Thursday, February 19, 2009

Providential Coincidence

Coincidence? Providence? Something else?

For the last week I and a number of traveling companions have been working our way around the globe to the place we will call home until Uncle Sam tells us we can go back to Alaska. Our trip has been tiring, boring, frustrating, and any number of other "ing's". But the time and effort it took was worth it when we reached our final destination earlier today. The "coolness" is not to be had in the completion of an arduous trek or in the ultimate destination. Rather, it is in the arrival itself.

Since my early days as a chaplain in an infantry battalion I have always viewed the job of a military chaplain as somewhat analogous to that of the Old Testament prophet because when I stand among my soldiers and peers I represent something none of them do and I bring a presence to the table that no one else does. Not because I'm anything special nor have any particular skills that are unique to me. However, I truly believe God wants me here, doing what I do. The result is that I tend to operate with a confidence that can border on arrogance knowing that even when I'm entirely confused about something, God has His hands deep in my confusion and will make something great out of something not so great.

I don't necessarily act like some kind of prophet wannabe. However, I take my responsibility to be the prophetic voice of God among my soldiers very seriously. And here is where the extreme coolness of today's arrival on our FOB comes into play. It happened like this…

As we were preparing to get onto the airplane for the last leg of our little global jaunt we lined up seemingly at random and walked single file out to a waiting bus where we packed in, seemingly at random. We waited a bit and then were escorted onto the plane and wedged into some very tight quarters which made breathing a bit difficult. All this seemingly at random. Then, our baggage was loaded in behind us on large pallets, the back of our C-130 closed up and we were airborne at last. Sometime later we landed without incident and waited for the clearance to deplane. The pallets containing our bags were taken off, the ramp was lowered all the way and the loadmaster signaled for us to get off his plane. Here's where it gets great. Because of the random location I just happened to sit in, I was the first guy off the first aircraft carrying our entire brigade into battle. It hit me like a ton a bricks that I was doing what the priests did when the children of Israel marched around Jericho. I, the lowly often overlooked chaplain, was wearing the first boot to hit the ground and like my predecessors I began to pray. I prayed for the success of our mission. I prayed for the safety of my soldiers. I prayed for their hearts, their minds, their spirits, and their bodies. I prayed that they would be a better shot and have faster reaction times than any that would desire a good fight. I prayed that we would be able to win the hearts and minds of the local people. I prayed that we would all get home next year. I prayed that God would bless them.

Call it coincidence. Call it providence. I just think God's control of things is amazingly cool.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Becoming Traditional Cheese

Traditions. The Army is full of them, from raising the flag in the morning to lowering it at night, from saluting senior officers to drinking grog at banquets. Every occasion brings with it a tradition handed down from one generation of warriors to the next. Each holds a special place in the grand scheme of Army life. Still, one stands out above the rest in its universality among soldiers. We call it "Hurry-Up-And-Wait"

There is nothing like it. Regardless of the context there is always...ALWAYS...a sense among everyone present at a given event that whatever it is you are doing must be done with all haste so as to avoid the inevitable domino effect for everything that follows. The rush to complete a given step of a given task drives Officers to sweat, NCO's to scream, and Joe's to scramble aimlessly in an effort to appear to be doing what they think they are supposed to be doing even when they don't necessarily know what that is. And the longer things take, the greater the sense of urgency to complete that thing until the universe reaches a fevered pitch, a crescendo, a tidal wave of activity that comes crashing down around everyone in the vicinity resulting in abject silence and inactivity for as long as it takes to reach the next moment in history that requires frenzied movement forward. Minutes turn to hours...hours turn to days...days become your next birthday! Card games and conversations magically appear where only the void of unused time once hung in the air like so much salt in the cured ham of life. Suddenly, all parties find themselves doing ANYTHING to make the time pass, which it eventually does. The sprint begins anew. Such is my predicament today.

