For the four-part PBS documentary series “American Veteran,” producer/director Leah Williams wanted to interview veterans who had multiple perspectives on their war-zone experience. She found that in Kelly Wadsworth, a former U.S. Army National Guard/Reserves chaplain who grew up in Bellevue. Williams found her way to Wadsworth after contacting the Seattle chapter of Veterans for Peace.
“What was really so incredible about Kelly’s story was she was the person where I first began to really understand this concept of having a new identity [after military service] and having to renegotiate that when you come home from a war zone,” Williams says. “It’s really rare and wonderful when you get to talk to someone who really makes you think about the whole of what you’re doing in a new way.”
A 1993 Sammamish High School grad, Wadsworth graduated from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma in 1997. She entered Princeton Theological Seminary in 2000 and was recruited to join the Army chaplain candidate program in the spring of 2001. Then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened.
“I had joined at a time of less intensity,” Wadsworth says, “and it really quickly turned super intense.”
Wadsworth began her basic training in the summer of 2002 and deployed to Iraq for a year in 2008 to serve as a battalion chaplain in an infantry unit that went on nightly convoy missions where roadside bombs could be present.
Wadsworth appears in episodes three (Nov. 9) and four (Nov. 16) of “American Veteran” (9 p.m. Tuesdays and streaming at kcts9.org and the station’s Roku app) and describes her attempt to return to civilian life as if nothing had changed only to realize she was no longer the same person as she was before her deployment.
“I wasn’t going to be able to come back and just go back to work as if nothing had happened or as if what I had participated in didn’t need the light of day,” Wadsworth says. “Everyone’s happy for veterans to go to a therapist but what I found is my perspective had changed in such a way I no longer thought war was something that could happen on the side, that a country could wage war on the side while everything else is happening. It is the thing that needs to be in the center of our day-to-day conversations.”
Wadsworth served as pastor at Alki United Church of Christ in West Seattle before taking a new call at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Salem, Oregon, earlier this year.
Wadsworth now serves on a Presbyterian council for military personnel, a national committee that oversees all the Presbyterian chaplains that currently serve.” Now I get to turn around and offer my support on the flip side of the table,” she says, noting she’s also involved in the peace movement, which “very much feels like a continuation of being a chaplain, providing my guidance and support for the ways that we enter into military life, shepherding and putting in my two cents on the civilian side.”
Although she’s been out of the Army for more than a decade, she still winces when she hears people say “thank you for your service” (another vet in “American Veteran” dismisses the phrase as a bumper sticker platitude).
“‘Thank you for your service’ makes me feel very socially awkward,” Wadsworth says in “American Veteran.” “You don’t actually know what you’re thanking me for. I participated in a war where children died. Are you thanking me for that? I participated in a war that I have some moral questions about. What is the part you’re thanking me for because I’m not sure the good parts can be parsed out from the bad parts. They all come together in a package.”
Wadsworth says she understands “thank you for your service” is meant to convey gratitude, but she still has misgivings around the phrase.
“It shuts down anything more nuanced; it doesn’t provide space for it,” she says. “If space was being provided in other places, I think it would feel more authentic. But because that’s the only thing that ever gets said to veterans, there is no, ‘What are your moral reflections on that war?’ I would rather have that be the question.”
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