Saturday, October 24, 2009

God, Words, and Lima Beans

There are a lot of ways to say things. For instance, instead of using the word “rich” you could say “affluent”. Or instead of using “gossip” you could use “quidnunc”. One might say, “I like waffles!” Or one might say, “Waffles are massively preferable to lima beans.” It is the art of wordsmithery, which may actually not be an art at all, at least not in the sense that you might visit a Wordsmithery Gallery. Rather, it is a way of saying or writing things and events, in such a way as to make them more readable. Generally, when I retell the story of something that happened to me I try to put my readers in that place. I want them to see it, feel it, and smell it. And I spend a lot of time with my good friend Roget in an attempt to do just that. And while it’s usually worth the effort to help people understand what life is like from my perspective, it’s almost never easy. In fact, many times I’ve not relayed something simply because I could not find the right words. Today, I’m at a loss for words. But I’m going to write it anyway because it just feels important enough, in light of my job as a chaplain, to tell the story.

Recently, we’ve had some personnel changes, as is normal in the military. People come and people go and just this week one of the chaplains I work with here went home. So besides being happy for him and his family, I now find myself having to absorb many of the duties he fulfilled around here until a replacement arrives. Today we had another call to come to the hospital as there were wounded US soldiers inbound. I and one of the chaplain assistants headed there to find out what we could and wait. What we found out was that no one knew much of anything about this particular situation. So I didn’t know if I was waiting to anoint a young American body, or pray over a new amputee, or console a gunshot victim. So the waiting was a little unnerving. As we waited, we chewed the fat about life before, during, and after this deployment. Finally, after about 45 minutes we could see two choppers on the horizon approaching our FOB. When they landed the sense of relief was immense as we watched 3 young American GIs walk off the birds. They had been in an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle) that had a mine roller on the front. Naturally, it hit an IED, as it is meant to which did some pretty serious damage to the vehicle. But as is always the case with the wonderful MRAP there was no real damage to the people inside. Just 3 young American GIs walking off a helicopter. A little shaken but none the worse for wear and in need of a check up to make sure all was well. I thought, “God is good!”

At the entrance to the hospital we stood and talked, while they removed their gear. I tried to calm and comfort them as best as I could and we started to walk into the hospital. The assistant I was with stood just outside and decided to head back to the office as this event was pretty much over. At that moment, I heard what I believe is the loudest single noise I've ever heard. A rocket fired from who knows where impacted approximately 25 feet from my assistant and about 35 feet from me. Everyone rushed into the hospital, as it is a hardened facility, to escape any additional incoming ordinance, which never came. For the next 30 minutes we waited for the “All Clear” so that we could resume our “normal” day.

Once we were able to leave the safety of the hospital, curiosity dictated that we go check out the impact site. That’s when it became very clear that we had been watched out for. As far as I can tell, my assistant, Michael, was the closest to the impact. I may have been the second closest, I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the impact was in a storage area on the opposite side of several concrete barriers designed to stop shrapnel that flies around willy nilly during an explosion. They seemed to have worked quite well. It could have landed on our side, but it didn’t. In the debris was the shell of an oxygen cylinder with a 3 inch hole in it. It didn’t explode. If it had I don’t think I’d be typing this. But it didn’t. Instead of acting like bottled oxygen usually acts, it just vented and the releasing pressure sent it flying somewhere.

In the end, no one was hurt while my assistant and I walked away with little more than a slight ringing in our ears. I can’t wordsmith it any more than to say God is good and waffles are way better than lima beans.

Monday, July 06, 2009

One of Those Days

There are days I really don't want to be a chaplain.

