JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — “What do you do during your shift?” asked a surgeon over a plate of chili macaroni.
My mind drifted over the past three days here at the Air Force Theatre Hospital in Balad.
The first day started with my visit to an Iraqi boy who was burned over most of his body from playing with matches and fuel.
“They don’t know ‘stop, drop and roll’ here,” whispered the pediatrician, who was weaving bandages between the boy’s toes.
I beamed a smile toward the boy’s perfect and untouched face. He offered no emotion in return. Without much ability to talk to the family, I knew of only one way to offer respect.
I passed a copy of the Koran to the father. He placed his hand on his heart and gratefully received the book by kissing it and positioning it on the boy’s pillow.
As we stood above the boy, we heard the PA crackle to life.
“Trauma call, trauma call, trauma call times four.”
Four Americans wounded by an IED blast were being brought into our emergency room by people who work a 72-hour week in other jobs, but volunteer their spare time to help us.
During a trauma call, the frantic pace rivals the floor of the U.S. stock exchange. Amid this chaos, my assistant, Staff Sgt. David Pastorius, and I do our best to determine whether someone needs a priest.
Mostly, I stand alongside the medical folks as they work. I walk among the wounded and keep an eye out for those who might need to talk later. Some staff members are those who’d shed tears in the chapel service a few weeks back.
While most of the soldiers arrived in good shape, there would be tears again on Sunday, as one military member would go home without legs.
The rest of the day was quiet, but we try not to say that Q word among emergency staff. They are somewhat superstitious and jokingly consider the word “quiet” to be a jinx.
The next day, I was called for a committee meeting and hoped that meant a quiet day.
“Ethics Committee meeting,” shouted the head nurse into the small space I share with my assistant. I exchanged questioning looks with Pastorius. These meetings are rare.
Our little burn patient wasn’t doing so well. With burns over most of his body, he’d had a stroke and was septic. The Ethics Committee unanimously recommended the boy be allowed to die at home. We would send him home with maximum pain control so he could see a family that anxiously longed to hold him.
I left the meeting to find the pediatrician and the father rewrapping the boy’s burns. The father loved this boy more than most of us could imagine and was taking the role of a nurse’s aide alongside the doctor.
Sharing heavenward glances with the father, we both made the prayer gesture with palms pressed together. An hour later, the family left with their son, creating a torrent of staff tears in their wake.
During the next two days, someone must have jinxed us again with the Q word, because more trauma and more burn patients came to replace the ones to whom we’d said goodbye.
As I sat in the cafeteria, jets screamed overhead, helicopters fluttered in the distance, an occasional mortar struggled to penetrate our defenses, and this surgeon was asking me, “What do you do?”
I do what I also hope you do.
In the midst of chaos, I pray. I share a laugh. I wipe a tear. I offer a shoulder. I lend an ear.
And at the end of the day — whether quiet or rushed — I strive to be a visible reminder of the holy to a place that desperately needs it.
Burkes is stationed at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, through April. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or write him at Chaplain Maj. Norris Burkes, 332 AEW/HC, APO AE 09315-9997.