Several days ago I hopped on an airplane in frozen Alaska with the express goal of joining my brothers in arms in the struggle against evil in the blazing sands of the Middle East. It was a race to get packed and loaded and manifested and hurry hurry hurry so that we could finally arrive at our first stop where we would wait for transportation to our second stop where we hope to someday reach our brothers in arms struggling against evil in the blazing sands of the Middle East. However, that was several days ago. Soon after reaching our first stop time took a detour. We thought we had a date with destiny and that she was going to order the lobster. It turns out we appear to have been stood up. Here we sit, all hurrying done and departed. Now we wait and like a good cheese...we age. Indefinitely. I'm nearly a sharp cheddar bordering on the perfect Roquefort.

We have now entered the "I'll-do-ANYTHING-to-pass-the-time" stage. Today, for instance, despite having hair no longer than the width of an average human hair I decided that, in order to kill some time, I'd get a haircut. One of the defining characteristics of this part of the world is the ability of the local populace to speak just enough English to make you think they understand you when in fact they do not. So when I said, "Short here, long here" all the while pointing to "here" and "here" I assumed the "Barber" understood what I was saying and pointing to. As it turns out, she seems to have understood my strange groanings and gesticulations to mean, "I can't see enough of my scalp and I'd truly appreciate your assistance with this terrible affliction!" So she vigorously assisted me. First, the #4 adapter on the clippers from Hell followed by the #3, the #2 and just to keep things fun, right on into the #0. As I watched my hair being removed one seminfinimicrocentemeter at a time I quietly whimpered, which my "Barber" understood to mean, "A little more off the top and sides and back and edges please." Then at last she was done. This was a rouse. For even as she was putting down the clippers from Hell with one hand she was picking up Mr. Norelco with the other and before I could hold up the universal, "This hand in your face means cease and desist at this moment" sign, she and he were enjoying a guided tour of my melon. At long last, they were done with me and I escaped the logical next step...wax!

It worked. The haircut that became a shave of sorts succeeded in absorbing 45 minutes of my endless day. So here I wait, enjoying one of the Army's finest traditions...and turning into a delicious Limburger.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Story of Today

The story of today started several weeks back as we drew closer and closer to actually deploying. I have a hunch that this story, or one like it, is one that most in the Armed Services today could tell. In fact, I'd wager it is one that veterans of past wars could tell as well. It is a story of regret. Regret is a powerful word. in my case it is defined in the context of another year away from my home, my wife, my kids, even my dogs. I put this down, not to make people feel sorry for me or elicit a particular response. Rather, I hope, as I always have, to give my readers some measure of the kinds of things that soldiers experience everyday. Not just the fighting...the external, but the internal struggles as well.

I spent the last coupel of days at home trying to enjoy that one last minute with each of my children and my wife. To build even the smallest, simplest memory for them and for me. And I'm pretty sure I failed miserably. The end result was that when the time came to put them in bed and pray with each of them in turn, we all knew I wouldn't be there when they woke in the morning, and that all we'd have left is whatever memories I was able to offer them in the preceeding days. It was essentially the end of a day spent with my stomach in my throat...regretting.

I regret the things I said and didn't say. I regret some of the things done and especially those not done. I regret not treating my daughter and my wife like ladies. I regreat not treating my boys like the young men they are becoming. I regret too much TV and not enough wrestling; too much work and not enough ice skating; too much coffee for me and not enough hot chocolate for them; too much arguing and asserting and not enough reconciliation and prayer. Too much regretting. Too much wishing.

None who know me would doubt my love for my children and my deep affection for my wife. But as I stand again on the threshold of a year away, I wish I'd have told them more often.

But, dear reader, today's story is not just about internal struggles and wishes. It's also about my toe. A very external concept. Today I discovered that my pinkie toe, which is newly broken and constantly painful (the details of which can be read bout in my previous posting), had while I slept turned a lovely shade of purple. I just thought you'd want to know. But I might be mistaken.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

You Can't Go Home

The day is finally here and I'm kind of excited about it. I'm within a few short hours of heading out of the house and into the cold Alaska night where I will link up with the rest of my group of future travel weary travellers. We will gather, check to ensure everyone who is supposed to be there is there, pick up things like weapons (not me of course, I'm a chaplain and we are peaceful folk), march to the local gymnasium where we will wait for approximately 37 days to board a bus for a 3 mile ride to the airfield. At that point we will gather some more. Once that's done we will watch our plane sit for an additional 15 days until such time as the crew feels it is safe for us to board. At long last we will get on the plane and begin our trip downrange (which should only take about 6 days). That's how it will go, or so it will seem. In reality, by this time tomorrow, I'll be halfway to halfway around the world. These kinds of things take time, but they generally go smoothly. Generally.

