Monday, December 05, 2005

Acorns and Headstones

When it began, I knew three things about the man at the center of it all. First, his name was James. Second, he was a veteran. Third, he was dead.

There is usually a decent amount of time to prepare for these sorts of things but I had little more than one day and not much to go on. The call for assistance from a chaplain friend of mine was quick and simple, “Can you do a funeral tomorrow?” In recent days, I had often asked for the help of other chaplains and that help had been prompt and plentiful. Time to reciprocate.

James died in an elderly care facility in a nearby town. He was alone and nearly unknown. As I called around trying to find information about him that I could draw upon for the service the next day, I heard words like “vagrant”, “homeless”, “no family”, etc. Eventually, I reached the funeral home director. He verified that James was a veteran, though no one could be sure of the time period in which he had served. Most likely he was a Vietnam vet. He could have taken the easy road and opted for a standard burial, but this funeral director, with nothing to gain save the satisfaction of having done his civic duty, saw the need to honor one of our nations fallen heroes and arranged for a military funeral in a national cemetery. A graveside service was scheduled for the following morning at the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina.

The weather was nice and my wife had the morning free, so we made a drive of it. It’s not far, but it gave us some good conversation time. We drove through the famous marshes of coastal Georgia, under huge live oaks covered with the beautiful Spanish moss that defines the view in this region. This is a heavy year for acorns, so we couldn’t avoid an occasional ping as our car came under assault by the trees. The sun was deceptively bright, masking the chill air outside the car. There was much to think about, and talk about. The bulk of our conversation rested on James. What can you say about a homeless man who died alone and was known by almost no one? The closer we got to the cemetery, the greater the struggle to think of something appropriate to say. There were sure to be mourners and family members and all manner of people present to bid their final farewell to a friend, husband, or father. And I had nothing to say to them. It was unfamiliar territory for this small time preacher and not a little intimidating.

We arrived at the cemetery a bit ahead of schedule and made our way to the appropriate graveside. The sun came through the large oak trees in small patches offering no escape from the crisp morning air. Once all the attendees arrived we had quite a crowd; me, my wife, and the funeral director. No friends, no family, no mourners, no co-workers or acquaintances; just the three of us standing in the shadows listening to the acorns rain down on the gravesites and headstones that surrounded us. Cemetery workers had interred James before we arrived and were just putting the final touches on the site. A little dirt here, a tamping there, even adjacent headstones were readjusted and straightened to ensure that the look and feel of a national cemetery was maintained. They worked quietly and with great reverence for the fallen, as though the President himself might just drop by to pay his respects. To those four workers, this was not just a burial. This was the burial of a veteran of the United States Military.

As we stood there waiting and watching with acorns dropping like a light rain, I couldn’t help looking around at some of the other headstones. Men and women representing just about every period of American history were there. The graves said things like, “Gone Fishing” and “Beloved Husband”, each wanting to be remembered for something special to them. The head stones were embossed with Christian crosses, Jewish stars, other religious symbols, or a simple name and date. And each represented a unique American with a unique history. Only one thing was common to all…they had served their country. Somewhere during those moments, I found what I was looking for.

This morning we buried a man who had died alone. There were no relatives in attendance, but there was family all around. In the end, James was surrounded by his military family. His family includes soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy, Medal of Honor recipients, Buffalo Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Merchant Marines, Airmen, Soldiers, Officers, and Enlisted Men from all walks of life. Americans all.

His name was James and he was a veteran. Among the acorns and headstones, he lies with family.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Fade to Black

I recently saw this poster from WWII of a paratrooper jumping into combat and slumping over just as he hit the ground. The caption on the poster reads, “CARELESS TALK ... got there first”. The implication is that what someone may have casually said cost that soldier his life.

We are a nation at war. Our enemy is both tenacious and intelligent. He will do whatever he can to defeat us and will exploit every possible bit of information to inflict damage on the US and our allies. Even the most seemingly innocuous comments can be used by the enemy to harm us or our interests. Operational Security continues to be an issue for our Armed Forces. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I must back away from the blogging community for an indefinite period, perhaps permanently. It would be easy to point a finger and blame someone or something but I won’t do that. It would also be easy to kick and scream about my rights or my desires, but that would be inappropriate. I love my soldiers and want to do what is best for them; even if it means not doing something that I love, like writing.

That said, thank you all for words of kindness and encouragement. I pray that I have been able to shed some light on the everyday events that our men and women overseas deal with. I pray that I have been able to offer insight into the struggles and triumphs that they experience. But mostly, I pray that I have been an asset to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ; an ambassador worthy of being used in the capacity to which He called me. I am grateful to have had this opportunity and hold no bitterness or angst at having to put my writing on hold. What I do, I do willingly out of respect for our leaders and love for our soldiers.

May God’s best be yours.

Training for Eternity

Chaplain (Captain) Brad P. Lewis

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


In my previous post I briefly mentioned a solider that was killed while attempting to help his wounded squad leader out of a house they were assaulting. Last night we conducted a memorial ceremony. That part of being a chaplain is very difficult and yet very fulfilling.

The death of a soldier can be both demoralizing and motivating to friends and warriors who survive an encounter with a deadly and determined enemy. Surviving soldiers often feel guilt and rage and want little more than revenge. It is an incredible honor to be able to speak to the comrades of the fallen and offer them hope and help them refocus on the mission at hand as opposed to the desire for vengeance. Last night I was afforded that honor.

