Student Veterans Discuss Religion Before, During and After Service

by RikkiLynn Shields & C. Garrett Keidel, Social Media Editor & Asst. Sports Editor

On Oct. 23, in Hayden 100, Manhattan College’s Student Veterans Organization held a panel discussing the relationship between religion and the military. This panel, co-hosted by the Religious Studies Department and the Student Veterans Success Center highlighted the prevalence and the impact of both religion and faith in general.

This year, Manhattan College has roughly 140 veterans enrolled in their undergraduate program. Of these students, three veterans spoke in regards to their personal experiences and beliefs regarding the impact of religion in the military setting, along with Serina Lewis, a member of the U.S. Navy and a current undergraduate student.

Terry Ford served in the U.S. Air Force from 2012 to 2017 and Became familiar with religion at a very young age.

      Attending Sunday church services with his grandmother, along with Sunday school, was when Ford was first introduced a thing called faith.

“While in Sunday school, I never actually committed to religion. I always found the stories to be kind of far fetched,” Ford said.

Ford put aside his religious beliefs for the majority of his life. When returning from the military, veterans often have a hard time navigating.

“You’re by yourself and you feel very isolated. When you’re isolated, you try to find something you’re familiar with– and I found religion again. Then, I saw my friends, and they were focusing on other religions, but I focused on Christianity,” said Ford.

Ford began to notice himself interacting more with his friends, even those of different religious beliefs, but still focused on his own faith in Christianity.

“Around the time I was in my fourth of fifth week of boot camp, my grandmother lost her battle to breast cancer. I found it interesting that she would lose that battle when I started with the church again. It’s like her mission was complete.”

After returning from the military, Ford abandoned religion again. Ford says that it wasn’t until he got to Manhattan College that his interest in religion sparked.

“Once I got out, I kind of stopped going to church again. Once I got here, with Dr. Kaplan, we started talking about other religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. That led me to want to learn more about new religions.”

Jonathan Hoogerhyde, currently an electrical engineering major in his senior year, was a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps Artillery.

“My journey with religion started at a very young age. I grew up with a Christian family, going to a Christian school, had Christian friends, and church on Sunday every week,” he said.

Growing up Christian, Hoogerhyde explained that he was taught in great detail what was right and what is wrong. As Hoogerhyde continued into young adult years, he began to ask himself many questions about why things are the way they are, specifically why is something right and why is something wrong.

“One of the things that stuck with me was attention to detail in terms of what is right and what is wrong. Very quickly for me that turned into a more philosophical understanding of what religion is, and the why,” Hoogerhyde said. “And that was always something that was very important, and got more and more important the older I got– why is something right, why is something wrong, why do we live the way that we do?”

The question of why never left Hoogerhyde, and continued with him throughout his work in the military.

“This evolved with me and this philosophical understanding of religion and morality rooted itself in my role as a leader,” said Hoogerhyde. “I always felt a very strong responsibility to make sure my Marines always understood the ‘why?’ of whatever our mission was. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, you’ve got a million things to do all the time. But I always found that if you work with your people, and make sure they understand what the big picture goal is then it makes it a lot easier to understand what it takes to achieve that.”

As Hoogerhyde was making his transition out of the military and into the civilian world, he was simultaneously going through a divorce.

“What really carried me through very strongly was religion– my faiths, my beliefs– but also my support group that came with that. As anyone else who’s been in the military can speak to, there’s also a very strong sense of community. Getting through something as difficult as a divorce, especially in a confusing time going from structure in the military to dealing with the civilian world and complete chaos, things can get murky very quickly. Religion and the military really came together in harmony to carry me through.”

Hoogerhyde’s divorce led him to lean on God a lot stronger than he ever had, but also his friends, family, and co-workers.

To Hoogerhyde, his religion and his beliefs helped him protect himself, as well as heal and recover quicker.

“When there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of purpose, it’s easy to lose faith in God, yourself, and the future. I’ve found that religion in the military there is a lot of shared values and priorities for life. There is a sense of teamwork, comfort, a greater purpose, and a very strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. I’ve always found that there is a plan and there is a purpose. It’s often in the most trying times that change people’s lives forever. Religion, if done correctly, is one of those transformative experiences as well.”

Rob Paniaqua, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces Operator for 14 years began with informing the audience of what exactly someone in the special forces is responsible for.

“Those are the guys who make things happen that you never hear about. They are sent to do the dirty work,” Paniaqua said.

His relationship with religion while being deployed is something that he described as being a struggle. The negative approach to religion came from blaming God for many of the atrocities that he witnessed.

To Paniaqua, positive thoughts of religion are ushered in by his friend Brandon.

Brandon, along with his fellow soldiers found themselves surrounded by enemy fire and separated from each other from up to 100 meter away.

Brandon was able to bring many men to safety on his back, even those weighing far in excess of his own weight.

“I asked Brandon what was going through his head. He said that something picked him up and told him to go save the guys, and everything would be alright. At the time, I didn’t know what that ‘something’ he was talking about was. His faith seemed so ingrained in him that his faith allowed him to harness the energy to save these guys.”

After beginning his education at Manhattan College, Paniaqua found himself constantly resorting to the question of “why God,” in regards to many experiences he encountered in the military. He was always engaging his professors, questioning who God was and what exactly faith meant.

“To me, religion and the military go hand in hand. We have a definition of God as the father, the king, the almighty– someone that’s up there. To me, that was the God I was raised on. If you do something wrong, he strikes you down– and that never made sense to me. For me, God is everything around us. God doesn’t intervene in anything, it’s like the water in the ocean…  it surrounds us as we surround it.”

Following the panel, the floor was open to questions from students, staff, faculty and administration. Questions ranged from whether or not the military pushes you towards religion to whether or not religion could become a possible distraction.

While faith and religion encompass a variety of different practices, beliefs and morals, the commonality of having faith and trusting a higher power seems to have the ability to positively impact the men and women serving in the United States military.