Thursday, December 30, 2004

Field Expedient Ministry

Some things are worth remembering simply for the sake of how awful they were. I learned yesterday, in a very tangible way, that being a chaplain does not make one impervious to danger.

There are some chaplains that serve as an example of what not to do and other chaplains who serve as a paradigm of what I'm certain a good chaplain should be like. The former are few but glaring while the latter are even fewer and even more glaring. My friend, "Jay" is the latter.

When I grow up, I want to be a chaplain like Jay. He knows every soldier in his unit by name. Scripture is always on his lips and always appropriate to what soldiers are going through. He brings comfort where it's needed and a swift kick in the pants where it's needed. He plays the guitar and has a big picture of his family on the wall of his office, even in the desert. He has the respect of every member of his battalion from the commander to the private. He knows his lane and stays in it, and others come to him for help, advise, friendship, or to just grab a guitar and jam. I want to be a chaplain like my friend Jay.

Tonight I went to bed a bit early and grabbed a book to read. It was comfortable in my little hooch and for a moment or two I escaped my immediate situation. Before long someone knocked on my door and said I was needed in the TOC. When I arrived, our Medic said there had been a plane crash and the injured were being brought to the hospital. We jumped in his vehicle and zipped down the street. On the way there said something like, "I know you're good friends with Jay so I thought you would want to see him."

To that point, I didn't know Jay was involved. My heart sank. The medic said they didn't expect him to make it through the night. I've seen a lot of carnage here, but never a friend and fellow Chaplain. I began to feel ill at the prospect of seeing him. When I arrived in the ER the medic pointed to a man laying on a gurney and said that was him. He was being tended by several nurses and doctors and was awaiting transportation out.

I approached him and thought, "Wow, that looks nothing like Jay". His face was swollen and bruised. Tubes were coming out his mouth and nose. A nearby ventilator kept him breathing. The medic explained to me that he was on some kind of medication that paralyzed everything so he needed the ventilator to keep him alive. For the second time in as many weeks, I felt entirely helpless. All I could do in that situation is pray.

I am from a school of belief that takes Saint James literally when he writes, "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up." With that in mind and being were I am, I usually keep a small vial of oil with me for just this kind of situation. Wouldn't you know it, I left it in my room. I began to look around the ER to find a substitute. My medic asked what I was looking for. Medics are know for their battle field improvisations to mend broken bodies so I said in a joking sort of voice, "Behold, battlefield ministry!" and grabbed a tube of the only thing I could find to anoint my friend with, surgical jelly. I squeezed a small amount onto my fingers and drew a cross on his swollen and purple forehead with it as I prayed for his recovery, his battalion, and his family. Soon thereafter, a helicopter arrived and he was taken away.

Jay's assistant was also injured quite badly and was in intensive care. I went in to pray with him also. He would be spending the night, as would one of the load masters on the aircraft. This morning I returned to the CSH to visit both. The load master had a broken elbow and told me that he had seen the pilots pull Jay out of the burning plane.

In the end, Jay and everyone elso on board that plane will be alright. He is on his way to Walter Reed Medical Center where he will see his wife and kids again and begin the long road to recovery.

I'm ready to go home.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Rooting out the Non-Essentials

They are officially called, "Non-Essential Personnel". That is, anytime the Army must deploy these people don't necessarily NEED to be invited. How they got to be "Non-Essential Personnel" in the first place is a complete mystery, although I have a theory. I theorize that once upon a time there was a guy who lived comfortably in his ivory tower, looked down upon the general populace and, thrusting his very long, very bony index finger downward, declared, "those guys aren't necessary! Don't invite them" And the events of today prove beyond all doubt, at least to me, that they are not persona non grata. I'd say they are a grata as anyone. "They" are dentists.

In my post dated October 21, 2003, I wrote about my need for emergency dental work and the lessons I had learned about why one shold not wait to have such problems treated. Note to self: Listen to self! I apparently did not learn a thing.

