COMMENTARY: A Chaplain’s View

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — A day off is a cher­ished and holy time when you are deployed to the Air Force Mor­tu­ary Oper­a­tions Cen­ter here.

Every mil­i­tary death over­seas, from Alpha to Omega, comes through this mor­tu­ary. A new part of the mor­tu­ary mis­sion, added a cou­ple of years ago, is hav­ing fam­i­lies invit­ed to see the arrival of their fall­en loved one come home to U.S soil.

My pri­ma­ry duty as a chap­lain here at the mor­tu­ary is work­ing with the grief-shocked fam­i­lies when they watch the dig­ni­fied trans­fer, but some­times I’m with the fall­en as I help move gur­neys and work with the peo­ple work­ing with the fall­en ser­vice­mem­bers.

As a labor­er in this casu­al­ty vine­yard, you can’t help but have images of grief and death come trip­ping through your mind in stock­ing feet.

See­ing the dead and their fam­i­lies is a real­i­ty for me. To com­pen­sate and change your brain when that offered day off comes, you find a diver­sion away from the base.

My diver­sion on my day off is soak­ing up Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Like a pig in mud, I’m deployed to the cen­ter of the home­land of Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

With­in a two-hour dri­ve from Dover AFB, every­where you go there is a his­tor­i­cal site from the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary or Civ­il wars.

If the church sign out front says “first” in its title, it may have real­ly been the very first Luther­an, Methodist, Pres­by­ter­ian, Quak­er or oth­er church in the orig­i­nal colonies.

The first great thoughts and spo­ken words of our democ­ra­cy are lit­tered on every cor­ner of the com­bined states of Delaware, Mary­land, Penn­syl­va­nia and Vir­ginia.

After my lunch at the City Tav­ern, I saw the masts of a tall ship on the water­front. It was time to keep explor­ing his­to­ry by foot. In my walk to the pier, I found the Kore­an War memo­r­i­al.

A won­der­ful series of dark pan­els with pic­tures of the war etched into its mar­ble. As I came to the site fac­ing the riv­er, there was an old man wear­ing a Kore­an War vet­er­an ball cap. He was alone and in tears. This is where the chap­lain, instead of the his­to­ri­an, took over.

I inquired of my tear-filled sol­dier: “You were there weren’t you.”

My vet nod­ded and point­ed to the carved let­ters on the mar­ble that read: “7th Infantry.”

I heard of the Bat­tle of Inchon, and how he had been wound­ed. I lis­tened deeply as he told me of hold­ing a com­rade who was dying as they were sur­round­ed by the Chi­nese. Again he was wound­ed, but had escaped cap­ture with the oth­ers from his unit.

He looked up at me and said, “My broth­er fought in World War II and told me I would nev­er get it out of my head, and he was right.”

I saw the dead com­rades he told me about in my mind, for I had just seen them recent­ly in body bags from Afghanistan and Iraq. He looked at my head and eye­balled my recent hair­cut. “You’re mil­i­tary, you under­stand, don’t you?” he said.

I nod­ded, and told him I was a deployed chap­lain at Dover AFB’s mor­tu­ary.

Like a child want­i­ng a hug, his arms reached out, and we held onto one anoth­er, reach­ing across the decades. Two wars, mem­o­ries drop­ping like falling leaves build­ing a foun­da­tion of under­stand­ing and heal­ing.

To place my sto­ry into a sim­ple the­ol­o­gy, even when we are not expect­ing it, God places us where we are need­ed.

We can embrace the moment and find the holy in sto­ries, and care for one anoth­er, or we can walk on, to the water­front where stuff just floats by. The joy of find­ing the holy moment when we are sent is that we don’t for­get the real sac­ri­fice.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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