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New Horizons

The Challenges for an Army Chaplain

Graham C. Harbman

"Incoming casualties! Incoming casualties!" blares out as you roll off your bed, pull on your uniform, and stumble into a tent of bright lights. You're surrounded by scurrying doctors, nurses, and medics. Three soldiers are wheeled into this makeshift emergency room, casualties of yet another IED (Improvised Explosive Device)—a homemade bomb.

You've been the chaplain assigned to this combat Army hospital for nine months, and you've seen countless other IED casualties. Sometimes you feel numb, and other times you think you're going to lose it entirely.

As you make your way around the room to assess the situation, two more casualties arrive. An Iraqi man and woman have severe burns over 50 percent of their bodies. You overhear a medic say the woman was standing nearby when the IED exploded and ignited two other parked cars.

A doctor calls you over because his patient is dying and he noticed a St. Christopher around his neck. The doc, a devout Catholic, asks you to perform last rites. Just as he finishes, a Muslim nurse asks you to pray to Allah for the Iraqi woman.

Then you look up and a brand new chaplain from the States walks in. He looks like he is about to pass out. He squeaks out an offer to help. Your chaplain assistant walks over and mentions that the Iraqi man is an insurgent who may be responsible for the IED attack. He needs morphine, and she heard a medic say their supply of morphine is limited and they should reserve it for fellow soldiers and not waste it on the enemy.

Such are the situations our chaplains face in Iraq. How do you deal emotionally, physically, and spiritually with such repeated exposure to traumatic wounds and dying soldiers? Will you pray a Catholic prayer for the dying soldier? How will you answer the request to pray to Allah? Will you do or say anything about the insurgent who needs the limited morphine? What will you do about this new chaplain in shock over the gore of multiple traumas? And how will you cope with the mounting stress of caring for these weary caregivers?

Special Training

This is why I spent two weeks training in San Antonio recently. As you can imagine from this scenario, the training was quite intense. I was personally challenged in ways I've never experienced before in my life. I would like to share a little about my training to give you a glimpse into what it means to be an Army Reserve chaplain.

I am assigned to a unit in San Pablo, California, which supports the 8–10 Army hospitals throughout the western United States. My job has two main purposes. First, I serve one weekend a month, visiting all the units in the western U.S. One week I am in Orange County, California, presenting a brief on suicide awareness and prevention and how to manage the stresses of yearlong deployments. Other visits take me to places like Las Vegas, Denver, and Helena, Montana. On these visits, I also offer Bible study and individual counseling.

The second main purpose of my job is to prepare myself for another yearlong deployment. The likelihood that I would be called up again to active duty is fairly slim. If I am, I would most likely go to an Army hospital in the United States or Germany. There is an even smaller chance that I would be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.

This second purpose took me to San Antonio. I was humbled and honored to spend two weeks at Brooke Army Medical Center. Our wounded warriors are receiving world-class medical care there. The Center for the Intrepid (CFI) is one great example. A few years ago, a wealthy civilian built for the Army a $50 million rehabilitation center for amputee survivors. In one room, twenty-six video cameras record their walking gait to fine-tune adjustments to their prosthetic legs. A mock car has a special steering wheel that allows them to steer with a stub instead of a hand, and poles attached to the gas and brake pedals allow double leg amputees to drive with hands only. A miniature apartment provides a venue where they learn to make their beds, cook meals, and everything else it takes to resume self-sufficiency.

My favorite device is their wave pool. You surfers, get this: double leg amputees learn to surf on a real surf board in a real cresting wave with only their stumps. Talk about a work out; talk about a confidence builder!

When I asked where soldiers go when they finish their 18–24 months of rehabilitation, the director answered, "Anywhere they want!" In fact, 18 percent of them are fully qualified to return to their previous active-duty job, some even to combat. She said one double leg amputee is back in Iraq, kicking down doors.

An Important Lesson Learned

My tour of CFI was truly amazing. But something else had the greatest impact on me. Every patient with a serious trauma in ER gets special attention above and beyond a "normal" ER visit. One of those special features is that a chaplain is standing next to his head to comfort and calm him, while 10–12 medical caregivers poke, prod, and treat him. I had the privilege to minister in one of those traumas.

As I spoke words of comfort, he told me about his wife, three small children, and one on the way. Over the next two days, I met his wife and his mother. Then he died.

I learned quite a bit from this experience. Being so close to death made me realize how powerless I really am to help others. Most of us want to help others. We earnestly desire to make a positive impact on other people. I can't think of a more powerful way to experience helplessness than to watch someone die while 12–15 people do everything humanly possible to keep him alive.

So the lesson for me was that my "piece," my contribution, as a chaplain and a pastor, is really quite small. In the final analysis, I really can't do anything to make a meaningful impact on other people's lives. Only God can help people. One of my chaplain instructors shared how he learned this lesson. The happiest day of his life, he said, was when, after years of experience as a chaplain, he finally realized that he wasn't God. He finally learned that he couldn't save the world. He finally learned that his responsibility was to make himself available to God, so that God could use him however he wished.

I think I took some big steps in my training last month to learn this same lesson. I learned a little better that we are most useful when we forget about ourselves and our wishes and focus instead on what God wants to do through us to help others. I'm grateful to have had this experience, and I pray it will benefit my ministry as an Army chaplain and as a pastor. I have already seen it make me a better husband and father.

The author is associate pastor of Covenant OPC in San Jose, Calif. He is also a chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) in the Army Reserve and has completed a yearlong tour of duty in Iraq. Reprinted from New Horizons, August 2009.

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