I'll never forget hearing "War is the ultimate human tragedy" uttered by a senior officer at the onset of the 1991 Gulf War. Any tendency I had to blur the distinction between peace and war had gone. Diplomacy and deterrence had failed. Romantic vestiges of war that I carried to the Gulf were gone—forever. I prayed at the mission brief minutes after the decision to begin the Air War had been secretly proclaimed. Minutes later I shook the sweaty, shaking hands of aircrews as they climbed into their B- 52 bombers. Weeks later I unzipped the body bag of a friend and signed his death certificate. The ultimate human tragedy.
I remember needing to go for long walks that often involved a good cry. I remember the crayon pictures from my 2-year-old daughter and the perfumed letters from my wife. I remember praying with pilots who were scared beyond belief. Finally, I remember learning my role as a military chaplain.
Officers, including chaplains, raise their right hand and swear to defend the Constitution of the United States. For chaplains, defending our nation's ideals means being pastor to those who serve as an instrument of our elected officials. Chaplains have trusted access to junior enlisted personnel and senior officers alike as we live, work and play within the military so as to clothe the gospel with relevance. And for this UCC pastor, there is no higher calling.
Stationed in Turkey
At the time of this writing, I am stationed in Southeast Turkey. My wife and two children, along with 1,300 others, were recently evacuated back to the states by order of our State Department. Two-thirds of the way through the year, our children were told they'd be getting a new school. My wife, with hundreds others, reluctantly assumed the role of single parent—again. We have no idea when we'll see each other.
Meanwhile, back in Turkey, my ministry continues. The playgrounds are empty. I carry a gas mask everywhere that will help protect me should we come under chemical attack. Counseling demands are as high as I've ever seen them.
Enter into my ministry.
My day began with a 20-something soldier named Rich who's had four kids from three different women. He's now married to a German lady with whom he's becoming increasingly frustrated. He doesn't blame the Army for the demise of his marriages, "but it didn't help any," he said. I saw in his eyes an unfathomable desire to make the world a better place. I prayed his impact would begin with his family.
Then there's Maureen. Maureen is a 50-something Scottish extrovert who never met a stranger. Her calling is to care for soldiers by feeding their stomachs and cutting their hair. She is a civilian contractor known by thousands of U.S. forces as one of the constants among change. I listened to her stories for nearly an hour as she sought confirmation of her relevance in the lives of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. All counseling should be as easy as this.
Later that day, my assistant and I got into a car and drove east, following closely behind an armed Turkish Jandarma. Several hours later, I entered into the broken world of an Army truck driver whose one morale call this week was cut to three minutes by what he called a "satellite glitch."
Minutes later I was standing in the presence of a West Point-educated Blackhawk pilot whose infectious smile often gave way to the pain of missing his wife and two kids. He told me about a "wake-up call" he got from his little girl one day. Her "sweet little lips" once told him, "You don't live here any more—you live at work." From that moment on he vowed never to sell his soul to the Army.
Next, a young man claiming to be Wiccan inquired about others he might join in fellowship. Swallowing personal biases, I reminded myself that his constitutional rights are linked to mine. Indeed, when his become jeopardized, so do mine. I promised to let him know if I came across others of like mind.
Walking over to a young man toting an M-16 rifle, I asked, "How are you doing?" After I achieved a level of trust with him, he tearfully told me how he just couldn't shake the idea of his son's illness. We prayed for his wife and son.
At the end of a 15-hour day I found my cot in a rat-infested warehouse. I was told these are the luxury accommodations afforded only fieldgrade officers. Lucky me.
The next morning I decided against a shower because many others needed this limited resource more than I did. So with matted hair and a two-day beard, I joined an Army chaplain in leading worship for 200 soldiers.
Bidding the commander and others farewell, we packed up and headed back to our home base. During the two-hour ride I remembered a saying heard often among chaplains, one that pulls together many of the ambiguities of our work. At our best, chaplains are "Visible reminders of the Holy." I prayed that by the grace of God I would be remembered as one who pointed others to Jesus.
"Come to me," says Jesus. "Get away with me and you'll recover your life É. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." Matt 11:28-30 "The Message"
Thank you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for your prayers for peace, for your persistence in grace, and for allowing me the honor of representing the United Church of Christ and our Savior in the war-infested corners of our world. Grace and peace be to you.
The Rev. Steve Schaick is a Chaplain, Major, in the United States Air Force. His standing is with the Northeast Association of the UCC's Wisconsin Conference.
|Prayer Occasioned by War in Iraq
We come to You in silence, O God, entering once again a Way of Sorrow. We can only weepÑ
for the people of Iraq, burdened by years of oppression, by a decade of sanctions, and now facing death and destruction,
for those in flight, joining refugees throughout the world in a journey of profound uncertainty,
for soldiers and their families facing dire threat and days of anxious waiting,
for Jerusalem and for all it represents throughout the Middle EastÑwould that they, and we, knew the things that make for peace,
for those who are poor, whose needs are set aside while we pay the costs of war,
for ourselves, despairing that we could not turn hands and hearts from the way of violence.
Allow us our silence, O God, but do not leave us alone. Receive our tears, but also gather them together to remind us that as we have been baptized into Christ's death, so we are also baptized into Christ's resurrection. Thus may our journey with Jesus on the Way of the Cross be filled with hope, that in these days we might not lose heart. Amen.
The Rev. John H. Thomas
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