Hoping for miracles, up to 5 million pilgrims each year travel to the holy shrine at Lourdes in southwestern France. Among those pilgrims now are wounded American warriors from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Their story is featured at 8 p.m. (Eastern time) tonight in the first episode of a PBS TV series, “Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler,” the bestselling writer and adventurer.
“It felt like a firecracker went off in your mouth. Bam. My platoon leader was shot and killed. My buddies came up. They were crying. [I] was just bleeding and bleeding [thinking] I’m probably going to die.” So said Army rifleman Zach Herrick, barely 21 years old when he was shot in the face in 2010 in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Herrick traveled to Lourdes in the spring with about 40 wounded soldiers. Among them was James Pierce, a sergeant with the North Carolina National Guard seriously injured in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed three other members of the state guard. Also there was Army Staff Sergeant Juan Roldan of New Jersey, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and lost both his legs mid-thigh. Another soldier was blind. Others were paralyzed, pushed in wheelchairs by wives and girlfriends.
They went to France, all expenses covered by donations, as part of Lourdes’ annual international military pilgrimage. Tens of thousands of soldiers gather where Bernadette Soubirous, just 14, said she saw the Blessed Virgin Mary over and over at the grotto there in 1858.
In a telephone interview this week, Herrick, the son of Lutherans from Kansas, said he’s “not a big religious guy.” But the Catholic chaplain at Walter Reed Army Medial Center told him Lourdes might help his continuing healing.
Multiple hospitalizations and surgeries — yet another is scheduled for Dec. 19 — have been grueling. Once a strikingly handsome young man, Herrick lost his lower jaw and many teeth. He said he feels people staring. He says he has trouble chewing and talking. He battles depression and feels frustrated by the indifference he sometimes sees from those “who seem not to care about the war or the soldiers who are dying.”
But at Lourdes, for an entire week, he was surrounded by the care of volunteers on a healing mission and by soldiers who know well where he’s been and what he’s seen. They were together in church, in candlelight processions about the ancient town, at meals, in beer halls, and in the icy cold baths where pilgrims hope to feel the powers of Lourdes’s famed waters and receive, if not an actual physical healing, then perhaps a spiritual one.
Herrick said he had mixed reactions to all this. He was upset by the commercialism of the crowded shrine, “the selling of religion,” as he called it, with vendors at every turn hawking plastic statuettes of Bernadette and plastic bottles to carry Lourdes water home in. Yet he also found it easier there, far from home, to talk about what he’s been through, and said he was moved by the “kindness and compassion” he saw in Lourdes, particularly among the volunteers.
“They take a piece of themselves and give it to everybody in that room,” said Herrick. “You can see [the kindness] in their eyes and in the way they speak to you and how they really really care about people going through this experience of spiritual revival.”
It all changed him, “helped with a lot of the demons inside.” And when he was finally convinced to visit the baths, the initially skeptical Herrick said when he emerged from the icy water, “you feel something’s out of you.”
“Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler” tells the story of pilgrimages to five other sites, including Jerusalem, The Hajj, and Osun-Osogbo in Nigeria. Feiler points to a paradox here: At the same time organized religion struggles, some 200 million pilgrims each year set off to holy places, leaving behind the ordinary for the extraordinary.
Leaving behind the ordinary — and the often brutal, day-to-day hassles these wounded warriors endure — is a big theme of Feiler’s story of Lourdes. So is the power of a place where many claim healing even when, like Herrick, they’re “not a big religious guy.” Now Herrick says he want to return to Lourdes as a volunteer himself, “to give back” what he received.
In a poignant scene at the end of tonight’s episode, Feiler films soldiers speaking about what Lourdes has meant to them. It’s in stark contrast to the horrors they’ve seen: their buddies blown apart beside them, their own blood spurting from arteries straight up into the air. Roldan, on his second Lourdes visit, said he once felt “worthless, like I wasn’t enough, like I’d be better off dead.” But Lourdes helped him see the workings of God and honor the sacrifice of the soldiers killed beside him. “God put those soldiers in the place to risk their own lives to save my own.”
Zach Herrick, the reluctant pilgrim, teared up when he stood before a room of soldiers, their families, and Lourdes volunteers to say how much he loved them and felt their love for him. He felt accepted, welcomed, valued. “All of you have been beautiful,” he said. “Watching you guys smile, that’s my religion.”