and service to others—is Dean Pedrotti, a 30-year veteran of the Phoenix fire department. Now both retired, Araman and Pedrotti are part of a small group that facilitates the Casa’s outreach ministry to veterans as well as to the families of veterans.
“I learned when I was a paramedic that one out of every four homeless men was a Vietnam War veteran,” Pedrotti says. “At about the same time, I was a member of the Franciscan Renewal Center, and I came to realize there’s a spirituality piece to the veteran’s experience that was not being addressed.”
The Casa’s own study on the subject showed a “lack of available spiritual programs in the Valley [metropolitan Phoenix] to meet the needs of service members, veterans, and their families.” The study said that one aspect that is typically “overlooked or conflated” in a veteran’s experience is that of moral injury.
Hampshire College humanities professor Robert Meagher, who studies and writes about the moral injuries of war, released a compendium of essays on the topic earlier this year. War and Moral Injury: A Readercalls moral injury the “signature wound” of today’s wars, but also says it’s as old as the human record of war. Meagher defines moral injury as “the transgression, the violation, of what is right, what one has long held to be sacred—a core belief or moral code—and thus wounding or, in the extreme, mortally wounding the psyche, soul, or one’s humanity.”
Other scholars and Christian counselors say war experiences can lead to spiritual injury, especially for those who have been taught that human beings are made in God’s image to serve and love God. Attacking a person in war means attacking the divine within that person, a moral transgression that can lead to spiritual brokenness.
Unabated feelings of guilt and shame are among the signs of moral or spiritual injury.
In 2010, Pedrotti and others from the Casa met with veterans’ groups and began to ponder how faith communities could respond to the lack of programs addressing these issues. They eventually connected with Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest from South Africa, and his Institute for Healing of Memories.
Father Lapsley was gravely disfigured in 1990 by a letter bomb during his work against apartheid. Battling his own demons and those of a country fractured by racial division, he went on to found Healing of Memories workshops in South Africa.
The workshops invited people to share their personal battle stories with others who had similar experiences, promoting healing and the restoration of human dignity. The aim was national reconciliation in a country divided by race, social class, and ethnicity.
With success in South Africa, the workshops moved into other countries including the United States, where they have been offered to veterans at the Franciscan Renewal Center, as well as other places in Arizona, California, Hawaii, New York, and Minnesota.
“Whether a war has been a totally unjust war or a justified war, war damages human beings,” Father Lapsley says. “And the fact that people get ill because of what they’ve been part of is not a sign that they’re crazy; it’s a sign of the fullness of their humanity.”
Father Lapsley discovered tremendous potential for healing when people with similar experiences are able to relate their painful stories to each other in an environment that is safe and nonjudgmental.
US Army veteran David Campbell suffered a traumatic brain injury in an explosion during Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 coalition forces’ attack on Iraq. The combat engineer also endured PTSD and problems with his bones and joints. One of his legs had to be amputated. The US government told him he had been exposed to a mustard agent and depleted uranium in Iraq.
Campbell recounted his story to Catholic News Service a few years ago. He said he “spent 20 years drinking and drugging” to get by, to avoid nightmares and thoughts about the war. “My way of coping was [using] alcohol and drugs.”
In 2010, Campbell made a decision not to continue on a destructive path. He began Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy to help with his PTSD symptoms and through his therapist came into contact with the Casa’s Pedrotti and Michael Wold—a Navy veteran who coordinates the Healing of Memories workshops in Arizona. In 2013, Campbell attended one of the first workshops given at the Casa. Now he is a Healing of Memories facilitator, and he and his service dog, Caleb, work with the Mesa Police Department helping officers identify signs of PTSD and the best ways to approach veterans in crisis situations.
One figure Campbell was introduced to at the Casa was St. Francis.
“I love to hear his story,” Campbell says. “He was an injured soldier. He was a combat vet. He also was a prisoner of war. He dealt with his own demons, the same demons we [veterans] all deal with. . . . I like that guy. . . . I like what he’s been through; I like what he’s come through.”
Campbell’s number-one message to hurting veterans is: “Healing is possible.”
Sharyn Conway served in the Navy for nine years and was at the forward operating base in Kuwait in March 2003 when US Marines began their march toward Baghdad at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She suffered a head injury, but to this day does not know how it happened. The injury revealed no external damage, only internal bleeding. The trauma left her with memory loss and problems speaking and standing. PTSD took its toll as well. She had horrifying flashbacks, which she says have diminished with therapy.
“I’ve been suffering for a long time,” says the veteran, now a middle school educator who teaches English to sixth graders in Goodyear, Arizona.
“Those of us who have been to war, we all suffer from survivor’s guilt,” Conway says. “We suffer from doing things that our parents and others taught us were wrong. . . . Most of us have committed the unforgivable sin. . . . We know forgiveness is out there, but we feel unworthy to accept it, to receive it.”
Conway says she has never been a particularly religious person, but a few years ago, she got an unusual call. Someone offered to pay her way to Italy for a pilgrimage. “I remember thinking, This sounds like a scam.”