About 2 weeks ago, while enjoying a wonderful Iraqi afternoon, I perchance took a swig of nice cold water. Immediately I thought to myself, "Perchance my face is gonna explode!" Unsure of the cause, but certain it was a tooth that had gone to the dark side, I did what anyone who had been in this siuation once before would do...I took motrin. Lots and lots of motrin. That seemed to work for awhile.

As the days passed, the level of discomfort grew until it dawned on me that I hadn't slept in 48 hours because of the pain. So last night, right around 2 am, I headed to the doc's room. He felt so much sympathy for my plight that he laughed and asked what took me so long to tell him. He gave me a rather high powered pain killer called Tylox and sent me home with instructions to go see the dentist in the morning. I took my medicine and proceeded to writhe in agony for the rest of the night.

After painfully staring at the darkness until it ceased to be dark I dressed and headed to sick call. Until the night before, I didn't even know we had dentists here. I figured I was going to have to wait to get home and just kind of endure. I am thankful I was wrong. Upon arrival and initial assessment by the "Non-Essential Personnel" at the dentist office, I was x-ray'd and given a chair. Being entirely tired, I nearly fell asleep within moments.

The dentist (I wish I had his name because he deserves a medal) began to drill and poke and pull and jab all the while using words like "lingual" and "mezial" and "no wonder that hurt so much, you should see this!" When all was said and done he had performed what is lovingly called a "pulpectomy" which turns out to be something of a modified root canal. I was totally intimidated by the title but it was almost an entirely pain free procedure. That dentist is a god amongst men as far as I'm concerned.

So now my pulp has been ectomied and I am looking forward to a solid night's rest. All thanks to the most essential "Non-Essential" on the battlefield.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Front Line Family

Compared to recent days, today was fairly uneventful. A steady, cold drizzle ensured that this was quite possibly the muddiest and least comfortable Christmas I've ever experienced. For all appearances, it was not very noteworthy. But appearances can be deceiving.

From Bastogne to Baghdad, Christmas and war have always seemed to travel hand in hand. Soldiers from most generations have endured Christmas in the face of battle. And in the past 36 hours I have learned two very important lessons about Christmas, the nature of war, and the spirit of the American Warrior.

Lesson Number One ... war is unrelenting. Despite the fact that today is a national holiday and a time normally spent relaxing, opening presents, and watching or playing football, the fighting didn't stop. Throughout the day the drone of war could be heard in just about every direction. Whether it was an aircraft of some sort zipping overhead, the rapid ping of nearby gunfire, or the thump of a distant explosion, it didn't stop. War continues at a breakneck pace. Even in moments of relative silence it hung in the air. There is no escaping the fact that we are in harms way. Some more than others.

Lesson Number Two ... Christmas is unrelenting. Last night we held a Christmas Eve service in celebration of the birth of Jesus. In that service, I came to realize that the American soldier is indeed a unique and awesome individual. Despite the roar of mortars in the background, smiling faces sang, Silent Night. Despite the complete lack of greenery for miles, men of all ranks shook hands and sang, Deck the Halls. And despite being away from friends and family, our battle-hardened brothers joyfully sang, We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Men who look like they'd just as soon break you in half as speak to you, smiled at one another and hugged one another as wishes of "Merry Christmas" echoed throughout our little chapel. After the service we gathered in a small trailer converted into something of a theatre to watch a Christmas movie or two and laugh together. Believe it or not, gifts were exchanged via Secret Santa's and we laughed as men hollered, "Thanks, it's just what I always wanted!" upon unwrapping a bar of deodorant, or a ball cap, or whatever else could be found at the Post Exchange. Today has been no different. With each soldier I passed a hand was quickly extended in greeting as "Merry Christmas" hit me like a freight train. I think I've been patted on the back one million times today.

It would be easy for today, Christmas, and the circumstances we find ourselves in to be an excuse to foster self-pity or to retreat into a shell of depression. However, our soldiers don't work that way. I am at a loss to express, today, my pride at being an American and my love for my brothers-at-arms. Because while I do not have my wife and children with me, I am nevertheless with family.

Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


By the time I got back to our compound it was all over the news. It seemed like the thing had just happened when in reality I had been neck deep in it for several hours. And there it was on TV. Frankly, it's kind of a blur.

