by Jeni Miller
“In the same way, when I think of a soldier fulfilling his office by punishing the wicked, killing the wicked, and creating so much misery, it seems an un-Christian work completely contrary to Christian love. But when I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honor and peace, then I see how precious and godly this work is; and I observe that it amputates a leg or a hand, so that the whole body may not perish.” (Martin Luther, Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved)
These words from the beloved church father, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, are echoed still today by one of the greatest–and LCMS–military heroes of our time. General John W. Vessey, Jr. served our country in active military duty for more than 46 years, beginning in 1939 when he enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard and concluding in 1985 as Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Ronald Reagan. Throughout those years, General Vessey fought in North Africa and Italy in World War II, as well as in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
In addition to his extensive active service, he also served as first commander-in-chief of the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command and as the appointed Presidential Emissary to Hanoi to negotiate with the Vietnamese government regarding the fates of missing Americans.
His numerous honors include the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Defense Distinguished Service Medals, in addition to many other military decorations. He was the recipient of the Purple Heart and other medals from 19 friendly and allied nations. In 1992, President Bush awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. General Vessey is also the only person to have ever achieved every rank the Army had to offer.
The following is an edited Lutheran Witness (LW) interview with General Vessey (GV).
LW: You have quite an impressive catalog of accomplishments and honors. Out of your extensive military career, what stands out to you as being the greatest honor, privilege or responsibility?
GV: For me, the greatest honor was the opportunity to serve for 46 years with some of the finest men and women that our country produces. It was exciting and rewarding, but when it comes down to it, most of my accomplishments and honors were due to the work of others. I am just a fellow simple human being that God allowed to be in extraordinary situations and places on this earth.
LW: Considering your service in World War II, Vietnam and Korea, what was the biggest challenge in your career and how did you overcome adversity?
GV: I had marvelous Lutheran, U.S. Army chaplains that constantly reminded me that God is in charge. Without the chaplains, my service would have been much more difficult. I often compared the chaplains to Zacchaeus in the tree. Zacchaeus was a short guy, but he climbed that tree to get up to see His Lord. The chaplains allowed me to see God when otherwise I wouldn’t have seen Him.
LW: What was the greatest blessing you encountered in your career?
GV: God has been very kind to me and my family. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful marriage, three amazing children and the opportunity to serve with hundreds of thousands of men and women in the military. That is the greatest blessing of all-the people.
LW: How does your Lutheran faith play a role in your courageous work, both when you were in active duty as well as now in retirement.
GV: I’ve been a lifelong Lutheran, and for that I am thankful. Martin Luther once wrote a pamphlet called Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved. I really took that to heart. Article 16 of the Augsburg Confession–which among other things says that Christians may serve in just wars–well, one can certainly take comfort in that too. Christ goes with us wherever we are. The Lutheran Confessions are blessings to us and make us stronger and help us understand the Word of God even more.
One blessing I encountered after active duty was the occasion to serve with some wonderful Lutherans on the Board for Mission Services and as Chairman for “For the Sake of the Church.” It was a great opportunity to help promote Lutheran education. It’s important to have a Christ-centered environment, both in higher education and in the military.
LW: In what ways are you involved in your church?
GV: At 90 years old, right now the only thing I do is participate on a committee to write a mission statement and long-range plan for my home church, Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church in Garrison, Minn. In the past though, you name it, I’ve done it: chief vacuum cleaner operator, stewardship committee member, Bible study teacher, usher . . .
LW: How can we, as Lutherans, properly view military service in light of caring for our neighbor and protecting him in his body?
GV: It first starts with Article 16 of the Augsburg Confession: It is not only right to serve but it is a duty for Christians to serve the civil community. As Luther pointed out, we live in the two kingdoms: the kingdom of God on the right and the civil on the left. We are God’s representatives in both places, but we are also fallible and sinful beings in both places, so we need to carry God’s Word with us as we do His work in the community. Being a soldier is not only okay but is even required by civil authorities for the safety of citizens.
For the young people today, I encourage them to consider a bit of service to the nation, whether it is teaching in schools or in the Armed Forces or what have you. It is an important thing, and you can take your Christian beliefs to that service, making both the service and yourself stronger.
LW: Most of us go through our lives in an occupation that does not require us to make life-altering or life-taking decisions in defense of country or self. How does the Christian soldier deal with the inner conflict that may accompany such an occupation?
LW: In the military, is there a struggle of having to compromise or follow orders that burden the conscience?
GV: There are certain things you just don’t compromise on. According to our Lutheran Confessions, we are to obey the orders of civil authorities–until we are ordered to sin. Then God is in charge.
I never allowed my Christian beliefs to be a secret. I sometimes went out of my way to be sure they weren’t a secret! When traveling to places that were enemies to the U.S., I knew that they would bug our living facilities. So I’d do my daily devotions and prayers under the bug so they could hear loud and clear where my beliefs lie. That led to a number of interesting conversations later in life. At one point during my six years of diplomatic work, I was working with former Soviet Union folks. One day I met with the former Chief Historian of the Soviet Armed Forces and he asked to speak to me privately, so we went out in the hall together. He told me that he knew I was a Christian and he wanted to tell me that he himself had been baptized just the day before.
I’ve been blessed to have an interesting life with the opportunity to sit with presidents and kings and dictators and prime ministers. Sometimes I’d argue with them, sometimes pray with them. It added a lot of spice to my life!
LW: Any final words of wisdom?
GV: Our Lord has given us a few orders: Follow Me. And love your neighbor as yourself. And take the Word to the far reaches of the earth. It’s not “If you want to do this, then go ahead.” There are no alternatives. And that’s an order!
About the Author: Jeni Miller is an editor-at-large for The Lutheran Witness.