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.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

D-Day Remembered

American Cemeteries on Foreign Soil

Aisne-Marne, France- 2,289 interred, 1,060 missing remembered
Ardennes, Belgium – 5,329 interred, 462 missing remembered
Brittany, France – 4,410 interred, 498 missing remembered
Brookwood, England – 468 interred, 563 missing remembered
Cambridge, England – 3,812 interred, 5,127 missing remembered
Epinal, France – 5,255 interred, 424 missing remembered
Flanders Field, Belgium – 368 interred, 43 missing remembered
Florence, Italy – 4,402 interred, 1,409 missing remembered
Henri-Chapelle, Belgium – 7,992 interred, 450 missing remembered
Lorraine, France – 10,489 interred, 444 missing remembered
Luxembourg, Luxembourg – 5,076 interred, 371 missing remembered
Manila, Philippines - 17,202 interred, 36,285 missing remembered
Meuse-Argonne, France –14,246 interred, 954 missing remembered
Mexico City, Mexico – 813 interred, unidentified remembered
Netherlands, Netherlands – 8,301 interred, 1,722 missing remembered
Normandy, France – 9,387 interred, 1,557 missing remembered
North Africa, Tunisia – 2,841 interred, 3,724 missing remembered
Oise-Aisne, France – 6,012 interred, 241 missing remembered
Rhone, France – 861 interred, 294 missing remembered
Sicily-Rome, Italy – 7,861 interred, 3,095 missing remembered
Somme, France – 1,844 interred, 333 missing remembered
St. Mihiel, France – 4,153 interred, 284 missing remembered
Suresnes, France – 1,565 interred, 974 missing remembered

So others could know freedom

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Doing the Math

Today began like every other day in this vacation spot known as Afghanistan. My alarm went off, like normal. I hit snooze, like normal. It screamed at me again, like normal. I turned it off, like normal. And like normal, I rolled over to take a few well earned moments as I slowly made the transition from hating my alarm clock to laying there a little too long and on into actually being awake. It was just about this point in my day, roughly 2 minutes old at the time, that "normal" took a detour.

As I lay there, almost waking up, with the morning light breaking into my window, something exploded. If "freaking" was a measurement of explosive force, then this was a "freaking" huge explosion. I've been told from my childhood that you can't think two things at once. That's not true and if Mr. Crawford, my 8th grade science teacher were here, I'd tell him so. Because no sooner had whatever it was blown up, I had two simultaneous thoughts. The first was, "I should probably go outside and see what that was." The second was, "I think I'll wait a few moments and see what happens." I didn't even have time to ponder the pros and cons of either of those thoughts. The die was cast and the decision made for me. As I prepared to think about it the siren sounded.

The siren on our FOB is designed to wake the dead. It is, without a doubt, the most annoying sound in the known universe and indicates that everyone on the FOB should find a hardened facility or bunker in which to take cover and wait for the "ALL CLEAR" as something else will probably blow up soon. This is where all of creation smiled on me. As it happens, my quarters are IN just such a building so I decided the best course of action would be to attempt to regain the moments of sleep lost since the "freaking" explosion. That's when the "Big Giant Voice" cut into my pending slumber. It spoke very loud and very clear and in code indicated that in very short order there would be a large number of casualties arriving at the Combat Surgical Hospital on our FOB. Siren or no siren, that's my cue and I knew where I needed to be.

The explosion I had heard moments before was what is commonly known as a VBIED (we pronounce it vee-bid) or Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device. It is essentially a guided missile on wheels. A car or truck laden with copious amounts of some kind of explosive material and driven by nothing short of a mad-man drove up to the Vehicle Control Point (VCP) and detonated happily taking the driver with it. The set up of the control point is to ensure people like those don't get through while others do. In fact, there are two such points to pass through to make it even harder. The first is manned by the KPF or Khowst Provincial Force. They are the local security guys and they do a very good job. So Mr. Maniac drove as far as he could and was quickly introduced to his maker. The down side is that the point at which he decided to do that was not deserted.

There are many local Afghani workers that come to our FOB to work each day providing all manner of services and in return they are paid a living wage and provide for their families. To ensure nut jobs like our driver friend don't slip in unnoticed each worker is checked each day as they walk through the gate. At peak hours that can mean a bunch of people standing in line waiting to get checked. Enter Brother Bomber. Naturally, he wanted to cause as many problems as he could and it just didn't matter who was around and when he did what he came to do, he did it in the area the locals were standing.