The thing that makes the military memorial ceremony so memorable is when you see young men, warriors, with arms capable of lifting a small car and legs that could carry that car for several miles, weeping for the love of a lost friend. Such open displays of emotion and fraternal love are practically non-existent outside this context. These are real men with real hearts and real spirits who really mourn their real friends. But the tears are only half the story. The deliberate movements, the practiced words, the rock solid stare of a man at attention, are indicators, pointers if you will, to the deep respect and devotion these men have for one another.

As usual, the ceremony concludes with the playing of taps, the folding of the flag, and the silent dismissal of the troops in formation. As the men move out, back to their places of duty, back to the fighting, many will stop by the memorial stand, snap to attention, and render one final salute to their brother in arms. If you can watch that and not approach emotional meltdown, then you have no soul.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Scars of War

"The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."
General Douglas MacArthur

Once in while I have the honor of meeting and speaking to a person who is in a different league. Today I met just such a person. I'll call him Sergeant K. He and I had a very interesting conversation. Actually I asked questions and he told stories. I say he is in a different league because he is what I wish I could be were I not a Chaplain. I would not change places with him for all the money in the world, but if life had pushed me in another direction, I would hope I had the kind of internal fortitude that I heard in his voice and saw in his eyes and felt in his hands.

Sergeant K probably tops out at 22 years old. He is short and muscular and has what might be called a baby face. We spoke for about 30 minutes and when we parted I felt as though I had met someone significant. He is a warrior and when I first encountered him, I liked him immediately.

As is the habit of most would be conversationalists, I approached Sergeant K and blithely asked, "How are you doing?" That was a pretty stupid question. You see, Sergeant K was lying on a hospital gurney, needles and tubes running in and out of his arms, with a bullet hole in one leg. He had been injured in a gun fight the prior evening and was being prepared for transport home. Having only a marginal understanding of the circumstances of his injury, and knowing that often soldiers appreciate the opportunity to decompress after a stressful situation, I asked him if he could remember what had happened. As he relayed his story, the innocence of his youth flowed intermixed with the maturity forced upon him by circumstance...and I was in awe.

On the night in question, Sergeant K and his squad were given the mission of getting a bad guy. They knew where he was and had a good idea of how to get him. They approached the house by darkness and began the assault. Sergeant K, being the veteran and leader of the squad went in first, clearing room after room. The bad guy was determined to fight back. As they entered one room, they met gunfire head on and Sergeant K was hit. They fought "for what seemed like forever". In reality the fight couldn't have lasted 20 seconds. Wounded and bleeding he directed his squad to withdraw so he could redirect a counter assault and tend to his leg. As they moved slowly back, a round caught the newest member of his squad, mortally wounding him.

As Sergeant K laid there on his back relating the story of how the building and bad guys in it were finally destroyed, tears wandered down his cheeks, slowly pooling in his ears. His days of mourning and wondering were just beginning. It was then that I was given the honor of praying with and for this wonderful young man. I prayed while he wept. We spoke a little longer and I left the hospital thankful for having had that conversation.

A couple more things bear comment that will help the reader understand the thinking and nobility of these great men. Less than a month ago, Sergeant K was in another fight in which he received shrapnel to the other leg. He now has two Purple Hearts pending. In spite of his wounds, he expressed a desire to be back with his men, engaged in the fight, supporting them and leading them. That desire and drive came from somewhere deep in his spirit; somewhere untouched by military training or conditioning; somewhere unavailable to man but open to God. Sergeant K's spiritual man played a huge role in his actions and attitudes and he displayed that unashamedly. As we talked it was impossible not to notice that in addition to the scars created by bullets and bombs, he bore a large tattoo on his left shoulder. It offered a window into the soul of the man and his understanding of why he does what he does. It read, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God."

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Politics of Greatness

I'm not a political person. I vote in just about every election, I have opinions, I pay attention...But that's about it. I don't often talk about political matters (you know what they say about politics and religion) and I blog about them even less often. I accept at face value the fact that I was blessed to be born into a free country where people are allowed to hold and voice their support of or opposition to the practices and policies of the powers that be. But sometimes you just have to step out of your norm and venture into the world of punditry. And so it is that this particular post will probably lack any measure of eloquence or my normal "word-smithery" because of the angst I feel over the topic at hand.

Over the past few days there has been much in the news about the death toll in Iraq. Fox News, CNN, even AFN News are discussing and spinning the magic number 2000 to the point of nausea. Frankly, one is too many. But this is a war, after all. Blood will spill, lives will be lost, and families will mourn. It is the nature of what we do. The problem is that every news source that I have access to is focusing on our casualties. One of the results is that the American soldier is demoralized. Not because one or more of his buddies may have given their all, but because he feels like the American people do not really understand what he is doing and are therefore not truly behind him. There are two sides to every story, but the American people only seem to be getting half of it. A basic understanding of Operational Security (OPSEC) forbids me from divulging details of some of the things I've seen and heard. However, there are some things I can mention.

First, 99 out of 100 soldiers I have spoken with understand that we are involved in something substantial and meaningful over here. They are not the mind-numbed robots many make them out to be. They are well educated, highly trained, well equipped professional warriors who know their job and want to do it.

Second, the men we are fighting here are evil, blood-sucking vermin. They kill indiscriminately and without remorse. Their goal is power, and they seek to gain it even if it costs the lives and spirits of all their fellow countrymen.

Third, while we have lost 2000+ of our patriot sons and daughters, the number of terrorists who have assumed room temperature is estimated to be anywhere from 5 to 20 times that number (depending on who you talk to). We are taking the wood to the bad guys on a regular basis and in spectacular fashion. I never cease to be amazed at the warrior ethos that drives this great generation of American men and women or their willingness to fight and die for the freedom of people they will never meet.

