Chaplain Breakfast, General Assembly 2006
A little girl, accompanied by an Air Force Airman, was walking up the hallway in the tents that made up the ward side of our field hospital. She reminded me of my own three daughters as she smiled and clutched her coloring book and crayons. The bandage on her head was fresh and she walked with a limp. This little girl’s story was that she was eight years old and had been brought in by helicopter with a head wound and a gunshot wound to the leg. Her wounds were the result of a fire fight between Marines and insurgents – a fire fight in which Her own father had used her as a human shield. She left us after three weeks and returned to her mother and village by helicopter.
This was the war and the Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad, Iraq where I was beginning my work as the chaplain. That hospital, the first Air Force theater hospital since Vietnam, was rocketed or mortared almost every day. It was the place from where all the US wounded from Iraq left on C-130 or C-17 aircraft to begin their journey home.
I want to share three of the many lessons I learned while working among the patients and staff in Balad, Iraq at the first Air Force Theater Hospital since Vietnam. These observations, gained during my “double nickel” year of life, reflect also my journey and ministry after 35 years of marriage and over 30 years after seminary graduation. First, trauma ministry is about helping strangers in the crisis of their wounds; second, ministry to the wounded is about dealing with profound disappointment that must be faced; and finally, waiting with those whose wounds were “incompatible with life” not only made real for me the sacrifice people make for other’s freedom, but watching death overtake a wounded warrior also taught me about the death of Jesus and some of its reality.
In the summer of 2005 the Air Force Theater Hospital had about 10-15 trauma events a day. Some strangers were brought by helicopter crews, and some came by ambulance. However they came, the transfer would be made and our teams would begin to care for the wounded brought to us. The dance of diagnosis often looked more like a rave than a waltz. In the dance of diagnosis the chaplain learns not to step on toes, when to help and when to stop and look and touch as the chaplain. This small contact with the chaplain was the first of many the patient would have. Most of those arriving – 95 percent – were put within 48 hours on a plane to Germany.
I prayed with those who were on ventilators or in comas – those who were unaware of the care given to them at that moment in time. I gave thanks for their service and sacrifice. I would pray for unknown family members back in the States and look for a wedding ring. For those who could talk, I would listen to their stories about how they were wounded and about their friends and comrades. Telling the story helped them see the reality and begin the process of acceptance of their present condition.
These strangers from all over the map had been transported to a tent of healing, a place where strangers would help them start their healing process, clean their wounds, set their bones and prevent infections. In the world of high tech medicine and digital imagery, human contact helped with the helplessness of the wounded and the aloneness of being with strangers. I learned how to engage quickly, but to let the patient lead the relationship, not to be agenda- or checklist-driven, to ride the wave of chaos that comes with war. Sometimes we prayed or they asked for a Bible to read on their journey back to family. I gave focused love and then let go in order to engage the next stranger Providence would bring into my life.
I learned so much from the wounded – especially their strength and their love for their units. They wanted to get back to their units. I did not expect to be able to know what happened to these people after they left the Hospital, but I have been able to learn some of their stories. The June issue of Glamour Magazine filled me in on the rest of the story of five female Marines who had been wounded and burned by a vehicle-born explosive. The one I could talk with wanted to get back to do her job of searching Iraqi women at checkpoints. A February article in New York Times, a November program on The Discovery Channel, and even network TV news have provided stories of people I saw.
I ministered not only to Americans but also to patients of other nationalities. There was a wounded Iraqi policeman who offered me the stump of his right arm that had been taken from him the year before. Iraqis never offer you the left hand, always the right. I learned over a few days how not to be embarrassed by his loss of limb and to accept the friendship through his scar of sacrifice, his willingness to offer the point of loss as the point of connection. This man was as real as it gets. I learned to touch his woundedness. Wounds can become the point of contact and our new weakness can be the bridge to a new relationship. The wounded reach out from their weakness because that is who they are. Wounds are the scars of disappointments. I pray for the families that will receive wounded love ones.
Waiting for death is a humbling ministry. I waited for death to come to honor that person who would die so that others might live free. In waiting for death we demonstrated the value each person has as he received care from the staff and the chaplain until the end. We do not park people in waiting areas, unattended, until death comes. I would pray with these strangers waiting for death – these strangers who could not tell their stories, write last words to families or pray final prayers or make peace and reconciliation with God and man. I would give thanks for their voluntary service to our nation, their willingness to stand at night so others could sleep in peace so far away. I prayed for families who would receive the sad dark news of a loved one’s death. Sometimes we could find out information from unit members who would come by one last time to say good-by – if the person was married or children, maybe a home town name. As the breathing slows and the heart can no longer send the oxygen to the muscles the body begins to harden and we know by feel that death is coming. When death came, there were more prayers and the staff prepared the body for transfer for its journey back to hometown USA.
Each time I sat and waited for death I thought about the death of Jesus, the good shepherd who gave his life for the sheep, the high priest who was the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. Jesus chose death because he could see beyond the cross. He chose death so we could be rich in grace. He chose death so he could take his life up again and be the first fruits of the resurrection. Waiting for death, knowing the randomness of death in war and life, helped me to value each day again as a gift. Even in death we celebrated a life of sacrifice. Over coffee we often talked about what lies beyond what we see and experience.
Each day wounded strangers arrived in various states of need. Each day the staff rushed to care for these strangers who appeared at random times and in random groups. The dance of diagnosis repeated itself around the clock. There has been a change at Balad so that the Hospital now has two chaplains for 24 hour coverage.
I became accustomed to the rocket and mortar attacks. The unit distributed certificates to departing personnel stating you have survived more than 150 attacks in your four months. The random nature of the of rockets and mortars attacks reminded us the bad guys were always out there watching.
Abram came from Ur south of where I was stationed. Gen 15:1 was part of my Bible reading the one day the blast of a rocket sent dirt crashing onto the roof of my trailer. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” God’s words of comfort to a victorious Abram were what I needed that day – I am your shield. The “I Am” was my shield and protection in the midst of random attacks and the death and woundedness I worked in every day as I ministered to hurt and dieing strangers.