Back to the Big Giant Voice. As soon as I heard it, I knew I needed to be at the CSH. So I got dressed and headed over there to provide religious support for whomever might need it. Once there I saw a nightmarish carnival of mayhem. Most of the victims were ambulatory and being treated outside, some were inside on gurneys and operating tables, all of them were Afghani. That changed things a bit. Not because I don't have compassion for the hurting but because I had to change the way I approach ministry so as not to appear to be proselytizing. So I followed a particularly harried doctor into a side room to see if I could help.

Inside I saw a nurse and the doctor standing over a man lying unconscious on a stretcher. The man was on his back with one foot resting between his knees. It had been blown off of his leg about midway between the ankle and the knee. The doctor took out a tourniquet and was going to apply it while trying to do a thousand other things. So I helped put it on. The odd thing was that despite having no foot there was almost no bleeding and didn't appear to be a need for a tourniquet. Also, the leg was not just cool, it was almost cold. If I didn't see the man was alive I'd assume he was dead because of the temperature of his severed leg. Still, I'm not a doctor so I just did what I needed to do while trying to stay out of the way. Wouldn't you know it, the Voice cut in again.

This time the Voice told us that bad people were trying to breach the perimeter of our FOB. When that happens we are supposed to don our body armor, get accountability of your people, and seek shelter. Well it just so happens that the CSH is not located anywhere near where I store my body armor so I decided I should make haste and retrieve it. Eventually, I made it to the TOC where I could monitor, in safety, all that was going on outside. As I sat and watched, reports began to roll in as to the details of the attack and its aftermath. In the end, 7 civilians were killed, 19 were wounded, and an additional 2 KPF soldiers were also wounded. So let's do the math. Out of 28 people killed or wounded, 26 of them were unarmed civilians waiting in line to provide for their families.

Three lessons come out of this that I truly hope my readers will take away and share with others.
  • First, the KPF checkpoint did exactly what they had designed it to do. They stopped a suicidal jerkwad from reaching into the heart of our FOB and harming American men and women. Because they planned and executed that plan properly, I don't have to do a memorial service later this week. It was a victory for the Government of Afghanistan and it's security forces and a defeat for the impish Taliban.
  • Second, the people attacked by the quality folks that make up the Taliban were UNARMED CIVILIANS. They posed no threat to anyone. They had families and dreams and feet. But not any more. Because cowardice can drive.
  • Third, the medical personnel of the US Armed Forces are amazing. They did everything they could to assist hurting people regardless of race, religion, or nationality.
Today I was a witness and not much of a player. And what I witnessed could curdle milk. Still, I know I'm in the right place doing what I was called to do. It can be very satisfying.

Still, I can't wait to go home.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Catching a Buz

I think Robert Di Nero explained it rather well as Al Capone in 'The Untouchables' when he said in his thickest, 1920ish, prohibition-like, Mafioso accent,

Enthusiasms! What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man...A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team.

Baseball. Our national pastime. What could be better than sitting in (or if your 10 years old, under) the bleachers, eating a hot dog, and watching the big game? The smell of freshly cut grass, the crack of the bat, the crowd on its feet cheering their team on to total victory or humiliating defeat. A baseball sized ball is hurled toward a man with a stick who hits it in such a way as to avoid the players on the field who threaten to touch him with that self same ball in a manner that is none to kind. Then another guy adds insult to injury and screams, "Out" at the stick man while holding out his thumb as if to say, "My thumb is better than you!". That's how baseball always felt to me as a kid. Frankly, I was never very good at it. My parents would sit in the California sun all day to watch me not pay attention to the game on the rare occasions I actually made into the outfield. I was always in right field. I think it was because my coach instinctively knew that it was where I was most likely to not be paying attention when the ball almost always didn't come to me. But I'm not bitter! I have fabulous memories of standing in the sun baked field with no shade really, really having a great time enjoying our national pastime, which in my case was watching bugs navigating the freshly cut grass with that freshly cut grass smell. But it could have been worse. "How", ask all the non-jocks in my audience. I'll tell you how!