And in the middle of the violence, blood, gore, and mayhem, the American fighting man stands as the paradigm of brotherly love, seeking the best for others. He kills when he must but never without cause. He fights to free others rather than to gain something for himself. He sacrifices daily to ensure that this country of sand and dust and people will not be subjected to this kind of lifestyle forever. He offers the Iraqi people a chance to taste the freedom he enjoys. And for what? So that those with a public voice can point a finger of blame and disgust while decrying his efforts and belittling his mission?

I'm not a political person. But my soldiers deserve to be heard and respected. They are a new generation of American and have earned the title "great".

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

When Worlds Collide

Joe…Java…Black Gold…Liquid Joy…It has lots of names. I call it My Precious. Take your pick. For me, coffee is one of life’s great joys. I love it on a cold morning when it’s kind of drizzling outside, and the house is quiet. I love it on a hot Iraqi afternoon when you have to flitter from one shadow to the next not to suffer heat stroke. I just love coffee. A wonderful side benefit of the Elixir of Life is that it gives you a nice pick up when you want to really start your day.

Battle Dress Uniforms…Desert Camouflage Uniforms…Advanced Camouflage Uniforms…They have lots of names and lots of colors. The nice thing about Army clothing is that you never have to think about what you are going to wear on a given day. A wonderful side benefit of military clothes is that you don’t have to worry about whether or not they are entirely clean. After all, they are supposed to blend in with the dirt around them. That’s why they are so great.

Today started a little later than usual. I was up last night talking with a soldier a little later than usual so I slept a little longer today. This meant that as I rushed to make it to our daily Mission Oriented Prayer Huddle I was a bit groggy. Having thrown on the nearest pair of BDU’s, I stumbled into the operations area and grabbed that first fabulous cup of Heaven on Earth. I made my way to my desk to sit, sip, and wake up. And two worlds collided.

One misplaced bottom heavy styrofoam cup, coupled with one wayword elbow, and clothing and coffee became one in a single moment of searing pain bordering on nirvana. I quickly stood to my feet in a futile attempt to separate blazing burlap from sensitive skin. Suddenly, I remembered that I am a soldier surrounded by other soldiers and one cannot jump around screaming as though one’s lap were burning with the fury of a white hot sun. So I casually limped to the nearest paper towel to attempt to undo the process by which flesh and cloth are fused into one organic pair of multi-colored-earth-tone pants.

So my morning got off to an interesting start. And once the swelling and redness disappear, I think I’ll have a cup of Joe.

Monday, October 24, 2005

I-tensil Utensil

I can't imagine that there is anyone over here that does not want to go home. It's very fulfilling to be a part of something so big and to play a role in the freeing of an entire nation. But it's like Dorothy said, "There's no place like home." They treat us pretty well here, but there are some things that just can't be replaced. As I sit down for meals and talk with soldiers about life, service, home, girls, boys, families, etc. everyone misses something. For one it coffee out of his favorite mug. For another it's the morning newspaper. One guy will miss the smell of his children or the taste of mom's lasagna. Everyone misses something. Everyone looks forward to getting back to that something. Everyone dreams of normalcy. That's where the sacrifice of these great people is most clearly seen. In the little things they willingly give up to live and work in a rat hole. And they don't complain or blame or whine. They just keep fighting and working and dreaming of going home. These are truly great people.

Like the next guy, I too, want to go home and hold my wife and my sip coffee from my own work in my yard. But having been deployed to several locations in a very short period I miss one thing more than any other. For me plastic is the problem. It's those silly plastic forks with the hollow tines where everything you eat gets jammed in there and it just feels funny in your mouth. I miss real silverware. Ah the feel of smooth aluminum or steel or tin or whatever they make silverware out of (maybe its silver). I'm no utensilogist, but I know a good fork when I see one. Knives and spoons are not an issue. Forks are what I miss. Like I said, I'm no different...just like the next guy...kinda.

You see, unlike the next guy, I have the perfect spouse. She knows me and loves me anyway. She's perfect. So, recently I was home just long enough to drive my kids to school a couple of times and kiss my bride. And just before taking off again for parts unknown, she bought me a fork! It's not a very fancy one, but it's perfect. Neither is it a girly fork. It has a nice big handle that’s a manly black and silver; it’s easy to hold onto with perfectly straight and smooth tines. I love my fork. So now when I go to eat breakfast or lunch or dinner or just an afternoon snack, I reach into my pocket and pull out my little friend...and we enjoy a meal together. There's no place like home, even when it's the size of a fork.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

A True and Stirring Tale

In order for the reader to get a genuine feel for the emotional tone I hope to create with this story, he or she would do well to find the nearest patriotic CD and let it play softly. If that's not possible, think of your favorite song of patriotism and begin to hum quietly to yourself as you read. I find a soulful rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to be especially emotive and appropriate. "Mine eyes have seen hmmm hmmm hmmmm hmmmm hmmmm coming of the Lord."

It is surely impossible for the casual reader to understand in a real way what it is like to be living in a war zone. Since this conflict began, our forces have done a splendid job of thwarting the plans of the enemy, all the while working to improve his lot in life. Where we once slept in tents, we now often sleep in plywood huts. Where we once walked everywhere, we now often are afforded the use of a car. Where we once ate Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's) from a plastic bag, we now have dining facilities that on occasion approximate real chow halls. And it is just outside one of these dens of culinary delight that a friend recently saw something that stirs the heart and ruffles the soul.

(Are you still humming?)

