First day on the job

by

What follows passed my desk yesterday. I’m often handed things for mass distribution and usually my toughest job is making any one care about the administrivia we’re touting.

Not this time.

I don’t know the fellow’s name that penned the narrative below. I feel comfortable sharing it here since it was intended for public dissemination.

I’m not sure if fits the mold of Thursday’s intended topic — inspiration, but it was written by a Chaplain. However, there’s not much religion … just one person’s reality.
_______________
Friday, January 20, 2006

Just 14 hours after my arrival at Kirkuk Regional Air Base in Iraq, I was awakened and startled to hear the rapid bursts of 50 caliber machine guns. It was 0430 and pitch black in my pod and I laid awake, suddenly realizing the gravity of the situation I had been thrust into.

A few hours later, I was grateful to discover that the gunfire I heard was the sound of soldiers going out on patrol testing their weapons. Serving at a Forward Operating Base alongside the 101st Airborne would definitely be a stretching experience for me, but I was relieved to know that our perimeter had not been attacked that morning. My relief was short-lived. A few minutes later a call broke out on the radio indicating that there were casualties inbound. Chaplain Mark Barnes, Chaplain Bob Gallagher, TSgt Trish Winters and I rushed over to the Expeditionary Medical Squadron just in time to witness SSgt Bill Spencer, one of our chaplain assistants, helping transport two patients off the UH-60 medevac chopper.

As I watched the scene reminiscent of the television show, MASH, the adrenaline flowed and prayers for stamina and courage screamed upward as I entered the emergency room and stood by as our valiant medical professionals attempted to save the soldier’s lives. They were partially successful. One lived, one did not. The deceased soldier’s right leg had been blown off and the blood spilled generously onto the starkly white emergency room floor. They tried for what seemed like an eternity to resuscitate him, but were unsuccessful. Just 10 months earlier, the USAF sent me to Wilford Hall Medical Center, San Antonio, for a Professional Continuing Education designed to expose students to “Crisis and Trauma.” I honestly believe that if I had not had that training, I would have been totally unprepared for the graphic nature of what I was witnessing. But God, in his providence, knew that I would need His strength and all the training I could get for what lie ahead.

The mood was somber as the doctor pronounced the soldier dead and medical technicians placed him in a black body bag. Chaplain Mark Barnes, a familiar face around the medical tent, was flying to Qatar next day after over 130 days of phenomenal ministry at Kirkuk. He confidently stepped forward and offered a prayer for the victim, his family and the troops he served with. He demonstrated a confidence I didn’t feel, and inspired me to put my feelings of discomfort aside and to focus on the patient and the staff. Little did I know that I would need that level of confidence just a few minutes later.

A rumor that there was a third victim was whispered around the emergency room tent, but we quickly discovered that it was tragically false—there were three other victims—all three “KIA.” As details emerged, we discovered that they had been blown up by an Improvised Explosive device (IED). I joined a seasoned captain and a young lieutenant from the mortuary affairs team and we drove over to the mortuary together.

Like many of the bases in Iraq, Kirkuk had served Saddam Hussein’s air force before we took over, and remnants of his influence pervade the base. The mortuary was a tiny stone building with two-toned paint peeling off the walls, naked lights hanging from exposed wiring and a variety of stainless steel carts lining the walls. As I arrived I quickly met the senior installation Army chaplain, Ch, Major Scott, and we walked in together. We stood and watched as eventually four bodies were carried in. I saw images too awful to describe that afternoon as soldiers and Airmen removed the personal effects from their fallen comrades. A family picture with a young wife and child, blood soaked dollar bills, ID cards, “dog tags” and pocket knives were removed and placed in clear plastic bags. Each soldier had to be positively identified by a member of his unit and one young identifying soldier took one look at the body and stormed out of the morgue with tears and rage in his eyes. Chaplain Scott hurried out the door after him, obviously delivering crucial ministry in a time of desperate need—precisely what chaplains are called to do…

As they finalized the preparations of the first body, I placed my hand on the body bag and prayed over him in the presence of the joint mortuary affairs team. I thanked God for the soldier’s faithful service and prayed that God would grant divine peace and comfort to his family as they soon heard the dreaded knock on their door from a US Army Casualty Notification Team. While serving in Washington DC, 6,085 miles from Kirkuk, I ministered at the Army’s national casualty notification center in Crystal City, Virginia, and remember my heart sinking as I looked at long tables filled with neatly stacked manila folders bearing the names of soldiers who had perished. The notification center had probably already received the call about this incident and would soon dispatch teams to the soldier’s homes. Those same heart-sinking feelings were coming back to me now with a vengeance…

As I concluded my prayer with a plea that the soldier would rest in peace, “Amen’s” echoed through the small room and the body was lifted onto a cart. Within 24 hours, it would leave Kirkuk and would be transported to Kuwait, then Germany, on to Dover AFB, Delaware, and finally home to meet a grieving family.

