Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Thirty-five years ago today I swore an oath as a newly commissioned officer in the United States Army. It is an oath that along with my baptismal, confirmation, marriage, and ordination vows is the most important in my life. Almost two years before that I swore an enlistment oath on August 25th 1981.
It was a hot and smoggy summer day in Van Nuys California when drove into the parking lot of the old Armory on Van Nuys Boulevard in my 1975 yellow Chevy Monza with a black vinyl top. That night the San Francisco Giants defeated the St. Louis Cardinals by a score of 4-2 and the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Seattle Mariners 6-5 in 12 innings. In less important news the Voyager II space craft reached its lowest orbit around Saturn.
Getting out of the car I walked into the offices of the Headquarters, 3rd Battalion 144th Field Artillery of the California Army National Guard. I had in my sweaty hands the paperwork from the Army ROTC detachment at UCLA the “Bruin Battalion” accepting me into the program and allowing me to enlist simultaneously in the National Guard.
I was met by the Headquarters Battery Commander, Captain Jeff Kramer who after my commissioning would allow me to borrow his sword and sword belt to wear at my wedding with my Dress Blue Uniform. Jeff finished his career as a full Colonel in the California National Guard. He took me to Major Charles Armagost the battalion S-1 who rapidly had a clerk type up my enlistment papers and administered the oath of enlistment below:
I, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the Governor of California and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to law and regulations. So help me God.
That was the beginning of what has turned out to be a very long strange trip.
In June of 1983 I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and I took a different oath, an oath of office versus enlistment, I would repeat it again in February 1984 when I was promoted to First Lieutenant, March of 1987 when promoted to First Lieutenant, and in December 1995 when I was promoted to Major. I swore variations of it in both the Texas and Virginia Army National Guard as well before I commissioned as a Navy Lieutenant February 9th 1999. I renewed it in April 2006 upon my promotion to Lieutenant Commander and September of 2011 when I was promoted to Commander. That oath states:
I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Since I swore the oath the first time I have served in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, at sea and ashore in war and peace. I have served as a Company Commander and a Staff Officer before becoming a Chaplain. I believe that even today that there is no greater honor than to serve this country.
It is hard to believe that it has been 35 years. I do take the oath of office quite seriously especially the part about defending the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I have served 30 years I have served under six Presidents
I have not completely agreed with the actions or policies of each President and Congress that I have served. While I have deeply held political views they have never kept me from serving under administrations that I have disagreed with on major policies. Officers may have strong political views but those must always be subordinated to our oath to support and defend the Constitution.
One of my favorite heroes of the American Civil War, General Winfield Scott Hancock said “We are serving one country and not one man.” Hancock was a states rights Democrat who remained in the Union because he did not believe that secession was legal. He had no political friends in Washington and he served valiantly during and after the war. When asked about his opinion on what to do when their home state of Virginia seceded from the Union by his friends and fellow officers George Pickett, Lewis Armistead and Dick Garnett before the war in California he said “I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.”
This is not the case in much of the world. Many militaries swear allegiance to the ruler, the state, ruling political party or the majority religion. The officers in many Moslem nations combine their oath with the Bya’ah which includes a personal oath to the King or Sheik and the Islamic statement of faith.
The British military swears an oath to the Queen and her successors:
“I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors and that I will as in duty bound honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, her heirs and successors in person, crown and dignity against all enemies and will observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, her heirs and successors and of the generals and officers set over me.”
The Red Army of the Soviet Union swore an oath to “to protect with all his strength the property of the Army and the People and to cherish unto death his People, the Soviet homeland and the government of Workers and Peasants, also to respond at the first call from the government of Workers and Peasants to defend the homeland, the USSR.”
Germany has had a rather perilous history with oaths sworn by the military. The Imperial Army swore an oath to the Kaiser but when the Kaiser abdicated and the Weimar Constitution was ratified German Officers and Soldiers took this oath: “I swear loyalty to the Reich’s constitution and pledge, that I as a courageous soldier always want to protect the German Nation and its legal institutions, (and) be obedient to the Reichspräsident and to my superiors.” The history of the Republic shows that many officers and soldiers, especially those that had served under the Kaiser resented this oath.
In 1933 Hitler changed the oath to this “I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.” The current German military oath states: “I swear to serve loyally the Federal Republic of Germany and to defend bravely the right and the freedom of the German people. So help me God.”
All oaths hold potential dangers but those of the United States military officer corps is perhaps the best thought out oath in the world. The oath is to the Constitution, not a person, political party or religion. The efficacy of the oath is based on the honor of those that swear to uphold it. In times of national turmoil it is important for officers and enlisted personnel to ensure that remember that fact.
I pray that I will be faithful to the oath and the people that I serve in the coming years. It is an honor to still remain in the service of this country. I have served under six Presidents but until 2017 I never believed that I would fear the actions of the President so much that I would based on my oath to the Constitution as well as my ordination vows that I would preach against those actions in a military chapel.
But I remember that my oath is to the Constitution and not any President. I also know that as a Chaplain that I uphold the faith and values of the church that has endorsed me to remain in service as a Chaplain. My call is to serve all of those in my care, and to provide for their rights to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. That also extends to the rights of non-believers to not have a state religion shoved down their throats. It also means that I need to speak truth to those in power. I also remember the words of German General Ludwig Beck who lost his life in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20th 1944:
“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”
Beck had served 35 years before Hitler came to power and initially supported him and many of his goals, but five years later he realized that it was Hitler leading the nation to war and Germany to its destruction. His words are also something that I hold on to today and because of that I will continue to speak out when the President, his appointees, and supporters speak and act against the Constitution, the law, the American people, and against the principles that the country was founded upon, most importantly the words of the Declaration of Independence which states the most revolutionary concept ever promulgated:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
It then goes on to attack the actions of the British Crown, of which many are being repeated by President Trump and his administration.
I may not be a soldier in high command, but I do realize that my highest duty is not to obey without questioning or criticizing the actions of the President when they go against the Constitution, the law, international treaties that the United States has pledged to uphold, and basic human rights. Thus the oath that I first swore to uphold 35 years ago still matters.