Just outside the kitchen entrance, where breakfast, lunch, and dinner go from chicken to nugget, was seen a stack of boxes bearing the warning, "Grade 'D' Meat - Prisoners and Military Only!"

Together...Nice and loud, "Over hill over dale la la la dee da dee la caissons go rolling along!"

Friday, September 30, 2005

Size Matters

Today is an unusual day.  I try to be a person who unabashedly lets others into my world, allowing them to know the real me.  However, as most people of my gender, the level to which I reveal myself is usually somewhat guarded.  But, today is an unusual day.  Today I am going to lift my robe and reveal something about myself that may change the way people think of me but I can’t avoid it.  It must be done!  But first a little background.

People need people.  We are relational beings.  One of the main ways that need pans out among humanity is through the institution of marriage.  People get married all the time for a variety of reasons, all of which boil down to a desire for relationship.  I am no exception.  I need people.  And once upon a time, I met a person.  She was 12 years old at the time and over the course of the next several years we became friends.  Nearly a decade after meeting, she had morphed from a lanky, pimply, straight haired, knocked kneed little girl, to a downright hottie.  So, in my need for “relationship”, I up and married her.

The Global war on Terror has presented many challenges to our world, our nation and the men and women who currently find themselves away from friends, family, and home.  One of the larger challenges faced by today’s American soldier is the fact that many, like myself, are married.  As such, much work must be done to maintain the quality of those marriages in the face of extended separations over many important days.  Holidays, birthdays, graduations, and promotions are days regularly missed by our uniformed service members.   And in the realm of marriage, wedding anniversaries in recent days are being spent continents apart from one another.  Online chat has of necessity replaced pillow talk among soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines deployed in support of the war.  But these great men and women are resourceful, to say the least.  And the advent of the Internet has helped bridge the distance between separated husbands and wives on this, one of the most important days of the year.

Today marks the 17th anniversary of my marriage to my wonderful wife.  She is a simple woman who doesn’t require much and yet makes the most of everything she has.  She enjoys the decidedly feminine things in life and at the same time mows a mean lawn.  My brothers call her “a pioneer woman” because of her ability to take covered wagon surroundings and turn them into a livable and enjoyable environment for her family.  And we, like many others have spent our fair share of anniversaries apart from one another.  But I have discovered a way to ease the pain of separation while at the same time, causing me much emotional grief and making this such an unusual day.  So it is that with that background information in mind, I lift the veil and expose myself.

This year, in my efforts to do something nice for my wife, I went to the source of gifts for nearly all deployed service members…the internet.  Man, you can get anything and have it sent right to your house (in a beautifully gift wrapped package) as if you had gone to the local mall.  Well, my bride loves comfortable, workable pajamas.  She loves flannel and cotton and silk.  She loves long sleeves and long pants with pretty drawstrings.  You know, the kind of things that give guys hives.  But she likes em…a lot.  So this year, I struck gold.  I went to a well from which the waters of wedded bliss can be drawn with impunity.   I went to  This was the move of all moves.  They had exactly what I thought she would like.  Flannel and flowers, drawstrings and daisies.  I have ordered from them before and will again.  If you like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, I’d encourage you to visit this wonderful company.  However, DO NOT try to surprise her.  This is the exposure I alluded to earlier as this is precisely what I tried to do.  I figured, “Hey, I’m millions of miles away.  I’ll find something I think she’ll like, take a guess at her size, and place my order.”  To the casual observer this may seem like a good plan.  However, if said casual observer is a guy, he is in trouble.  You see guys, women don’t wear small medium or large.  They maintain their power in the universe by wearing sizes designed to confound the average human male.  Sizes like 22.8GYT or Purple19S or XPR5Dog.  Didn’t the Packers use those last year?  So, I picked out a lovely pair of overly comfortable pajamas with a lovely bamboo pattern and clicked on the pull down tab to select her size.  Given that I didn’t have my Packers playbook with me, I had to guess.  As the law of averages dictated I guessed wrong.  I have no idea what the size was called but I knew I was excited for her to receive my very thoughtful gesture of love on this our 17th Anniversary.  When she received her beautifully gift wrapped package I called her from across the cosmos and begged her to open it even though it was several days before our day of glory.  I could hear the box opening and the paper tearing and the excitement in the air.  Then I heard the laughter.  She thanked me as best she could for her lovely new pajamas while chuckling under her breath.   Then the horror.  Her lovely new pajamas were of a particular size so that our whole family could wear simultaneously.  

So today is an unusual day because I have the honor of celebrating my 17th wedding anniversary and because my wife is the proud owner of a brand new, bamboo patterned, silk tent.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Fight

I think few would argue with me when I say that the job of a chaplain is not necessarily a physical job. Oh, sure we have our occasional display of superhumanity such as when my heart continues beating even after running a few miles trying to keep up with the much younger and obviously better fit soldiers that surround me. But overall, I think, being a chaplain is not unlike being an armchair when it comes to actual motion in the performance of the job. But that’s not to say it is an easy job. The difficulty of being a military chaplain during war comes not from the exertion of muscle and sinew, but from an altogether different kind of exercise. One that is unique to the chaplain, I believe. One that I have not seen explicitly addressed before.

In order to gain a clear understanding of the world of a chaplain you must understand that the chaplain is more than just a pastor in a pickle suit. The chaplain differs from the civilian clergyman in that he wears two primary hats; that of the pastor and spiritual guide and that of the staff officer and advisor to the commander. These two functions work in tandem with each other, the one making the other possible in a military setting. As a staff officer, the chaplain is part of the mission planning process. He speaks with and advises the commander, prior to most missions, of the moral, ethical, and religious aspects of a given mission. As a spiritual leader, the chaplain reaches out to those men and women who will actually be conducting the planned missions to offer them a spiritual foundation upon which to build their actions during the mission.

