Our Views: Monday and daily, honor veterans by celebrating freedom

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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ask Monsignor Donn Heiar how many masses he said and confessions he heard during a recent four-month deployment with U.S. troops in southwest Asia, and he can cite the numbers from memory: 117 and 371, respectively.

Ask how many flag-draped caskets he prayed over during solemn airport ramp services with military rites, and he can’t tell you. He didn’t want to keep count and says, “Even one is too many.”

Monsignor Heiar is affectionately called “Father Donn” by many parishioners at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Janesville, where he has been assigned for a second stint as pastor. The congregation is delighted to have back this talented, passionate preacher, whose sermons have been known to evoke strong emotions from listeners. The recent deployment was his second with the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing.

Those caskets at airports didn’t always hold U.S. soldiers. Sometimes, they held troops  from other coalition countries engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom. Sometimes, they held government contractors. Sometimes, the services involved more than one casket.

A decade after we first sent U.S. soldiers into Iraq, then Afghanistan and elsewhere, the “weariness of war” has left many Americans numb. Amid troop drawdowns, those still serving overseas aren’t always on our minds. Those airport services that Heiar took part in, however, are sad reminders that many U.S. soldiers—probably more in more countries than we imagine—are still deployed and dying regularly, if not daily.

His overseas service strengthened Heiar’s respect and appreciation for soldiers as our nation pauses Monday to mark another Veterans Day.

How can we honor their sacrifices? Attend a Veterans Day service. Support organizations that support veterans.

Heiar has observed the great care and programs that help soldiers re-enter civilian life. Yet many veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and wind up battling alcohol and drugs. Organizations such as Rock County Dryhootch strive to help. The group hopes to open a coffeehouse where veterans can enjoy a safe, substance-free environment and get support and information for themselves and their families.

Heiar also urges support for families of deployed soldiers. Seeing their sacrifices while serving a previous parish, and knowing troops overseas needed more priests, compelled him to seek the Air National Guard chaplaincy post.

As a Roman Catholic priest, Heiar cannot marry and raise a family. Instead, his fellow soldiers will forever be his family. He urges us to remember them Monday and every day by celebrating our freedoms.

“As a Catholic priest, I can get up every morning, come over to church and freely celebrate the sacraments of our faith. We are not threatened; we are not antagonized. That freedom comes from the sacrifices of so many who served our country and upheld our Constitution. We hold in our hearts the fallen warriors who have given their lives in the wars and campaigns we’ve been involved in through the years.”

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