Beginnings can be challenging. My beginning at Joint Base Balad Iraq this month brought its share of challenges.
First of all, getting off a military aircraft at 3 a.m. dressed in full body armor had its challenges for a 50-something chaplain. My back ached, and sleep in the droning C-130 aircraft had been scarce.
Overhead, balls of fire launched from an adjacent runway and thundered into the early morning dark haze. Somewhere in front of the fireball sat a fighter pilot who likely was wondering whether his replacement — often called “my new best friend” — was among those deplaning.
Soon, chapel staff members greeted me and escorted me to something called a housing pod. A pod looks somewhat like a cargo container partitioned into four rooms. Each room contains two sets of bunk beds, a window and outside door. Each pod is surrounded by 25-foot concrete barriers that create the feeling that one is in a maze.
After a quick shower, I met my chaplain predecessor in the hospital. There isn’t much time for flattering introductions in a war zone.
“We have to go to the emergency room,” Maj. Wendell Rome told me.
Inside the trauma bay, we stood watching a 20-year-old soldier struggle to hold the life he had remaining after being shot by a sniper’s bullet.
His condition is called “expectant.” It describes that moment when the medical staff withdraws aggressive care, and they engage in comfort care.
The chaplain’s presence is a part of that comfort care. This soldier, however, was much tougher than predicted. He wasn’t ready to leave. Around the large trauma bay, dozens of medical staff stood in kind of a makeshift attention stance as if they all knew they were escorting him to a greater place.
As the soldier struggled against death, radios blared to life. We soon would receive three Iraqi children, victims of an IED blast. The soldier is moved to a quieter place as overhead pages summoned all available staff to the trauma room.
Scurries of people entered the trauma bay and self-divided into three teams. Specially trained volunteers, airmen who work 60-hour shifts elsewhere on the base, accepted each gurney from the helicopter flight nurses.
Specially trained teams searched the wounded for the unthinkable: booby traps.
Finding nothing, the children are wheeled into the waiting arms of caregivers, who responded as if these children were their own.
Rome and his chaplain assistant, Staff Sgt. Terry Mueth, stond in a prayerful stance, remaining available to the trauma team. Mueth, knowing that I’d had only six hours sleep in the past 48 hours, asked me whether I was doing OK.
“Yes, thanks,” I muttered in the voice a soldier often will use when his answer contradicts his feelings.
“Sit down, Chaplain Burkes,” Mueth said.
Soon, he and Rome were urging me to return to my pod for sleep. I didn’t need persuading.
While I slept, the soldier died. Somewhere back in the states, a team assembled to inform a family of their regrets. I’d been a member of two dozen such teams.
Amazingly, the children survived and will return to their families.
“Don’t worry,” Rome assured me the next day. “Things have slowed down quite a bit over the past four months. It won’t be like that every day.”
And for the most part, his prediction has remained true this first week. Thank goodness, because I think there still are a lot of challenges ahead.