METETI, PANAMA — — After spending nearly two months remodeling schools and clinics here, our military humanitarian projects are winding down.

Looking back on the weeks here, it’s not surprising so many people died etching out a passage across Panama 100 years ago.

With all our equipment, our medicines and our air conditioners, we still were nearly outmatched.

At times it felt like the fabled gods or imaginary goblins conspired in the heavens above, saying, “We’ll permit you this small progress today, but tomorrow, we’ll send the storms again, and you’ll huddle inside your flimsy tents while we make rubble of your work.”

On many of the workdays, the sun god scorched us and we took turns laying one block at a time while we rotated our personnel into an air-conditioned tent for the required work/rest cycle.

On the favorable days, the cloud gods provided us some shade, permitting us to slip into high gear as if we were kids sneaking in a little play time behind the back of a busy parent.

But then, the cycle would break and the rain god would send us home early as if mocking our previous day’s progress. The next day, our work site would be flooded, and we were two steps backward in our progress.

Fortunately, we’ve had a stellar safety record at the worksites, but the goblins have stirred up their share of medical problems. When the flu and other gastrointestinal issues hit, several of us logged overtime in the superheated Porta-Potties.

Of course, our biggest medical worry has been that emergency medical help is three hours away. Last month, that worry materialized as we scrambled to evacuate an airman with a medical condition to Panama City’s Level One hospital.

As our medics readied vehicle transport, a few chapel members huddled to say a prayer. And whatever you might think of the timing of the prayer, it was at that moment that a sergeant brought the amazing and rare news that a helicopter had been secured for the transport.

A month past that incident, two airmen skidded off the potholed Pan-American Highway and went head-on into a ditch. Gratefully, the medics mobilized and transported the airmen to the hospital.
A few days later, our commander reminded us: “We’re in a
serious environment,” but assured us our airmen were recovering and would return to duty soon.

A few days later, our commander reminded us: “We’re in a serious environment,” but assured us our airmen were recovering and would return to duty soon.

Of course, there aren’t any fabled gods or goblins conspiring against us here, but it has sure felt that way at times.

When it seems there are whimsical gods conspiring to ruin your day, it’s helpful to remember that the Bible says “the rain falls on the just and the unjust.” No matter how true our cause is, no matter how humanitarian our effort is, God doesn’t give us a bye when it comes to the laws of nature.

We can read our Bible and pray all we want, but we still have to have the common sense to wear helmets, sunscreen, take our medications, come inside during the lightning and drive carefully.

Yes, the laws of nature still apply to the faithful, and we have endured our set of trials because of those laws. But at the end of the day, we know those laws weren’t given to us by imaginary gods or capricious goblins. The laws are the design of an intelligent and loving God.

But perhaps more importantly, we are stronger for having endured those trials and the world has become a little bit better place.

Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write or visit You also can follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at