Where Angels Fear to Tread: The Job of a Chaplain
When people ask me what my husband does, I hesitate. Non-military members usually have no idea what military ministry looks like, and it's hard to know where to start. It is cheerier to recount chapel services, promotion celebrations, marriage retreats, and baptisms, but in honor of Veteran's Day, this is how I'd answer if I had enough time to tell the truth.
A young man comes into the office with the excuse of getting candy. He stays to chat. An hour later he is crying, whispering dark memories of friends lost to bullets and bombs and guilt over making it home without them. The mini candy bar he'd come for sits in his hand untouched.
First she was rushed to the ER. Now she is in a wing of the hospital that others speak of in hushed tones. Deep circles under her red-rimmed eyes, the woman stares at the ceiling. She shies away from the watchful eye of the nurse and itches the bandages which cover deep slashes on her arms. She thinks of the two others from her unit who have been here before her this year.
"I want a divorce." He waited until she deployed and told her via text. Now he's ignoring her calls. She's blocked from his social media. It's too late in the States to call her parents. She thinks of their child and breaks down weeping on her bunk. She is thousands of miles from everyone she loves most, and they are being taken away with a single text message.
An aged veteran lies in the hospital bed, heart monitors beeping nearby and a plastic tube pumping oxygen into weary lungs. He has fought in multiple wars but this final battle against cancer is a losing one. His wife sits next to him, contemplating the many years they have weathered and wondering how she can leave this room without him. She watches his chest rise and fall and wills him to hold on just a little longer. Their children need to say goodbye.
He doesn't want to be here, but he no longer has a choice. The man sits alone awaiting the move to rehab at the end of a trail of broken promises, bad choices, and unspeakable pain. He wonders if there will be anything left of his career and family when it's all over. He holds his head in his hands in shame and wishes he could get a stiff drink to forget it all. But that's what brought him here in the first place.
The cold room smells of smoke and gasoline. It's difficult to breathe, let alone speak. The team looks at the ruined bodies on the tables, the victims of an IED. A half-burned photo of a beautiful young lady is gently removed from a pocket to be preserved. From another pocket they retrieve a little girl's pink and white bracelet. It was Daddy's good luck charm. The team blinks back tears as they prepare these fallen heroes for their final journey home.
The young couple searches the ultrasound for any sign of a heartbeat, but the little one within her womb is still. Hours ago the baby was kicking her in the ribs as she cleaned house and made dinner. Her due date is only a few weeks away. The doctor sits and tells them how they will proceed with delivery and what arrangements will need to be made.
The knock on the door startles her as she makes lunch. She looks at the special clock set to Afghanistan time hanging next to a family photo, and lead fills her stomach. A look through the peephole reveals dress blues, and she knows the man on the other side of the door is about to shatter her life with a single sentence. Her daughter and son are at school, just like a normal day. But today is her worst nightmare come to life.
The flag is draped just so over the coffin. A little boy flinches at the gunshots that ring through the cemetery. He begins to cry as the notes of “Taps” echo in his ears. He buries his head in his mother's shoulder. He won't look at the man wearing a uniform like Daddy's who holds out a blue triangle covered in stars.
"On behalf of the president of the United States..."
"the United States military...
"and a grateful nation..."
Chaplains choose to step into spaces full of sorrow and pain. They are light in the deepest darkness. They listen, they pray, they give the best advice they can, and they carry all these stories in silence. A chaplain's office is as private as the confessional booth. They carry the weight of all the pain and hurt of the unit on their shoulders, and they do it with love, compassion, and courage.
There may not be bullets whizzing overhead every day, but chaplains walk where angels fear to tread.
*Important note: all examples in this post are fictitious, composites based on publicly known facts, or my own personal experience. My husband takes privacy very seriously and would never betray the confidence of a soldier under his care, even to his wife.