My best friend from college is an Army Chaplain in the final years of a 20-year-stint in the military. He spent last year in a camp along the Kuwait/Iraq border. He said the men called up from the reserves to serve in Iraq — very often informed in the final months of their tour of duty that their duty had been extended — were floating wreckage.
The soldiers lined up at my friend’s chaplain tent early every morning for counseling and prayer. The soldiers were worried about their family back home. They wondered if they would still have a job when they returned home. They expressed their deep anxiety about being in that part of the world. "The American people never see what I see," my friend told me in an email a year ago.
And what does this do to a chaplain? "It utterly drains me," my friend said.
Thank goodness, my buddy is now back in the States and serving at Fort Riley, Kansas. His job there is not so easy either.
The other day he told me of having to tell a young bride that her soldier-husband had been killed in Iraq. The Notification Officer, a young captain, broke the news while my chaplain friend stood beside him.
The U.S. military has a long-standing tradition of telling loved ones in person of the death of a soldier. So on a beautiful late Spring Sunday afternoon in Manhattan, Kansas, my friend and the Notification officer attired in dress uniform drove a miliary vehicle to an apartment where the young bride lived. A team (called the Comfort Team) of military wives and counselors waited outside in a van while the initial news was broken to this 21-year-old woman.
My friend described it this way. "You walk quietly to the door, take a big breath and knock on the door. It’s very nerve-wracking." The captain and my friend, an army major with 25-years of pastoral experience, stood shoulder to shoulder waiting for the door to open.
When the door was opened by the young woman, my friend said she took one look at the two officers, gasped, screamed out "NO" and fell to the floor in a hump.
The notification officer then read the same thing that is read every time a death is reported in this fashion. "Ma’am,on behalf of the Secretary of Defense, I regret to inform you … . " My friend said the captain read from his prepared sheet while the woman lay on the floor sobbing.
The women whose husband was killed finally did let my chaplain friend and the counselors from the comfort team help her, but in the words of my good friend, "This part of the work is very tough. No one likes it."