The day began early as I didn't sleep very well last night. Once I was awake I decided not to just lay there and stare at the darkness so I got up, got dressed, shaved and headed into the TOC, the heart of what goes on. In the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) they monitor several different radio nets to keep abreast of what is happening in the area. It's the place to be if you want up to the minute information. When I arrived it was fairly calm. I made small talk with the guys there and sipped that first cup of morning coffee. The day was clear and there was very little going on, or so it seemed. A very short while later we received the initial reports. In this area there are several "camps" or "posts" that house the various combat and support units that do the day to day fighting and working around here. The first report said that a mortar had just hit one of the nearby chow halls during the middle of lunch (I'm on GMT so my morning is actually the middle of the day). It's called a MASCAL or Mass Casualty event and it's where the rubber meets the road in military ministry. They said there were approximately 10 casualties. That was the extent of it so I kind of filed it away in the back of my mind and continued to sip my coffee. The next report wasn't so good. 10 dead and approximately 50 wounded. They were being transported to the Combat Surgical Hospital down the street. The Chaplain at the CSH is a good guy and I knew he'd be in need of help so I woke my assistant, SGT Crawford, and we rushed to the hospital. I didn't expect what I saw.

The scene was little more than controlled chaos. Helicopters landing, people shouting, wounded screaming, bodies everywhere. As the staff began to triage the dead and wounded I found the chaplain and offered my assistance. He directed me to where he needed me and I dove in. I would be hard pressed to write about every person I had the opportunity to pray with today but I will try to relate a few.

I found "Betty" on a stretcher being tended by nurses. I introduced myself and held her hand. She looked up at me and said, "Chaplain, am I going to be alright?" I said that she was despite the fact that I could see she had a long road to recovery ahead of her. Most of her hair had been singed off. Her face was burnt fairly badly, although it didn't look like the kind of burns that will scar. What I do know is that it was painful enough to hurt just by being in the sun. I prayed with Betty and moved on.

"Ilena" had been hit by a piece of shrapnel just above her left breast causing a classic sucking chest wound. The doctors said she had a hemothorax (I think that's what they called it) which basically meant her left lung was filling with blood and she was having a very hard time breathing. For the next 20 minutes I held her hand while a doctor made an incision in her left side, inserted most of his hand and some kind of medical instrument and then a tube to alleviate the pressure caused by the pooling blood. It was probably the most medieval procedure I have ever been privy to. In the end she was taken to ICU and will be OK.

"Mark" was put on a stretcher and laid along a wall. A small monitor on his hand would tell the nurses when he was dead. Even a cursory glance said it was inevitable. Mark had a head wound that left brain matter caked in his ear and all over the stretcher he was lying on. I knelt next to Mark and placed a hand on his chest. His heart was barely beating, but it was beating, so I put my face close to his ear to pray with him. If you've never smelled human brain matter it is something unforgettable. I had something of an internal struggle. He's practically dead so why stay? He probably can't hear anything! A prayer at that point seemed of little value. But I couldn't risk it. I prayed for Mark and led him in the sinners prayer as best I could. There are few things in this life that will make you feel more helpless. After that, I needed some fresh air.

I stepped outside and found the situation to be only slightly less chaotic. The number of body bags had grown considerably since I first went inside. I saw a fellow chaplain who was obviously in need of care himself. I stopped him and put my arm around him and asked how he was doing. A rhetorical question if ever I asked one. He just shook his head so I pulled him in close and prayed for his strength, endurance, a thick skin, and a soft heart. Then I just stood and breathed for a few minutes.

Regardless of what some may say, these are not stupid people. Any attack with casualties will naturally mean that eventually a very large number of care givers will be concentrated in one location. They took full advantage of that. In the middle of the mayhem the first mortar round hit about 100 to 200 meters away. Everyone started shouting to get the wounded into the hospital which is solid concrete and much safer than being in the open. Soon, the next mortar hit quite a bit closer than the first as they "walked" their rounds toward their intended Everyone began to rush toward the building. I stood at the door shoving as many people inside as I could. Just before heading in myself, the last one hit directly on top of the hospital. I was standing next to the building so was shielded from any flying shrapnel. In fact, the building, being built as a bunker took the hit with little effect. However, I couldn't have been more than 10 to 15 meters from the point of impact and brother did I feel the shock. That'll wake you up! I rushed inside to find doctors and nurses draped over patients, others on the floor or under something. I ducked low and quickly moved as far inside as I could.

