I'm not really sure how I got there, but there I was standing in the operating room of the hospital on our FOB watching doctors and nurses of varying sorts work on a US Soldier, trying desperately to keep him alive.
Several hours earlier a group of our guys had begun a patrol or a convoy or something other military activity and at some point encountered some very bad men with very bad intentions. I wish I could report what happened to them but I can't because I really don't know. All I know is that there I was, several hours later watching doctors and nurses of varying sorts trying to keep a young US Soldier alive. By the time I arrived in the operating room things were moving along pretty rapidly and even the untrained eye of a chaplain could see that the warrior on the table was having a rough go of it. I won't go into the details of his injuries but I will say they were nothing shy of significant. All manner of machines around him were beeping and chirping giving the staff numbers that meant nothing to me. It is difficult to convey what I felt as I stood there. "Useless" comes to mind, as does confused, angry, and sad. But it was more than an emotional response. It was a sense that I had to do something despite a feeling of having no real purpose. So I did what I do and worked my way toward the chaos, watching for an opportunity. It came and I took it.
Taking out a small container of oil I keep with me, I approached a beautiful American boy only a couple of years older than my eldest son. His head was wrapped in blood soaked gauze and I didn't want to touch it. Not because I felt any manner of repulsion of disgust, but because I didn't want to hurt him. The only place I could touch him was his nearly hairless chest. So I put some oil on him and placed my hand on that young breast and prayed for him, his family, his unit, the doctors, and the nurses. Then I said, "amen".
Amen is a strange word at times like that. I've always understood it to indicate a resolve that God would act according to his good will upon the preceding prayer. But at that moment I felt like it meant, "I've done all I can. Now I'll go back to feeling helpless". His blood spattered body just laid there. Nothing happened. The staff whispered, "thanks" and went back to work.
I stood back again and watched as his pulse climbed and his blood pressure dropped and it didn't take long to notice that the hospital staff was getting frantic and appeared to be taking it personally. I needed some fresh air for a moment. So I quietly slipped into the hall and went for a drink of water. That's when I heard, "Chaplain, they're looking for you!" That's never good.
Back in the OR I immediately noticed that the beeping and chirping had stopped and the staff moved less deliberately and in total silence. I walked over to that Warrior again and thanked God for his life. I don't know what things were like between he and God but I hope they were right. When I finished I stepped back again to watch the staff and provide ministry where needed. What I saw was simply amazing.
Without a word each one began to work like cogs in a wheel, but not without feeling. Quietly, tears fell as they slowly and methodically removed all bandages and tubes and began to wash his broken body like a mother washes her baby. It was gentle and loving and I could see that while there was nothing enjoyable about it, all were honored to have a part in sending him home. Finally they wrapped him in white linens. Just as they were about to lift him and place him in a body bag the senior officer in the room, a Colonel, called the room to attention and in a near whisper said, "Present Arms". There in the operating room, we all stood facing that young American hero and saluted. He was then wheeled to the morgue where he waited for the first leg of his trip home. I quickly asked the Colonel if he would mind if I prayed with his staff. He said he thought that was a great idea, so again I prayed. Honestly, I'm not a very emotional person, but I was so impressed with those men and women and their efforts to help that young man, I nearly lost my composure. I thanked God for them, and for him. I still do.
That was not the end, though. Beside the one casualty, there had been two other injuries in the same incident. Somehow the task fell to me to inform the two soldiers that their buddy had been killed. They don't teach you how to do that in Chaplain school. One soldier had his ear drums blown out so he could hardly hear. I had to forgo the appropriately soft voice for such an occasion and stare right into his eyes and tell him the news. His reaction was immediate. The love of one warrior for another is a thing to behold and seen most clearly at moments like that. I gently put my arms around each of them and gave them a kiss on the head. I don't normally do that, but I hurt for them and wanted them to know I loved them. Then I left them as there was one more task to be completed.
It is a custom that we practice with great diligence. Nothing can stop us. We call it a hero flight in which we send our fallen home with honor and say one last goodbye. I stood outside the morgue with my Commander and Command Sergeant Major, the two senior people in the Brigade and we followed as four friends of the fallen escorted his flag draped body from the morgue to an awaiting helicopter. The route from the hospital to the helicopter pad was lined with Soldiers, each saluting as the body passed. As we approached the aircraft, the command team stepped aside and the body continued. I followed. Finally, the four friends reverently loaded the body on the helicopter, rendered one final salute and walked away. I stepped forward and again prayed over the body before saluting and joining the rest of the unit. We stood quietly until the helicopters flew out of sight. Then slowly the formation broke up and everyone walked away.
Some days, I'd rather be anywhere but here. It gets too hard dealing with the stuff a war can throw at you. You feel like nothing is worth being here for, to be separated from family, missing holidays and long weekends or the comforts of home. There are days I really don't want to be a chaplain.
Today was not one of those days.