One of the things I do, and enjoy very much, is to muster with the soldiers as they gather in preparation of an evening of fighting, patrolling, flying, etc. In a word, I see them off. However, this is not the “seeing off” of the movies. This is not the mother, with her hair in a bun and her ankle length dust covered skirt standing on the wrap around porch waving her hanky as her boys head off to war. I’m not there as an observer. I’m not there as a bystander. I’m there as a participant. Instead of a weapon and body armor, I carry a small bottle of oil. As my soldiers prepare for their mission, without interfering with their activities, I walk around and pray for them and with them. It is something spectacular to see an American Soldier, armed to the gills with pistols and rifles and all manner of explosive accoutrements, covered head to toe with Kevlar, and watch him bow to pray as I dab oil on his forehead and pray the protection and blessing of God on his life and his mission. Then to hear that same battle hardened warrior, in a voice shaky from anticipation, adrenaline, and appreciation say, “Amen” and “Thank you, chaplain.” I then move from vehicle to vehicle, aircraft to aircraft, weapon system to weapon system, and like a cammie clad prophet of old, pray for the success of the mission and the safe return of the soldiers. The sounds of clinking armors and snorting horses can be heard as the entire entourage loads up and moves out to the objective, by air, by land, by foot. If you’ve never seen bravado or courage, you’re missing something. I see it before every mission.

Then comes the difficult part of being a chaplain in war. As the sounds of marching armies fades into the distance, the night closes in like a body bag and I’m left with the struggle that few others will ever experience. It is a fight with me and my theology. It is an individual free-for-all of the heart and soul. Alone in the dark, I hope and pray that my part was sufficient. I pray my life was what it needed to be for my prayers to be heard so that my boys would come home safely. Will someone die tonight because I didn’t pray hard enough, or long enough, or sincere enough? Did I use the right words or make the right motions? What in my life might cost someone theirs? This is the battle for the chaplain’s heart. It is an almost nightly occurrence. And I believe it could crush Atlas himself.

It is here, in the middle of questions and questioning, under the weight of the burden of lives not my own, that out of the darkness comes a single simple idea straight from the Throne of Grace. I did my part, now relax and let God do His. I’m the chaplain not the Lord. And until they return, I monitor the radio and continue to pray believing that God can do incredible things in the lives and spirits of my soldiers.

So I may not have the most difficult job, but it is a struggle nonetheless. I may not fight with my men, but I certainly fight for them. And we will continue to fight, physically and spiritually, until the struggle is ended, the war is won, and we can return home to the smiles of our families or the judgment of our God.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Widows and Orphans

Much has happened this summer that I have been unable to comment on due to operational security or personal reasons. June 28th marked the blackest day in my career as a chaplain thus far. You may remember that was the day a helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan killing 16. Seven of those were my soldiers. The fact is that often a chaplain is seen as irrelevant or unnecessary until a tragedy occurs, and then he becomes the most desired individual to have around. In the early days of July 2005 I found myself speaking to young widows, grieving parents, and children with no fathers. I chose not to write about this event as it unfolded out of deference to the families of the grieving, and for that same reason I will not go into great detail here. However, sufficient time having passed, I think, I wanted to get some things recorded for posterity, if you will.

June 29th was spent trying to keep the media at bay so that we would have time to inform the families properly about what had happened to their loved ones. We were not entirely successful as the news runs unchecked through events of the day while we were tied to a series of events that, of necessity, had to be conducted in order. So it was that the race to honor our fallen by treating their families with the respect they are due was hastened by a need to do things correctly and in order.

On the one hand I pray it is the last time I will ever have to do something like that. On the other hand, it was a privilege to be able to spend time crying and grieving with family members of all religious persuasions and praying that the peace of God would infuse their lives during that trying time (which continues to this day).

We are at war and people die. It is a sad reality. But I can say without hesitation that as the details of the actions of those lost that day come to my attention, I clearly understand that they willingly gave everything so that someday others would not have to do the same.

They lived to fight, and they fought to win.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Poultry Without Morals

I do a little bit of browsing through other blogs, especially mil blogs. I enjoy reading about the experiences of other soldiers and how they differ from mine. To be sure the experience here is highly individual. However, there are some things that are the same for every soldier, everywhere, at just about every point in history. One could, if one were so inclined, put the wartime experiences of the average soldier on something of a continuum. It would range from that which is perfectly individual (such as the fit of the uniform) through the semi-individual / semi-corporate (such as the sound of gunfire at various times of the day and night) all the way through the entirely corporate (such as dust and heat). And on the corporate end of that spectrum would be something that every soldier experiences every day, if not multiple times a day. I am, of course, referring to chickens.

In my humble estimation, chickens are THE common denominator of daily life for the American soldier. Because different soldiers are on different schedules most chow halls offer not a mere three meals but an impressive four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the ever popular and name free midnight meal. And while each meal will offer a variety of foods from which to choose, such as veal, green beans, milk, burritos, etc. Without exception something in the meal cornucopia is made of chicken.

It is staggering, when you think about it, the number of ways the average chicken can be prepared, modified, recycled and reused. It can be fried, broiled, basted, roasted, and barbecued. Truly unique among the ingredients of the world. And as everyone knows, anything that is either unidentifiable or heinously unpalatable is usually said to taste like the wonder food, chicken. It would take volumes to adequately explain the creativity with which the food service personnel manipulate this culinary delight. And as I think back on my many months overseas in support of the war effort, I believe I can say with very little uncertainty that the US Army euthanizes and consumes at least one hundred billion chickens a day.