The call was from the Franciscan Renewal Center, where Conway once gave a presentation with her service dog. There was a donation available to pay her way and half her husband’s way to go to Assisi with other veterans.
Like many who travel to Assisi, Conway saw that equestrian statue of St. Francis with his head hung low for the first time. “I could feel those emotions he’s expressing, those emotions of coming home and not quite fitting in. I understood that,” she recalls.
The veteran, who knew little of St. Francis in the past—“He’s that guy you see with all the animals, right?”—says she now firmly believes that because St. Francis overcame his anguish, she will too. “I just need to keep working at it.”
In Assisi, Conway also found an understanding friend and confessor in Franciscan Father Conrad Targonski, the pilgrimage host, who had served 22 years as a chaplain for the Marines. Father Conrad retired from the Marine Corps Combat Center in California in 2010 and now works as a university chaplain. He leads Assisi pilgrimages for veterans and holds St. Francis retreats at the Casa and elsewhere for veterans unable to travel there.
Father Conrad was a supervisory chaplain during Operation Iraqi Freedom and served soldiers on the front lines in the “very bloody and long-standing” battles in Fallujah, Iraq.
When he looks at the statue of St. Francis on his horse, he also knows well what Francis’ “dazed look” is about. “That’s how I was when I got back from Iraq,” he says.
“When I came back, my superior asked me what I wanted to do next. I said that I wanted to be a greeter at Walmart—I wasn’t kidding. I wanted to do something to process this whole idea of war and to see people as people once again.”
Maria Gastelum is a fighter—a rather quiet and reflective person, but very much determined. In 2003, while serving as an Army medic in a Baghdad military clinic, Gastelum fell ill from a preexisting condition and was set to be sent back to the United States for treatment. Before returning, however, she attended a party with other members of her unit where she was sexually assaulted and raped by a serviceman. Gastelum received an honorable discharge for medical reasons in 2005 and moved to Phoenix, where much of her family lives. PTSD stemming from the assault weighed heavy on her, and in 2009, she sought help from the Veterans Administration. A few years later, she heard about the Healing of Memories retreat for veterans, and she immediately called for information.
Gastelum attended two Healing of Memories workshops and two Walking with St. Francis retreats at the Franciscan Renewal Center. She says counseling had helped her with her interpersonal relationships and with her behavior, but at the retreats, she discovered healing for her spirit.
“They provided a genuine and safe place for [veterans] to tell our stories,” she says. “That’s so important. To heal you have to feel understood and safe. I realized that my spirit was damaged. We have a physical body we have to take care of, but also our spirit, our soul, needs care.” After attending Healing of Memories, she says she “felt like I had left something behind. I felt more grounded.”
Gastelum is now a certified chaplain pursuing a master’s degree in divinity. Her goal is to form a nonprofit organization that helps veterans with healing from an evangelical perspective.
Araman knows well the struggles veterans face coming home. When he returned from Vietnam, he didn’t have friends or family to go to. With discord in the United States over the Vietnam War, he says many people looked at servicemen returning from the war with anger and cynicism.
“It got down to the point where I had 37 cents in my pocket,” he remembers.
Homeless for a time, Araman eventually got back to school and worked in the medical field. After college, he worked in the corporate world. When he retired, he went to work with homeless veterans. He helped establish MANA House in central Phoenix eight years ago. The residential facility—its acronym standing for Marines, Army, Navy, and Air Force—at first took in five veterans. MANA House now is a full-fledged transitional living program and outreach center that falls under the umbrella of Catholic Charities. This year, MANA House relocated to a new facility with 76 spaces for veterans, getting them off the streets and helping them back into mainstream life.
Araman works with many veterans’ groups and organizations, including the Casa's veterans ministry. In 2016, he was inducted into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame Society for his dedication to “making homeless veterans whole again.”
He says part of the inspiration for his work comes from St. Francis.
“He’s one of my lifetime heroes,” he says. “I really need to make sure I’m doing something positive with the time I have left here on earth.”
Although healing workshops and St. Francis retreats are at the core of the Franciscan Renewal Center’s veterans ministry, it is a multifaceted program. The Casa ministry also provides household goods and support to homeless veterans as they are placed into permanent housing, moral injury education for those who are not veterans, and community engagement events, such as an annual Veterans Day picnic and social gatherings for veterans who have attended Casa programs. There are new spiritual companionship groups for male and female veterans, and Dean Pedrotti and others continue to speak to first responders about moral injury and reach out to other faith communities to share the Casa’s veterans ministry story.
They also work to bring in funding so that veterans can attend programs without cost to them. Catholic Charities is funding two Healing of Memories workshops at the Casa in the spring.
When people approach Pedrotti and ask how they can help, he tells them, “Engage and just listen.” He says civilians need to ask veterans: “What was it like? We welcome you home. Please tell us what you did on our behalf. Don’t hold back.” Then, he says, we need only to listen.
“When veterans speak, that is a sacred moment,” Pedrotti relates. “Part of our responsibility as civilians is to become good listeners. There is grace and healing each time a veteran speaks.”