JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — To counteract the drama of trauma here at the Air Force Theater Hospital, I occasionally try to lighten things up through casual conversations. Nevertheless, casual conversations prove problematic.
For instance, I recently met a soldier bracing himself against a hospital hallway.
“You look a little confused,” I casually observed. “Can I help you find something?”
“The dining hall?”
As I pointed him in that direction, he matter-of-factly explained his unbalanced stance. “I’ve been in four IED blasts, so I’m a bit confused.”
Yes, he said, “four times.” There’s nothing casual about that kind of constancy.
Sometime earlier, I talked to a Marine who had broken her knee on her walk to the dining hall.
I causally joked that military food is OK, but it’s not worth a broken knee.
She started crying.
Uh-oh. What did I say?
“They’re sending me home,” she sobbed. “I can’t leave without my unit.”
There’s nothing casual about that kind of commitment.
During a recent walk to the gym, I haplessly suggested to a hatless soldier that he should find his hat.
He smiled as he presented me with an official paper. “This explains that I lost my hat when my vehicle was blown up.”
I smiled. “No worries,” I said, “You’re good with the casual look.”
And breaking with military protocol, I saluted this hatless soldier.
There’s nothing casual about that kind of courage.
One night, I found a young man stretched out in the base chapel waiting for a plane ride home.
“Sounds great,” I said casually reflecting on home.
“Well, my father is dying,” he said. “My dad thought he had more time, so he insisted that I go and serve my country.”
The young man had served all but two weeks of his year here. There’s nothing casual about that kind of dedication.
My final attempt to initiate a casual conversation took place last month.
During a recent trauma call, I watched Senior Airmen Luis Bermudez casually walk into our Emergency Room with a little blood on his shirtless chest. I thought about chatting him up, but I needed to finish my charting duties.
A few minutes later, Bermudez was asking for a chaplain. Turns out he’d been shot with a stray bullet on his first day of work. The bullet was a random shot from outside our base and it had inserted itself just beneath the skin of his chest.
As bad as it sounds, it was actually superficial.
Later he would recall the incident at his Purple Heart ceremony. “I feel blessed to be alive . . . and as much as this was an unfortunate setback, I still have to press on,” he said in an article written by Staff Sgt. Dilia Ayala from Air Force Public Affairs.
“There was talk about sending me home, but I immediately squashed it. I came out here with my squad; I will leave with my squad.”
There’s nothing casual about that kind of loyalty.
By the way, Bermudez wants to become a hospital chaplain. So, after these conversations, the best advice I have for him comes from a letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Colossi.
“Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation.”
These conversations definitely showed the best of these servicemembers, but they also demonstrate that there is rarely anything casual about conversations in combat-zone hospitals