While I normally try to include in my entries some point, reason or moral, today I have none. Today's entry is little more than an ode for the food of the masses...our friend, the chicken. That said, it's dinner time and today I'm in the mood for a big, succulent piece of meatloaf.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Power of a Pear

It's only 9:20am but it's been a pretty good day so far, if for no other reason than that it was different. There is a bazaar just off post where local craftsmen and businessmen come to sell their wares. It is a good source of revenue for the locals, which works to our advantage. See, if there is any kind of attack against coalition forces during the week, the bazaar is cancelled that week and the local economy takes a hit. The locals are then pressured to cough up whoever was responsible for the attack so as to kick start the income producing wares sell-off. That may sound kind of harsh but it keeps coalition forces from being harassed or hurt, keeps the bad guys at bay, and offers local tradesmen a source of income.

The bazaar offers everything from local clothing, to pseudo antique stuff, to bootleg DVDs. It is a great place to buy souvenirs for folks back home or find a keepsake from the war. It was fun because if you even said "hello" to the sales guys they would point to something they thought you were looking at and say, "You're my friend. How much for that?" The game was to lowball the seller and see how far down he would come on his price. I wanted to find a teacup for my wife to add to her small collection. I thought it would make an interesting addition. But there were none to be found. The only thing I found was a small holy-grail-looking chalice made out of stone. Rather old looking but who knows. They guy said it was 2000 years old and cost $75. I chuckled and offered him $5. He chuckled back and said $75. He was the only guy who wouldn't budge on his prices. Most of his stuff looked like real antiques but you can never tell. Plus, he had unique stuff whereas most of the other guys were selling multiple copies of the same item.

I bought my boys some shepherd hats and a small walnut jewelry box for my daughter. I also found a small shield like you might see in a movie about the middle ages. The guy wanted $80 for it and I told him $20. He said no so I walked away but stayed in the area knowing he would make a counter offer. He did. $60! I said I could pay $20. OK, then $45 but no lower. How about $20, I countered. Final offer, $25. I'll pay $20, no more. As we stood there not budging, I pulled a pear out of my pocket that I had left over from lunch and began to polish it on my sleeve. That did the trick and he flinched. "OK, I'll take $20 and the pear".

I'm sure some of my readers may be thinking how cruel I was to lowball this poor man. Here I will interject that in fact the shield in question wasn't worth $15 and certainly not worth my pear.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Global War Against Groundhog Day

It could be called several very appropriate names. The most popular of which is unquestionably, "The Global War On Terrorism" or GWOT. It's a good name. After all, we are here to fight terror. Peace loving people from many nations are dead because of terror. And the goal is to defeat the scourge of terror around the world. It's a good name and a good goal.

It could also be called "Groundhog Day". Each day is a near carbon copy of the day before. In fact, it can be outright boring. Sure there are the occasional heart-stopping experiences that seem to come out of nowhere, but the mundane, everyday stuff is nothing to write home about.

We are sleeping in 8 man "B-Huts" that are not unlike your grandfathers tool shed, except without the tools or the accompanying yard. Plywood and bunk beds round out the decor. Privacy is the rarest of commodities. However, when you exit your living quarters, the drabness of plain plywood gives way to a sight right out of a movie, if that movie were titled, "The Day The Earth Turned Brown". Man is it brown. The dirt is something of a light mocha color, like the perfect cup of rich, dark coffee destroyed by a touch of milk. And to ensure that depth perception is next to impossible, the Department of Defense Hue Equivalence Team has developed an exterior paint that perfectly matches the dirt. It is the most impressive display of chemistry in action that I think I've ever witnessed.

In stark contrast to the extreme brownness of the world outside is the little dabs of color and life God puts on display. This morning, as I languished in my 8-man den of public non-privacy, I happened upon the smell of coffee. One of the guys in my room had brewed a fresh pot of coffee and man did it smell good. Side note here, the coffee was actually Starbucks that was donated to the American Red Cross and handed out to the troops. Wow, was that a nice smell to wake to. So I got up, grabbed a cup and headed out the door to enjoy the morning air and the fresh coffee. It was relatively quiet and there was a light rain coming down. Not the soggy type, but the kind that makes everything smell damp. It was actually quite lovely. Some things, like the smell of morning, are the same around the world (except in Korea of course). Just beyond the front door of our B-hut is a wall made out of Hesco Barriers which are essentially 6 x 6 x 6 foot sand bags. So we have what amounts to a large, 12 foot wall of very brown paint-colored dirt just outside. As we sat and talked and enjoyed that beautiful cup of Joe, I noticed something. There atop the brown wall, silhouetted in a dusty brown sky was a single, scarlet flower. It stood out like a lit match in a dark closet (not that I ever lit any matches in the closet, mind you. It's just a metaphor...or simile...or metaphor). The thing is that one flower had the potential to become a whole acre of flowers, given the right growing conditions.

Here is where reality punched me right in the face. We are fighting a fight against an enemy that is all around us but so blended in that you can't see him. But despite the violence and hatred, a seed of freedom has been planted and watered by the scarlet blood of combatants and non-combatants alike. And given the right conditions it will eventually become a huge field of color where only drab brown reigned before.

