Iraq war veteran and Viterbo student Dustin Schultz decided to participate in the Franciscan Military Pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy, on the recommendation of Keith Purnell, Viterbo’s director of military aligned student support and recruitment.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to find peace and put an end to the recurring thoughts I have about my experience,” said Schultz, who served six years in the U.S. Army and one year in Iraq. “Or at least come to terms with things and be OK with it.”
Schultz was one of three Viterbo student veterans and three employee veterans who spent May 23-31 in Italy on the pilgrimage.
The group spent two days visiting the Vatican and historical sites in Rome before going to Assisi, where they learned about the life and war experiences of St. Francis of Assisi, who was a soldier and prisoner of war who likely suffered from PTSD.
The Franciscan Military Pilgrimage is free for Viterbo University student veterans.
The Viterbo contingent is part of a larger group of participants in the program, which is based in Franklin, Wis. It began in 2011 and almost 200 veterans, spouses and family members have participated so far. The group dynamic with other veterans is a crucial aspect of the experience.
“The trip was absolutely helpful,” said Schultz, who would recommend the trip to other veterans. “Being there and talking with others who have had similar experiences and have found peace was great. And following the life of St. Francis lights the way and shows you that you can do that, too.”
A criminal justice major, Schultz works as the executive director of the La Crosse Area Veterans Mentor Program. The organization provides mentoring for veterans and supports and manages La Crosse County’s Veterans Treatment Court.
“I’ve always been intrinsically motivated to help people,” he said. “My job with LAVMP involves my two biggest interests; criminal justice and helping my fellow veterans.”
Also participating in the pilgrimage were Viterbo’s Purnell, university chaplain Fr. Conrad Targonski, OFM, and Vice President for Student Affairs Rick Trietley, all veterans.
“The pilgrimage is designed to help veterans find a sense of healing for some of the wounds they sustained in combat, whether they be physical or emotional,” Purnell said. “I think the trip was very successful. Sharing our experiences and what we would be leaving in Assisi and what we would take with us was very powerful.”
Targonski leads the pilgrimage with former Viterbo faculty member Bill Reese, a Vietnam veteran, and psychologist and author Major Greg Masiello, a veteran of the Iraq war.
Targonski finds counseling and working with veterans to be a very rewarding aspect of his ministry. He spent 22 years as a U.S. Navy chaplain, during which he served all four divisions of the Marine Corps. He served two tours in Iraq and was on the front lines in the battle for the city of Fallujah.
“We were often under continuous fire,” said Targonski of himself and his fellow soldiers. “War is a horrific experience, and I witnessed a great deal of carnage.”
Like all military chaplains, Targonski was unarmed during his service in war. His duties involved performing religious and morale service, too often in the thick of combat.
“I had a weird way of finding a front-row seat throughout my time in Iraq,” he said. “The worst would happen and there I was. Being in combat made me much more sensitive about life than civilians can understand. I also became more conscious of my own mortality and I developed a real solidarity with my fellow Marines, because I was one of them.”
Targonski retired from the Navy in 2010 and began at Viterbo in 2011. The experiences and solidarity he shares with his fellow veterans helps him to heal as well.
“I think veterans are going to be the key to world peace,” Targonski said. “We’ve seen war, and once you’re in a war you constantly live it. I think every veteran has some sort of PTSD. We say the body comes home before the soul, and healing is about trying to put the two together again.”