Spirituality and the Soldier

An interview with a veteran about his faith, service, and call to ministry.

Jamie Hickman, second from right, planning security for the 2009 presidential elections in Uruzgan, Afghanistan.
Jamie Hickman, second from right, planning security for the 2009 presidential elections in Uruzgan, Afghanistan.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Jamie Hickman went to West Point and then Afghanistan. Read about how his military service deepened his career goals and his faith.

Lynn Freehill-Maye: What kind of kid were you growing up? Did you play with GI Joes?
Jamie Hickman: Yeah, definitely — we still have GI Joes back in my parents’ house [in Richmond, Va.]. I played sports. I was pretty good in soccer and was really into swimming. I got into running in order to cross-train and kept that up.
LFM: Tell me about the moment you decided to enlist.
JH: My senior year was when the 9/11 attacks were. I felt a definite call to serve. I wrote in my application that I might be called to be a chaplain down the road. I went into West Point with the desire to have more life experience to draw from in ministry.
LFM: Where were you stationed or deployed, and what was daily life like?
JH: After West Point, I spent a year at Fort Benning, Georgia. Then I moved to South Korea. After a year in Korea, I was assigned for three years with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I got deployed to Afghanistan.

It comes in cycles. There are times to prepare for training, times to do the training, and then times to recover from the training. You have that also for deployments — a year training, a year deployed, and a year recovering. There’s a constant looking forward, so even if you’re in the boredom phase, you see even doing paperwork as making the important or fun things happen. Most people are up by 5 in the morning. Lots of times you come home at 9 at night.

LFM: What were your especially challenging experiences?
JH: Our big job in Afghanistan was to train the Afghan National Security Forces. Basic things like paying your employees, showing up for work, knowing who is supposed to be there. We were trying to instill these habits in a war zone. But life continues — there might be an explosion or a shooting.

I did have some exposure to direct combat — being shot at, explosions — and I’ve noticed in myself a tendency to downplay that. I’ve had to struggle with acknowledging my own experience and acknowledging what my fellow human beings have been through, to unite the suffering and try to lift it up together.

“I’m discerning the chaplaincy but focusing more right now on becoming a priest. Wherever I go, I’ll probably have veterans in the parish.”
LFM: How does your experience square with movies like The Hurt Locker and Lone Survivor?
JH: I read Lone Survivor in Korea, saw the movie, and cried a bit. Hurt Locker I’ve chosen not to see. I think the ideal of human dignity and it being worthy of sacrificing comes across very clearly in Lone Survivor. What doesn’t come across as clearly is that war can be confusing sometimes, and some of the audience may perceive it as glorification of violence, which we don’t want.
LFM: How was your faith challenged?
JH: At Fort Benning, training cycles were intense, but I would go to a parish when I could. In the deployment, I saw a chaplain five times in 12 months. For Christmas, an Australian priest flew in and celebrated Mass with us. We had nothing for Easter. It made me long for the Eucharist more, but it made me see Christ more in the others with whom I was deployed.
LFM: You’re becoming an Army chaplain. How did your service affect your faith?
JH: I wrestled with that, especially during the second half of my deployment. We lost two company commanders and two platoon leaders. It made me appreciate more the service and sacrifice those leaders bring to people. It made me think more and more that this was a good and holy thing to do, to continue serving in the military. [I realized that] after coming back I’d have a year to get my mind straight after combat, then enter formation for the priesthood. A very ordinary thing — the timing of it — seemed to be God’s subtle way of speaking to me.
LFM: How do you relate Jesus’ teachings to your military service? 
JH: It is nice that, in the New Testament, the greatest faith in Israel is coming from the centurion. He has a servant who needs to be healed but says his house isn’t worthy for Jesus to come to. We say his words at Mass, “Lord, I am not worth that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.“ For the soldier to bring about the mercy of God, there’s a real beauty in that.
LFM: What do you hope to share with the soldiers you counsel?
JH: I’m discerning the chaplaincy but focusing more right now on becoming a priest. Wherever I go, I’ll probably have veterans in the parish. Remembering there’s hope — that God has a plan for all this — and if you have experienced the ugliness of war, there is so much good that can come out of that rough experience. Those painful wounds are where God touches us the most and makes us stronger.
LFM: What could civilians understand better?
JH: There are a couple extremes — people who want to over-praise, or the people being afraid of veterans — that they might have PTSD. There’s a happy medium. People are struggling and have an experience of sorrow. As you get to know people better, have those conversations. There’s a healing process as you talk about whatever they experienced. You don’t necessarily ask direct questions like “Did you get shot at?” If you’re aware that this person is a veteran, tell some of your own stories, just like with normal stories among friends.

A special thank you to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, for their help in setting up this interview. If you or someone you know is serving in the military, connect them with the archdiocese’s website and AMS Catholic Faith Deployed mobile app.