When that happens, look out, 'cause a whole bunch of tired GI's are coming home.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Self-Inflated Travel

This trip began much the same way my previous deployment did (as recounted in "The 50,000 Foot Nap of Death". After rising early in anticipation of freezing my tail off for several hours on end, my wife and I hurried to prep the kids for another day of school. After dropping them off we stopped for breakfast at a local greasy spoon and then she drove me to the air field. I hate saying goodbye but even more, I hate saying goodbye over time. So I checked in, walked her back to the car, and sent her off with one more kiss.

The first leg of our journey was again on a C-17 which took off right on schedule. As we sat and waited to depart, I glanced around the plane, which is really little more than a flying tube. It was loaded to the gills with all manner of equipment, ranging from large vehicles to small people. A vehicle near me had a warning sticker on it that read, "No Smoking Within 40 Feet From The Vehicle". I couldn't say what was wrong with it but I knew an English major had not composed that sentence. I figured that would not be a good time to take up smoking as I was well within 40 feet from the vehicle.

If you have ever graced the tubular interior of a properly functioning C-17 with your presence, then you would know that the sound is not unlike the sound of an industrial strength shop vac running at full bore inside an echo chamber. So, to ensure that passengers and crew exit the aircraft with the ability to hear a normal human voice, we were issued ear plugs. These are wonderful little devices. They are small bullet-shaped chunks of foam that can be rolled up like a playdough snake and inserted into the ear canal where they expand. This serves two major functions. The first is that they protect the hearing of the wearer by basically forming a sound barrier inside the ear. The second function they serve is to cause such pain that the wearer is forced to make a judgment call as to whether it is worse to loose his hearing altogether or be subjected to a lifetime of aural bruising. I like to think of myself as a practical man, but I'm not sure I did the right thing, judging from the lack of hearing in my left ear and the excruciating pain in my right.

Once at altitude, we were allowed to find a comfortable spot on the floor and try to catch a few hours of sleep. I happened upon a cozy portion of flight deck right next to the non-smoking vehicle and something that looked like a big box on wheels. The first thing I did was to reach for one of the greatest pieces of equipment ever devised...the self-inflating sleeping pad. I think the idea is that this pad, when released from the confines of whatever is containing it, will slowly inflate and offer a comfortable surface upon which to repose. So, I released my self-inflating sleeping pad to do it's magic and after a few moments of sleeping bag preparation and combat boot removal, I curled up on said self-inflating sleeping pad with no small measure of anticipation, only to find that it's self-inflating feature seems to work best when manually-inflated by mouth. Thus, I began to assist the self-inflation process until my cozy little pad resembled a thin, nylon hunk of three quarter inch plywood. Finally, with my manually-inflated-self-inflating pad ready to go, I climbed aboard in search of my friend, Sleep. Sadly, he was nowhere to be found! Besides the sensation of thumb screws jammed in my ears, my sleeping pad did not appear to be doing it's job. In order for the reader to understand why this is so, it is important to know that I weigh approximately 150 pounds when wrapped in a soaking wet yak fleece. Therefore, I have many pointy parts, including my hips and my shoulders (both principle sleeping equipment). Thus, in order for me to experience pressure pointless sleep, that upon which I seek softness must, by definition, be at least 13 inches thick. You, the reader, can approximate my experience by doing the following: First, get a large plastic garbage bag and lay it flat on a concrete surface (this will serve as your manually-inflated-self-inflating sleeping pad on the metal floor of your standard C-17). Next, find two large marbles. Laying on your side (as though feigning sleep) slip one marble under your shoulder and the other under your hip. Isn't that comfy? It doesn't end there.

As I mentioned, I had taken up some prime real estate between the non-smoking vehicle and a large-wheeled box. As I looked at this box I could not figure out what it was for. However, once I snuggled up to it for about 2 seconds, it became very clear that this thing's sole purpose was to smell like diesel fuel. And I must say it did it's job very well. The result was twofold. As the plane continued to climb, I flew even higher, reaching a place of euphoria rarely experienced by mortals. It also produced one of the most intense, brain wrenching headaches I've ever known. Fortunately for all, the smelly box car was not a smoker either as it too was within 40 feet from the other vehicle.

All that said, God bless our medics for providing Ambien(r)!

The final show stopper came as we approached the end of our first leg of travel. As I awoke from my drug induced, gasoline assisted, manually-inflated-self-inflating slumber, my eye happened upon one of my soldiers sleeping soundly in the arms of his teddy bear!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Soldier's Fight

Some days I love being a chaplain. Others, not so much. And sometimes, the worst days are the days of greatest ministry opportunities and ultimately the greatest fulfillment. A few months back I was involved in a horrible event in Iraq that I wrote about and from which I received a lot of great feedback. That was a horrible, yet fulfilling day as a minister. But the fact of the matter is that it was a singular event at a particular moment in history. Last week I experienced exactly the opposite...the inevitable end of a long war highlighted by many battles.

I don't think anyone really wants to die. Nevertheless, it is a matter of fact that we all will. If you were to ask any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine about death, most would probably talk about dieing "gloriously on the field of battle". If you gotta go, that's the place to do it, they might say. But sometimes they don't have that choice. About 6 months ago one of the soldiers in my unit, Mr. Turns, after 26 years of military service, decided to retire. As a part of that process he underwent a physical exam, during which it was discovered that he had colon cancer. Instead of retiring and spending the rest of his life enjoying time with his family, he was given 6 to 12 months to live. Being a soldier, he determined to fight. And for the next 6 months, he did just that. He took all kinds of pills, endured innumerable shots, received radiation therapy, and who knows what else. While his body began to shrink from the cancer and the treatments, he continued to fight. Over the months from then till now, I spent time with him in his home and in his hospital room discussing everything from the weather to eternity. And throughout it all, with the cancer spreading all over his body, he complained very little, and continued to fight, determined to win, with a smile on his face. He was amazing.