Today, as I was waiting for the waiting to begin, my wife and I had a few hours to tie up some loose ends while the kids were at school, such as having the car serviced, enjoying a lunchtime date, and breaking a portion of my foot. Yep, you read right. Since I had some free space in the house earlier, I decided a good thing to do would be to jump the couch instead of casually walking around it. So I jumped. But today my couch jumping judgement was not a little off and my trail foot didn't quite make it. Really just the pinkie part of my trail foot. The result was me rolling on the floor saying in a not so quiet and composed voice and tone, "I'm certain I broke my toe!" There really was no way to be sure short of seeing a doctor with the exception of going so far as to take my sock off. So I did. What I saw confirmed my beliefs. It's not that my toe was swollen, although it was just a bit. And it's not that it was discolored, although that also was true. What really clinched it was that my toe, which normally is very good friends with the next toe over seemed to want nothing to do with it's neighbor to the point of nearly moving out of the state. It's angle, in relation to its ex-friend was something in the area of 75 degrees off vertical. If it were my big toe, it would have been pointing at my other foot. You get the idea, it was nasty. So we jumped in the car and headed to the ER. A couple hours, several x-rays, and some excruciating taping of one toe to another and I was headed home to enjoy the last few hours before heading out. For a brief description of that that will be like, see paragraph 1.

So the day is finally here. And, yeah, I'm excited about it. But only because you can't come home until you leave.!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Ceremonial Prayer

While the nature of the war we are fighting has changed over the course of this conflict, the Army's desire to properly see it' young warriors off has not. It's called simply a Deployment Ceremony and it is at one and the same time celebratory and sobering. Today my brigade conducted such a ceremony and it was attended by several thousand soldiers and civilians in the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage. There was music, marching, and speeches. And for many the highlight was having the Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin as our key note speaker. She spoke with the passion of a leader, the eloquence of a scholar, and the heart of a mother. Afterward, my family and I pressed through the mass of humanity balled around her and had our picture with her. She was so gracious to my wife and kids, asking my daughter where she goes to school and thanking my wife for her service to our country. It was an honor to meet her, shake her hand, and listen to her speak. For me, however, the highlight was elsewhere. As an officer my world revolves around my soldiers, especially as we prepare to head downrange. As a chaplain my heart is in knowing that my soldiers run to the sound of battle with the protection of God blanketing them. So for me the highlight of today's ceremony was when I was able to pray for all my soldiers in one place at one time. The difficulty in offering such a prayer is that it can very easily turn into a mere wordsmithed formality while not speaking into the hearts of my soldiers or into the heart God. So I struggle with these kinds of occasions. In the end it was my honor to invoke the presence of God at the ceremony and in the lives of my paratroopers. There may be those who are headed downrange and no one has prayed for them. I pray the same prayer for them as well...

Almighty God, in whose hand alone reside war and peace, life and death;
As you guide our nation to lead the world to peace, I can do no better than to plead your blessing and protection on these great men and women that they may trust in your defense and not fear the power of any adversary. Lead our leaders, I pray, as they will be asked to make decisions that most men would rather not make.
You have brought us in safety to this new day. You have trained our hands for war and our fingers for battle. Now preserve us with your might. Direct us to the fulfilling of your plan as we carry out the plans of those you have placed over us. Only you fully know of the trials and triumphs we will face in the coming days and as we depart our friends, families, and the comforts of home, guide and govern each of us by your Holy Spirit for it is only by your grace that we will be sustained, protected and preserved. Bless and comfort our families as they watch and wait. Grant them the peace in the middle of uncertainty that only you can offer.
It is in your name we pray.