Zita Ballinger Fletcher, Catholic News Service

Veterans taking part in the 2018 Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage to France said the journey has positively influenced their lives and benefited those around them.

Maj. Jeremy Haynes, a first-time spiritual pilgrim and Lourdes visitor, said he is a changed man since visiting the shrine, where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in a series of visions in 1858.

“The trip has been life-changing for my wife and me,” Haynes told Catholic News Service. “With faith as our compass, we remain committed to moving forward.” Haynes was shot four times in Afghanistan and sustained injuries that have left him struggling to overcome the physical constraints of paralysis. It has been a difficult journey. He also seeks healing for wounds in his family life that occurred prior to his physical injury.

“With a minimum emphasis on faith, my family life was a disaster and divorce was imminent. After being shot multiple times, I recall sinking into a dark place,” said Haynes. “Despite being a sinner, God showed mercy by sparing my life and allowing me to witness the birth of my son. Taking part in this spiritual journey has cleansed my soul and created a stronger connection with my wife.”

Haynes previously served within the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), 82nd Airborne Division, and the American Red Cross national headquarters. He commanded a parachute rigger company, served as an aide de camp, and taught at the Army Logistics University. He is currently assigned to the Walter Reed National Medical Center and soon will retire from the military. He has been awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Combat Action Badge, Jumpmaster, Parachute Rigger Badge and Air Assault Badge.

Haynes, who went on the Lourdes trip to seek healing “mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally,” said he was honored to visit Lourdes with military from around the world. The Warriors to Lourdes trip occurred in late May, during the 60th annual International Military Pilgrimage to the Marian shrine in France.

Rev. Steven Rindahl, an Anglican priest and U.S. Army veteran, took part in the pilgrimage and said he believed the journey benefited all who participated in it.

“There have been people who have been touched in so many different ways. It would be difficult to make a list to encompass all the different blessings people have received while they’ve been here,” said Rev. Rindahl, a retired U.S. Army chaplain.

“The great thing about Lourdes is that it is a known place for healing. Regardless of what your injury is — whether it’s physical, emotional or damage to your soul — when a person says, ‘I want to go to Lourdes,’ they’re going specifically with a heart and mind open to receiving God’s grace and what God has in store for them,” he said.

Retired U.S. Army Capt. Gary M. Rose said the 2018 Lourdes journey helped a friend recently suffering from severe PTSD connected with “a very bad, horrible battle” that happened in 1966. Rose said there has been a “noticeable improvement in his demeanor” since their return.

“Every single person that I know that went on that trip has come back much better than they were when they left for Lourdes,” said Rose, a Catholic. “Even me — I feel a lot better. My outlook is far better than it was a week or 10 days ago.”

Rose said while visiting the shrine he was often asked by others whether he believed the Blessed Mother was present.

“I got asked, ‘Do you think Mary is here?’ I don’t know. I can’t personally say, ‘Mary is here,’” said Rose. “But I can personally say that there is some entity in the Lourdes shrine area that spreads nothing but good and seems to improve the demeanor and the psychological aspects of everybody that I associated with that went to Lourdes with me last week.”

Haynes said he is extremely grateful to all those who sponsored the opportunity and who volunteered at it — and also expressed a special thanks to organizers for allowing his wife to take part in the journey with him.

“Thank you for equipping me with the tools to become a better God-fearing man, husband, father, and citizen,” said Haynes.