After a few tense moments people began to move around again and the business of patching bodies and healing minds continued in earnest. As I stood talking with some other chaplain, an officer approached and not seeing us, yelled, "Is there a chaplain around here?" I turned and asked what I could do. He spoke to us and said that another patient had just been moved to the "expectant" list and would one of us come pray for him. I walked in and found him lying on the bed with a tube in his throat, and no signs of consciousness. There were two nurses tending to him in his final moments. One had a clipboard so I assumed she'd have the information I wanted. I turned to her and asked if she knew his name. Without hesitation the other nurse, with no papers, blurted out his first, middle, and last name. She had obviously taken this one personally. I'll call him "Wayne". I placed my hand on his head and lightly stroked his dark hair. Immediately my mind went to my Grandpa's funeral when I touched his soft grey hair for the last time. And for the second time in as many hours I prayed wondering if it would do any good, but knowing that God is faithful and can do more than I even imagine. When I finished I looked up at the nurse who had known his name. She looked composed but struggling to stay so. I asked, "Are you OK?" and she broke down. I put my arm around her to comfort and encourage her. She said, "I was fine until you asked!" Then she explained that this was the third patient to die on her that day.

"Rachel" was sitting in a chair with no injuries. She was worried about two friends that had been moved to other hospitals in country. So we prayed.

"John", a First Sergeant, asked me, "How does my face look?" knowing he had been badly burned and would probably have some scaring. He was covered in blood, pus, and charred skin so I said, "First Sergeant, you look better than some people I know back home." He laughed and we prayed.

One of the many American civilian workers had been hit in the groin. He was happy to be alive and even happier to be keeping, "all my equipment." It was a light moment in a very heavy day.

As SGT Crawford and I walked away at the end of the day I saw another chaplain and a soldier standing among the silent rows of black body bags. The soldier wanted to see his friend one more time. We slowly and as respectfully as possible unzipped the bag to reveal the face of a very young Private First Class. His friend stared for a few seconds then turned away and began to cry.

The last count was 22 dead, and around 45 wounded. Nevertheless, our cause is just and God is in control even when the manure is a yard deep. I'm where God wants me and wouldn't change that for anything, even if it means death. After all, "to die is gain".

Post Script: all patient names are fictitious.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

An Open Letter

To My Dearest Wife,

Once again we find that by force of occasion and occupation I am separated from you. War is, indeed, an ugly business. However, the death, bloodshed, and emotional turmoil that it generates are but a small part of it’s ugliness. It’s most grotesque face can be seen in the soldiers I almost daily speak with who are suffering the ravages of war in their homes and marriages. And as I speak with each, I cannot help but thank God for you, my very heart.

My desire, above all, is that you would know of my deepest admiration and gratitude for the sacrifices you make each day to the cause for which so many have given so much. Would that all of my soldiers had such a rock to rest upon, such a place of solace, as that which I find in one word from your lips. I can’t help but believe that their hearts would be bolstered, their spirits lifted, their minds put at ease if only they could know the love of a woman as I find in you. I consider myself the most fortunate of men and am compelled to tender to you my sincerest and life long love.

My love, thank you for being such a wonderful mother to our children, thank you for the smile forever found on your beautiful face, thank you for your willingness to follow my calling, thank you for being my bride. I am all the better a man for having you as my perfect companion.

Please kiss the children for me and ensure they know of my pride in each of them, as well as my heartfelt love for their mother. I long to see you again, and anticipate doing so very soon. Until that wonderful moment when my lips taste of the nectar of your kisses, always remember,

My Heart Is For You.


Thursday, December 09, 2004

On A Dime

It is becoming clearer every day that events here can turn on a dime.

