It’s amazing how normal we try to make things on a base with more than 25,000 people.
Here at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, we have hot showers, movie theaters, swimming pools, vehicles and chapels, not to mention dining halls that make the local Hometown Buffet look like a soup line.
Many of our patients have the normal scope of medical issues: broken appendages, infections, flu and appendicitis.
It would be easy to cruise along on the surface of normal, until, as they say among first responders, “hours of boredom are interrupted by minutes of sheer terror.”
It happened earlier this month when we received a soldier who was the victim of an IED blast. There’s no way I would describe the carnage this bomb inflicted on the 20-year-old soldier. Suffice to say it was enough to cause some nonessential staff to leave the room for air.
Within five minutes of his arrival, our neurosurgeon, Dr. Carrie Schmitt, examined the trauma done to the soldier’s brain and broke the difficult news to a hopeful staff that the soldier really had died before he arrived.
“We’ve done all we can do. We’ve lost him.”
“Chaplain,” called out Dr. Schmitt.
“Here, ma’am,” I said as I slowly and reverently took my place among the staff surrounding the gurney.
As one staff member held the soldier’s remaining hand, another stood with an arm on his brow. Two other staff members placed sympathetic hands on the soldier’s thighs.
We stood watching, we stood crying, we stood praying. None of us had ever met this soldier, but we were determined to say that his friends would see him into eternity.
There’s a lot of debate among world religions over when a person’s soul leaves his body. I don’t have any desire to weigh in on that argument, but there certainly have been enough near-death experiences to suggest a person has some awareness of his surroundings during those moments that exist between life and death.
It was in that belief that I stepped forward and addressed the soldier.
Calling him by name, I told him he was surrounded by people who cared. I assured him everyone tried their very best to save him. We desperately wanted to bring the normal out of the abnormal, but it wasn’t to be.
Within 30 minutes, we assembled a Patriot Detail. This is a short ceremony resembling a graveside service in which I read a short Scripture and said a prayer.
Afterward, his body, draped in flag, was taken to our morgue.
Just outside the morgue, a Special Forces medic joined us, carrying cans of near beer, a product as close to alcohol as we can get in the combat theater.
“I want us to toast this young man’s life,” the medic declared as he distributed the near beer among us.
I’m not a beer drinker, but this wasn’t the time to make that point. This was a time to create a sacred space.
As we simultaneously popped our can tops, I was reminded of the sacred sound made by the synchronized breaking of a Communion wafer during worship.
In Communion, we’ll often take the wine and quote Jesus as saying, “This is my blood which was spilled for you.”
In much the same spirit, the medic reminded us that the soldier’s blood had been spilled for us as well.
Pouring a few ounces into the earth, the medic declared that the first sip was reserved for the fallen patriot who wasn’t yet old enough to drink. Then we raised our cans in his honor and drank together.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write email@example.com or visit www.thechaplain.net.