Today is Veterans Day. I grew up an Army brat. After Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July, the two days we remembered in our family were Veterans Day and Memorial Day. My father, Lt. General William W. “Buffalo Bill” Quinn, a West Point graduate, would recount stories of how important it was to support and remember those who had fought for our country.
My father was a great patriot. An Episcopalian, he was also a religious man. “God and Country” were not just words to him. This was his credo.
During World War II he served as the G2 or Intelligence Officer for the Seventh Army in Germany. He was there the day the Army liberated Dachau, one of the most infamous of the Nazi Concentration camps. He had his staff photographer take pictures of what they saw when they arrived and he had scrapbooks made up of those unimaginably horrific images.
I was only four when he came back from the war. Until then I had believed most fervently in God, praying every night for him to bless my father and all of those at war, my mother, my family my dog, Blitzkrieg, and even my doll Polly. Seeing those scrapbooks completely shattered my belief in that God. How could there be a loving God who would allow such atrocities to be committed by humans on each other. My father’s pained explanations did not assuage my doubts or rage.
From then on, I refused to say my prayers or sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I stopped going to Sunday school, developing a mysterious stomach ailment around 9 a.m. each week. When the long anticipated movie “Alice in Wonderland” opened at the State Theater in Arlington, Virginia, one Sunday afternoon, my father told me that if I was too sick to go to Sunday School then I was clearly too sick to go to the opening of the movie about my lifelong heroine. I didn’t believe he was serious. I didn’t go to Sunday School. He was serious. He refused to allow me to go to the movie, the biggest social event of the year. Unfortunately for him, it backfired. Then I really was convinced there was no such thing as God. Needless to say my father was devastated by my lack of belief.
Six years later, my father was back at war. We were stationed in Tokyo where he was assigned to the staff of General Douglas MacArthur. He was sent to the front lines of Korea, given his own regiment and within months was a war hero, nicknamed Buffalo Bill, and appearing on the pages of Stars and Stripes with frequency.
I was so distraught over the danger he faced every day that I ended up in the pediatric ward of Tokyo General Hospital unable to eat or drink, placed on an IV and not allowed to see my mother for months. (The doctor in charge of the ward had deemed it too distracting for the nursing staff to have the parents visit their sick children. Only if you were dying were your parents allowed to visit.)
The hospital was filled with wounded and dying soldiers from Korea, a daily reminder to me my father’s perilous situation.
This was a defining moment for me. I wanted to pray for him but I couldn’t. Once again I didn’t believe that a God who could allow these young soldiers, some only six years older than I was, to be mutilated and die so brutally.
One day I was given a special treat. I was given a small allowance for candy and a nurse took me in my wheelchair down to the hospital PX. Prolonging my excursion I looked in all of the cases to see what was for sale. And then I saw it; a small plastic iridescent cross on a stand. It cost exactly to the penny what I had to spend on candy. I don’t know what made me do it but I bought the cross and got the nurse to send it to my father in Korea. Even if I couldn’t believe, I knew that it would give him enormous comfort and solace to think that I did. I got the most beautiful letter back from him thanking me for my gift. Later, when he returned safely to us in the States after his tour of duty was over, he told me that that was the most important thing anyone had ever given him. He said that he kept it with him always while he was fighting and that it got him through the war. I was happy about that though a bit guilty since I felt I had given it to him under somewhat false pretenses.
Our battles over religion through the years never really ended. Even as he lay dying in his hospital room at Walter Reed Army hospital at age 93, he held my hand and prayed to God, essentially willing me to believe.
When I was choosing what he should wear to be buried in I found the iridescent cross I had given him in his desk drawer. He had kept it all of those years. I slipped it into the breast pocket of his suit.
Today, he lies buried at Arlington National Cemetery, my cross over his heart.
We welcome comments from all of you in the military about your own faith experiences and we will be reaching out to the military.com audience as well for their contributions. We feel that questions of faith are fundamental to the military, especially in the crucible of war where faith is tested most arduously. Do you believe there are no atheists in foxholes? We want to know your thoughts. We hope that you will share them with us by posting comments below.