Cancer, it seems, can spread beyond the confines of the human body. It infected his wife. She, too, fought while the cancer unavoidably ate away her heart and soul as her husband suffered. Their daughter, in her first semester of college, suffered academically as she struggled with her fathers illness. Their son worked feverishly to complete everything necessary to become an Eagle Scout and make his father proud. And again, despite the circumstances, the family pressed on like the military family they are.

Last week the struggle ended. Mr Turns passed away at his home, in his wife's arms. He is survived by his wife of 20 years, his teenage daughter, beginning her second semester of college, and his teenage son, who became an Eagle Scout the day after his father's funeral. He is also survived by the hundreds of soldiers with whom he worked and played, in war and in peace.

While he didn't die on the field of battle, he did die fighting.

With the permission of Mrs. Turns I am including the address below in the event anyone would like to help her with her children's education. Donations can be sent to:

Turns Children College Fund
(Lynette Turns)
c/o Savannah Mall Bank of America
14083 Abercorn St.
Savannah, GA 31419

Thank You

Wednesday, March 02, 2005


I normally try to write my own stuff and shy away from hanging my hat on the peg of others work, but I came across this poem today by the worlds greatest poet, Edgar A. Guest. Originally published in 1918, near the end or just after WWI, it struck me as rather relevant in 2005.

To the Men at Home
by Edgar A Guest

No war is won by cannon fire alone;
The soldier bears the grim and dreary role;
He dies to serve the Flag that he has known;
His duty is to gain the distant goal.
But if the toiler in his homeland fair
Falter in faith and shrink from every test,
If he be not on duty ever there,
Lost to the cause is every soldier's best.

The men at home, the toiler in the shop,
The keen-eyed watcher of the spinning drill
Hear no command to vault the trench's top;
They know not what it is to die or kill,
And yet they must be brave and constant, too.
Upon them lies their precious country's fate;
They also serve the Flag as soldiers do,
'Tis theirs to make a nation's army great.

You hold your country's honor in your care.
Her glory you shall help to make or mar;
For they, who now her uniforms must wear
Can be no braver soldiers than you are.
From day to day, in big and little deeds,
At bench or lathe or desk or stretch of soil,
You are the man your country sorely needs!
Will you not give to her your finest toil?

No war is won by cannon fire alone.
The men at home must also share the fight.
By what they are, a nation's strength is shown,
The army but reflects their love of right.
Will you not help to hold our battle line,
Will you not give the fullest of your powers
In sacrifice and service that is fine
That victory shall speedily be ours?

Sunday, January 02, 2005


In situations like this one never knows whether to embrace the inevitable elation or the inescapable guilt. The past 48 hours have been some of the longest of my life as I am now back on American soil. The return trip was little more than the reverse of my trip to the middle east. And while it was uneventful outwardly, it was tumultuous inwardly.

One of the things causing the tumult is my wife and kids. I cannot explain the excitement and impatience one feels when returning from a place like the one I just left. It seemed the flight would never end. I planned and played out in my minds eye the reunion that would take place when we landed. While I was in Korea for a much longer period of time, the anticipation of this reunion was much greater, I think, because of the magnitude of the events I've just come through. There is an appreciation for my family that far exceeds anything I've known heretofore. On the short drive from the airport into town, I called my wife and told her where we were. Here was the first indication that all my planning and visions of the grand reunion were thrown into the garbage pile. I had anticipated coming home just after school let out and seeing my wife and kids waiting in the parking lot. However, as we approached home, it was about 4:30 in the morning and my phone call woke my wife. Since our kids are old enough she left them in bed and quickly drove over to pick me up. Just seeing her standing there was incredible. She could have been covered in seaweed and she still would have looked fabulous at that point. But she wasn't. She was all gussied done, a bit of make up, brushed teeth, pressed clothes, looking as beautiful as anyone I've ever seen. She was the only wife there, while the other guys had empty vehicles waiting for them. I think I'm the luckiest man in the world.

When we got home, my dogs, Deacon and Scout, not recognizing me, bristled up and barked for a few seconds. Once they figured out who this guy was coming home with their matriarch, the tail wagging began in ernest and I got a severe doggy greeting. The kids were still asleep so we sat down at the kitchen table (my very own table with my very own chair) and talked for a bit. I think my wife even made me some coffee (fresh and perfect out of my very own coffee pot). When the time was right, I snuck upstairs and woke my kids one by one. Their responses were fabulous. One half whispered, half yelled, "Dad!" and I got a wonderful hug. Another peeked up at me , smiled and said, "Hey Dad" and I got another wonderful hug. Still another just said, "Daddy" and then a wonderful hug. The last one I woke up didn't say a word. He just sat straight up, threw his arms around my neck and squeezed for what seemed an hour. I could have stayed there all day if he wanted to. After getting them ready we took them to school and then went out for breakfast and talked some more. And at last, we went home and I crawled into my very own bed with my very own pillow and slept like a baby.

The flip side of the reunion coin is the clear understanding that while I was enjoying my family and the comforts of home again, there were and are still soldiers downrange facing the same dangers I just got away from. Herein lies the guilt. Despite my joy at being back home, I want so much to be with my soldiers, praying with them, encouraging them, laughing and crying and bleeding with them. I can't wait until they get to come home.

I guess you can't avoid either the inevitable elation or the inescapable guilt, and I wouldn't want to. Instead, I rejoice in my time at home and I pray for my soldiers downrange. Anything else would be inexcusable.