The soldiers and the shepherdess

Each year, wounded soldiers travel to Lourdes to seek healing and hope

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By Seth Robson


After being blinded in a mortar attack while serving in Iraq in 2006, Capt. Ivan Castro said he felt “disgruntled” with God. A soldier with the 82nd Airborne Division, Castro suffered a number of other injuries, too, including broken bones and the loss of a finger. But his blindness, he said, felt like punishment.


“Losing your sight is not an easy thing to overcome,” he says. “I was upset with the Lord. Why should I receive this punishment?”


But while he was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for surgery, he attended Mass, and a priest told him about the opportunity to visit Lourdes, France, where a young shepherd girl, Bernadette Soubirous, reported seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1858. The waters at Lourdes have been renowned for their allegedly miraculous healing properties, and 6 million people make a pilgrimage to the site each year in the hope of miracle cures.


Each year, there is a worldwide military pilgrimage to Lourdes. This year’s event, the 52nd annual trip, is scheduled for May 21 to 23.


Castro and his wife, Evelyn Galvis — along with another wounded soldier and his wife — made the pilgrimage last year, thanks to the Knights of Malta. The Knights, a 1,000-year-old Order that once cared for pilgrims and defended the Holy Land, routinely bring wounded U.S. soldiers to Lourdes to bathe in the waters.


Also known as the Knights Hospitaller, the order was founded in Jerusalem in 1080 to care for Christian pilgrims. It later became a religious and military organization that defended the Holy Land until the area was conquered by Islam in the 13th century. The order still operates hospitals for the sick and poor all over the world, including the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, a free maternity hospital for people of any faith, said Jeff Ludwig, a modern-day Knight of Malta.


“We are the oldest existing order of Catholic chivalry in the world,” he says.
In recent years, the Knights have funded trips for about a dozen wounded U.S. soldiers — Catholics who suffered combat wounds in Iraq or Afghanistan. Their injuries range from lost limbs to traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and blindness, Ludwig says. “The impact (for soldiers visiting Lourdes) is that there is healing for everybody there, whether it is spiritual or emotional or physical.”


Castro was not miraculously healed at Lourdes, but he says he met other pilgrims there whose suffering helped put things in perspective.


Over time, he says, he came to terms with his disability. “It’s all up to your attitude and the people you surround yourself with and the support you have,” Castro says. “If you are feeling sorry for yourself you are not going to get anywhere.”


But Lourdes has helped Castro — and others — in another way.


“For veterans, the visit has helped them reconcile their lives, regardless of what the circumstances are,” says Ludwig. “Every warrior feels remorse about lost life on the battlefield. One can come to a holy place and have an opportunity to reflect on life and seek reconciliation, which is one of the promises to all Catholics — forgiveness.”  CD

Seth Robson