One moment everything is quiet and still, the next there is a huge burst of M-2 (.50 cal) gun fire and several small explosions and then, just as suddenly, it's quiet again. One minute you are chilled by the fact that someone may be dying right then, the next moment you are chilled by the cold desert nights. Not that I'm afraid of anything happening to me personally. I really don't fear for my safety. But once in a while the entire situation makes me stop and realize that every thing here is tenuous at best.

Tonight presented one such moment. It's quite cold outside and there is a mission planned for later in the evening. There is a nearly imperceptible edge to the tone of peoples voices and their overall attitudes. No one is nervous, per se, at least not any more than they would be preparing for any other mission. A better word would be focused. Everyone is focused on what part they play in tonight's mission. It's like this every time our guys are preparing to go out. But tonight, it would turn out, is a bit different. Tonight, for some, History and Fate would conspire to change the future.

On any airfield you have what's called a FARP (Forward Area refueling Point). Aircraft of all sorts will move to this location at the beginning of every mission to top off and then again at the end of the mission to refuel. This is tricky business in the day time and even more so at night. Tonight, one of the units stationed here had a UH-60 Blackhawk with 6 or 7 personnel aboard. It made it's way to the FARP and set down to refuel. As this was going on, an AH-64 Apache approached under night vision, and not seeing the Blackhawk, pretty much landed on top of it. I can only imagine what the next half second must have been like in the middle of that mess. By the time we knew what was going on all that could be seen from our position was a big fire down by the FARP. Remember, there is a lot of jet fuel at the FARP so naturally we all kind of held our breath a bit. My first question dragged slowly out of my mouth. I was afraid of the answer. "Is it ours?" "No" someone nearby, standing in the darkness answered. My heart leapt back to life as I slowly exhaled. The calm yet jagged preparations of the evening were turned into a few tense moments for our battalion as we stood on the roof of our TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and watched the fire rage.

I think you'd have to be made of stone not to look at a scene like that and ponder your own mortality. None of us here fear death neither do I invite it. Certainly we court it on a regular basis, but were it to become our focus we would surely become less than effective. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but think about all those men that at that moment were standing on the edge of eternity, wondering in a split second if they would see tomorrow. I could hear the prayers of their families back home. I could see Christmas gifts that are still in the mail, headed for a recipient who may not be here to receive them. I could see a commander struggling over what words would be appropriate for a letter of condolence or sympathy.

Yet where History and Fate conspired, God intervened. All of the personnel in the Blackhawk escaped without injury. No one on the ground was injured. Only the Apache pilot and crew lost their lives. God again proved that despite the fear and confusion of a moment, He is still in control. His mercy is an unfathomable thing.

It is becoming clearer every day that events here can turn on a dime.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Conversational Angler

Most of my blog entries concern people or events of the day. The subject of tonight's entry is not unique, which may be why I don't usually discuss the religious side of my job. It's just not unique enough. However, it is more exciting than all the jumps and bullets and explosions because it is eternal.

The best part of being a chaplain is the conversations guys strike up. Nine times out of ten the conversations begins with, "Hey Chaplain, if there's a loving God why would he allow..." (fill in the blank) or "I used to go to church but people..." or "Hey chaplain, I'm a pagan!". I get all kinds and thrill with each one. Tonight at dinner, a soldier started one such conversation. He began with seeming innocuous questions about various religions and belief systems. I answered as best I could. He had lots of comments and opinions about religion and faith as a general topic. One of my more enjoyable strategies is to try to engage the soldier in a moderately prolonged conversation loud enough to be heard by anyone nearby without seeming to be broadcasting what we are discussing. After five or ten minutes we had a decent sized audience full of soldiers who didn't know I was aware that they were listening. This is what makes it so fun and rewarding. I answer questions that one guy asks for all of them. Then I pounce. I told him his problem is that he is making excuses and asking all the wrong questions. As always, he is taken back and not sure how to respond. Every listening ear immediately tunes in because of my tone and his befuddlement as I slam em with the Gospel. And they don't even realize what's going on.

Now a dozen soldiers know the gospel truth and soon 3 or 4 of them will come ask me some follow up questions when no one else is around.

I love my job.