Day after day, Thomas Sears became one with the jungles of Vietnam, rifle perched on his shoulder, hypervigilant and anticipating sounds of incoming fire. Day after day, he maneuvered through the odor of death, climbed over bodies and watched his fellow Marines die during combat. Then, just as suddenly as he was plucked from the comforts of modern society to wielding a weapon in the war-ravaged country, the call came that he was to return home to New Jersey. It was 1968 and the end of his tour, but the war would rage within for more than 40 years.
“I remember getting off the plane literally 48 hours out of the jungle and standing in the middle of the airport not knowing how to get home,” he said. “I was 19 years old and just stood there trying to figure out what to do. I had been on duty 24-7 and suddenly couldn’t figure out what to do in this airport where all I saw around me were people giving me dirty looks because they thought I was a baby killer or a drug addict.”
Finally, a police officer approached the disoriented young soldier and asked what was wrong. After explaining that he couldn’t remember how to get home, the officer called Sears’ father who came and took him home.
“The initial days were stressful,” he confessed. “I wasn’t able to sleep because I was still in combat mode. I was up at night, heard noises all the time and wasn’t even able to get used to home cooking. It was odd; I just couldn’t comprehend eating a full meal or the fact that I was sitting in my mother’s kitchen and she was making me food.”
After a year and a half, Sears returned to some sense of normalcy, but without any counseling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the road was never easy. He felt as if his life was in constant turmoil, and to this day struggles with the dark, strange noises, hypervigilance and nightmares.
Faith, personal life fall apart
Although Sears, 64, was a lifelong Catholic, he struggled to make sense of God’s presence in Vietnam, and why so much suffering occurred.
“I couldn’t understand why God allowed this to happen, why we had to kill and do horrible things and had to live constantly in this battle,” he said. “You begin to lose your faith and start to believe that you can do anything you want because there are no consequences or afterlife, and for me, my faith began to mean nothing.”
His personal life took a toll as well – a failed marriage and difficult relationships with his children and grandchildren. While he has held a good job for 39 years, his life lacked purpose and meaning.
When Sears learned this past September about a Franciscan pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome for former military personnel, he wasn’t sure it was for him. After all, he felt so far removed from God that surely there wouldn’t be anything of benefit.
“But there was one person at our Veteran’s Center who told me that I might get something out of it, and maybe find peace, so I signed up. Until the evening before he was to leave on the nine-day journey to Assisi and Rome, he nearly backed out – but something inside his soul urged him to complete this tour.
St. Francis was former soldier
According to Franciscan Fr. John Cella, director of the Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs, the idea for the military pilgrimage developed following a conversation with a friar who was retiring as a military chaplain after serving in Iraq. The experience deeply affected his life and he planned to go on retreat following his tour of duty.
“It came up that St. Francis was a soldier in battle who probably killed people before ending up as a POW for about a year,” said Fr. Cella. “When he was out of prison, he was a lost soul, suffered depression and PTSD, but was able to find God through it all. Fr. Conrad Targonski, who was a Marine chaplain in Iraq, and I were talking about starting a new program for the military to help those with post-war issues and we thought it might be helpful to take veterans on a pilgrimage to walk around with St. Francis.”
Three tours a year are planned and each can accommodate up to 20. Because the Franciscans want to reach out to veterans of all ages, having a religious faith is not a pre-requisite. The pilgrimage includes trained staff, meals, visits to sacred Christian and Franciscan places, historical background, free time, sightseeing, spiritual conferences and daily prayer and Eucharist at holy places.
For Sears, the tours and historical landmarks were interesting, but nothing seemed to crack the shell surrounding his heart until they visited The Portiuncula, the smallest church in Assisi. It was Francis’ new home where his new band of brothers gathered and where Francis provided “The Pardon” as an alternative to the Crusades.
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Tours run $1,250 per person from the United States and include airfare, all expenses and most meals. The next tours will be held March 5-13 and Sept. 29-Oct. 7, 2012.
Scholarships are available on request for those who may need financial help. The terrain in Assisi and Rome is uneven, making it difficult for handicapped mobility. “Barrier free” is not a description of Italy. People with physical handicaps will find the pilgrimage too difficult because of lack of accessibility. For more information or to register, visit
“I touched those walls and listened to the story of St. Francis and felt so much peace,” he said, sobbing. “When I crossed the threshold of the little church it was like breathing that last breath and realizing that ‘My God, this is all real.’ Touching those walls weakened my knees and I felt that I could understand that God was there; he had been all along and it touched my heart in a way that I cannot explain – but everywhere we went after that seemed to bring more life into me.”
Trip brings understanding for veteran, mom
When Navy veteran Patricia Murray, 66, learned about the pilgrimage through her work as parish receptionist at the Shrine of St. Stanislaus in Cleveland, Ohio, she wasn’t sure if the trip was meant for her. While she did not serve in Vietnam, she served in the 1960s – a time when it was not popular for women to join the military.
“I was a little concerned that there wouldn’t be any women veterans going on the trip, but then after speaking with (Franciscan) Sr. Anne (Bremmer), who was on the pilgrimage staff, I decided to go,” she said. “It was a spiritual and enlightening experience for me, as well as for all the other vets who went. It gave me the opportunity to realize how many men came back from my era who harbored a lot of feelings from back then.”
With a daughter who has served two tours in Iraq, Murray admitted she attended this pilgrimage as much for herself as to understand her daughter, who has not been the same since she has returned.
“Through listening to the others, I was able to feel her hurt and wonder now, how much of her story that I don’t know,” said Murray. “After the pilgrimage I was so full of energy and realized what a gift we have to be Catholics, and to have the Mass. When Fr. Conrad said Mass in Assisi, he said it in such a way that the consecration seemed more real than I ever experienced it before. Now, every time I go to Communion, my eyes tear up and I have such a God moment. I cannot wait to go to Mass each day and am so fortunate to work in the rectory so I can bop in there anytime, say a prayer or light a candle. Without this pilgrimage, I would not have realized what a gift we have in our faith.”
Foot washing no sign of weakness
The pivotal moment for Sears happened one evening as the group celebrated the ceremonial washing of the feet in La Maddalena, where St. Francis worked with the lepers. As a proud Marine, accustomed to self-sufficiency, the idea of someone washing his feet was a sign of weakness to Sears.
“Nobody washes my feet – if I can’t do it myself, they don’t need to be washed,” he said, “but I had to do it, as I made a commitment to this pilgrimage and I wanted to see a change in my life.”
After one of the men washed his feet, Sr. Anne asked everybody about their experience, and after a while, Sears was ready to share and to allow God to heal his brokenness.
“I told her that we are soldiers and warriors and are trained to travel a road that requires us to either kill or hurt a person. Our training as a Marine is to win at any cost,” he said. “I was able to see this washing of the feet as being able to step off of that old path and onto a new and different path and it is a road of life and peace.”
Since his journey, Sears has grown in his faith and attends Mass regularly. He is already planning to go on another pilgrimage and hopes that more veterans take advantage of the opportunity.
“I found the peace I needed and I found faith inside myself,” he said. “I know I have to go back because God has yet not shown me all that I need to see.”