When it was all over, the entire mortuary affairs team walked somberly across the street to a run-down building identified by the Army now as the “Bastogne Chapel.” Chaplain Scott and I informally debriefed the team and told them what sort of psychological, emotional and spiritual reactions they might expect in response to what they had just witnessed. The brigade surgeon, Doc Henry, shared about the physiological dynamics of stress and then talked about his own feelings following the incident. His openness encouraged a few more comments from the team and then we shared a moment of silence and prayer together.

It suddenly occurred to me that I had been on the ground in Iraq less than 24 hours. What did God have in store for me this tour of duty? What would the ministry of a chaplain look like in a combat environment? I can’t explain it, but I know now that the power of the “ministry of presence” in times of combat crisis is phenomenal. This is what the chaplaincy is all about and I am honored to play a tiny role in this heroic institution.

At 0315 the next morning I watched a blacked-out C-130 Hercules from Pope AFB taxi and park in preparation for a 45 minute “Ramp Ceremony.” Over 400 Airmen and Soldiers stood facing each other in formation and saluted as four flag-draped body transport cases were loaded onto the plane in before their eyes. As the C-130 lifted into the night sky, our prayers were lifted with the brave men who paid the ultimate price today while securing freedom for a people halfway around the world. And, mercifully, our first 24 hour duty day ended. May God guard and guide us all as we serve here and may God bless “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

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3 Responses to “First day on the job”

  1. DeJon Redd Says:

    At first glance the quote below taken from here may seem completely unrelated to the post. But I don’t think so. I think the war story is an extreme example of church detoxification.

    Here’s where I am — phrased in some one else’s words.

    “In order to BE the Church, we need to leave the church. In other words, in order to truly become God’s people as he intended, we must abandon our cultural version of organizational church. The application of this statement might vary, but it must happen. And as we abandon the church to become the Church, we will go through a detox period.”

  2. Bob from Tucson Says:

    DeJon, I’m embarassed. I’ve fallen into the instituional trap: looking for comfort and consolation in the mundane sameness of “church”. Why is it that when things are at their worst, we are at our best? Maybe that’s why God was so hard on Israel and Judah….so that they would know Him when He came to visit. Bob

  3. Capt MidKnight Says:

    Dejon
    I fail to see how anyone could read that chaplain’s account of his first day in the war and not be moved. So much of what he said echos the experience of almost every man or woman who has ever gone to war for real – the fact that no amount of training can prepare you for the reality of combat. Even today, in the era of technology and so called “push button” warfare, the foot soldier’s life is much the same as it was in Europe in the 1940s or in Virginia or Tennessee in the 1860s or in Julius Caesar’s Gaul in 55BC. The foot soldier still marched and dug and fought and died.

    What the chaplain described after the mortuary team went to the “Bastogne Chapel” has become common practice in the last few years for folks in high stress and dangerous occupations. It’s called by different names – in the airline community, it’s called a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing – and is used by many organizations like Police Departments, Fire Departments, Airlines and others to head off the more serious effects of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome by talking through the experience with a group of your peers – people you trust and who do the same job. I went through the training when I was flying.

    For those of you who have never read the classic work on the insanity of war – Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” – this chaplain’s experience almost makes me want to revisit it. I first tried to read it when I was in college and I had to put it down. I thought it was the most screwed up book I’d ever seen. Nothing about it made any sense. I re-discovered it several years later, after 5 years in the military, and this time, it made perfect sense.

    My heart goes out to the chaplain. It’s going to be a long year, and he’s going to need to be strong and brave for the sake of the men he will serve. I know he is worried about whether he can keep his nerve and thereby gain the respect of the combat veterans he’s called to minister to, and that’s a real fear. If I could off him one piece of advice, however, it would be to not worry so much about loosing his nerve, but to guard his heart from becoming hardened by the death and insanity around him. For a chaplain, the time to worry is not when you’re shaking with fear along with everybody else, wondering where the next RPG will land or when you will drive by the IED with your name on it. The frightening moment for the man of God will be when he gets to the point where the scenes of slaughter and destruction become normal – when he can see the casualities and NOT be moved. The human mind and heart have a way of protecting themselves from sensory “overload” by becoming numb after a certain point. For a soldier, this might help get him through horrible times, but for someone whose job it is to comfort and console and give spiritual guidence such numbness would be a disaster of it’s own.

    May God protect this chaplain and all his charges. They stand between us and evil forces who wish our destruction.

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