Afghanistan is an incredible nation. War, famine, pestilence and a million insect borne diseases make this nation one of a kind. Afghanistan has been through it all and yet in spite of having no official border and no particular currency and no particular taste, it has managed to maintain a stronghold in the world of sports. That's right. Afghanistan has a national sport. And like our baseball, it portends doom to millions of young Afghani boys with little or no jockitude. The sport of which I speak is that which answers the burning question of the day, "How could it get any worse?" Buzkashi...that's how. Buzkashi (pronounced booz-kawshee) is THE national pastime in Afghanistan. Its rules are simple. Each "player" gets on a horse which is coerced into running wildly at speeds approaching terminal velocity. As they whip around the field or court or ring they must catch the "buz" with the goal of...catching the buz. "Points" are awarded for something associated with the buz, like maybe putting it somewhere or hiding it or keeping it from other players / victims. Did I mention "Buz" is the Afghani word for "Goat"? True story. The ball in a game of buzkashi is a goat carcass. Please understand, this is not a live goat. In fact, often the only part of the goat present is it's skin. That's because it is often filled with sand to make it "challenging". As if trying to pick up a goat carcass from on top of a running horse is not a challenge.

So, next time you decide to go out into the yard and play catch with your leather covered baseball, be thankful for the foresight of our country's founders and their love of play. You could be tossing a whole cow!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Box Of Non Stop Half Time Time Out!

Transitions are never easy; especially when they are related to deployments. Because war is an ongoing event you can't just call a time out so the guys that have been here can pack up and go home while the guys that will replace them get unpacked and set up shop. Still, that is exactly what must happen but without actually calling a time out. Imagine a basketball game where each side had not 5 players but about 43. And imagine that they were required to switch players, all of them, at half time. And imagine that only one team took half time while the other team continued to play. Wouldn't be much of a break for the half time team, would it? That's transition in war. We call it a RIP. It's one of a billion and twelve acronyms in the Army and it stands for Relief In Place. It is often confusing and frustrating because the other team doesn't take a half time. So the game gets handed off to the next group while ensuring everything keeps getting done. And in the middle of the madness you have to look for anything you can to hang your sanity on so that you don't get trampled by the guys running onto the court, or they guys running off, or the guys on the other team who refuse to take a half time. And when you find that sanity hanger it is almost like you are on the court by yourself. Pure bliss!

There is an old saying that I recently created. "Hell hath no fury like how cool my Mom and Dad are!" I'm not real big on dragging my family out into the open for scrutiny but this time I just can't help it. After all, my sanity is at stake. it happened like this...

In the course of my duties as a brigade chaplain I often "make my rounds". That is, I walk from office to office, place to place, person to person and build relationships with whoever I find. "How are you today?" I might ask. "How's the family?" I query. "Is that thing real!?" I muse! Just getting to know people and letting them know their chaplain loves them is the quickest way to get into their hearts and minds in the hopes that someday "I might win some." One of the people I try to visit, not because of what he can offer me but because he is one of my "Joes", is the postal clerk. He has a thankless job handing out letters and packages often confined to a small office with little more than boxes and envelopes to keep him company. So today I ventured into his cardboard and paper world to shake his hand, look him in the eye, and tell him that despite what others might think, I think he's doing a great job of handing out letters and packages. As I did so, I got a pleasant little surprise; a hanger for my sanity if you will. SGT Mail Clerk shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, "Sir, I have a package for you." In a deployed environment this is like saying, "Sir, I have a pile of cash for you!" It was a simple box but it was packed with happiness.

I received my box with joy and within 5 seconds knew this was no ordinary box. Certainly it was mere paper and tape and inside were a whole bunch of little Styrofoam peanuts. But there was a treasure buried therein. It was, and still is (partially) a 32 ounce box of See's Famous Old Time Candies. For the Russell Stover fans out there or others who may not have heard of See's just imagine gold and diamonds were delicious and edible. That's See's...only crunchier. There were, and partially are, a variety of chocolates and chews in that little cubicle of confectionary candification. Bordeaux! Molasses Chips! Yummy chewy caramel thingys! MMMMMMMM! Chocolate!

So here I sit, firmly enthroned in my own little corner of the war enjoying some of the greatest chocolates in the world thanks to the greatest Mom and Dad in the world.

It's half time so I think I'll pour another cup of coffee and inundate my system with joy.

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.