On a windy September Saturday at the Colorado Freedom Memorial near Buckley Air Force Base, Vietnam veteran Tom McAndrews shared a now familiar story about the long-lasting health effects of Agent Orange.
McAndrews returned home decades ago from Vietnam after serving in the Military Police, but years later he still carries with him the wounds of war that cannot be seen. He came to the memorial Sept. 17 for the third annual “In God We Trust” tribute Mass for active-duty military and veterans.
“I support all of our veterans,” McAndrews said. “When I came back, I didn’t get spit on like some, but I didn’t get the attention or understanding. I did what I thought was right. All my injuries are where you can’t see.”
McAndrews — who battles diabetes, thyroid disease, neuropathy and other ailments from his chemical exposure — learned about the memorial Mass through his veteran group at Our Lady of Loreto parish and the founders of the freedom memorial, Rick and Diane Crandall.
The memorial includes a wall with the names of 6,200 Coloradans killed in action since Colorado became a state in 1876, said Rick Crandall. About 2,500 of those soldiers never came home, after being lost at sea or buried on foreign lands.
Crandall was inspired to create the Colorado Freedom Memorial after visiting one of those foreign battlefields at Normandy. He traveled to Normandy for a veteran celebration event hosted by former Denver radio station KEZW where Crandall worked as a DJ.
“At the end of the broadcast after all the equipment was taken down and night fell, I turned around and walked into the cemetery and realized I was the only living person there,” Crandall said. I was overwhelmed in the moment by the number of Coloradans buried there.”
Crandall made a promise that night that he would return to Colorado and do something for those Centennial State soldiers. The memorial wall for the fallen was dedicated nine years ago and Crandall turned to military veteran Deacon Joe Donohoe to find a way the Church could help veterans who came home but are still suffering from war trauma and have stepped away from their faith.
In 2019, the Office of the Diaconate, which is supported through the Archbishop’s Catholic Appeal, dedicated this annual outdoor Mass to help military who have lost hope and provide them and their families a path to healing and reconnection with the Church.
“We want to take a hand and walk with them and let them know they are not only needed, but wanted and loved by the Lord,” Donohoe said to those at the Mass. “For the names on the wall, the battle took their lives so we could be free and worship God freely, but some are still fighting a battle.”
The Church provides confession and counseling services on-site before Mass. There are no walls and a beautiful natural setting to embrace veterans.
“We wanted to build a ministry that helps vets,” Donohoe said. “We want to let them know that no sin, no life event, in the eyes of God, cannot be forgiven.”
Participants at the Mass were given a “challenge coin.” Named for challenge coins that are part of the military tradition, these “In God We Trust” challenge coins are meant to be given away to someone who seems to be struggling. Recipients are encouraged to take the coin to their nearest parish priest who has been prepared to provide faith support and counsel.
“These soldiers did what they were asked, but in some cases, they were asked to do things that they had been told their whole life NOT to do,” Crandall said. “In most cases they were 18 or 19 years old, and they are still afraid God won’t forgive them. We hope this Mass can be the first step back into the Church.”
Later in September, Crandall is scheduled to return to Normandy to fulfill the promise he made the last time to the Colorado soldiers resting there.
“I told them in the cemetery that night I would do something, and now I can tell them, ‘we brought you home,’” he said.
For more information, visit archden.org/veterans. To support ministries like this, and more than 40 others, visit archden.org/GiveToday.