News

Military chaplains retreat strengthens 'wounded healers'

By Hilly Hicks and
Kathy L. Gilbert

Oftentimes the most powerful person on the battlefield is an unarmed, praying chaplain.

Military chaplains live side-by-side with soldiers. They eat, sleep and work with young men and women in dangerous and uncomfortable conditions thousands of miles from family, friends and their United Methodist connections.

Circuit riders in Humvees, they bring a Bible as their only weapon.

The strain of seeing many members of their extended congregation die or receive horrific wounds is challenging, and chaplains have little or no time to tend to their own wounded souls.

Once a year, however, the "wounded healers" come together in Germany for a retreat sponsored by the United Methodist Endorsing Agency, part of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. This year's gathering was Feb. 16-21 in Ettal, Germany.

Twelve chaplains and many of their wives and children spent the retreat in periods of worship, round-table discussion and relaxed times of fun and fellowship.

Retired Bishop Woodie White came as a special guest to preach, serve communion, counsel and listen to the chaplains. He joined the Rev. Patricia Barrett, head of the Endorsing Agency, on a visit to the Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl where the war wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq are evacuated for medical attention before being flown back to the United States for further care.

White took his turn with chaplains walking around the medical center - offering prayers with and for the soldiers.

"I could hardly hold back the tears," White wrote following his visit. "Then it was difficult to contain my rage. I was standing with a U.S. chaplain at the bedside of a wounded soldier recently evacuated from Iraq. The soldier was horribly burned over more than 40 percent of his body. Frankly, it was difficult for me to look at him. Then we moved to another bed. Here was a soldier who had both legs blown off."

Refueling and replenishing

United Methodist Chaplain David Smith was one of the U.S. Army chaplains attending the retreat in Germany. Each chaplain was given an opportunity to tell their own stories and to hear from church leadership that they were cared for and prayed for.

Smith recalls the "footlocker counseling" he did everyday with the military police in Fallujah, Iraq.

A simple request, "Hey, chaplain, would you mind stopping in to visit the platoon? They had a really rough day," became a ministry for Smith who came under attack many times himself on his rounds to see his "flock."

As part of a 54-unit ministry team in a task force scattered over an area more than twice the size of Indiana, Smith traveled by vehicle or air to visit the troops. "It was critical for me to be their pastor," said Smith.

As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom during the initial occupation of Iraq, Smith described the experience as very dangerous at the beginning, followed by a period of stability. Then came the 30 days of Ramadan and a time of heightened danger for the troops.

"I was traveling prior to and during Ramadan in my Humvee with no doors, sandbags on the floor and really with a fear of God every time I left what I thought was the security of our forward operating base."

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are a constant threat in Iraq. Smith went weekly to visit soldiers at a military medical facility and he recalls one period of three close calls with IEDs exploding near his Humvee.

A hospital chaplain and friend suggested he try flying in the next weekend.

"I put an air request in to fly from our headquarters to the hospital, and on the way back that night to the headquarters the engine went out in the helicopter and we caught a hard landing. ... It was like a crash landing," he said. "I'm thinking, 'Lord what are you trying to tell me? Three weekends in a row.' But it was something that I felt was important to visit our wounded soldiers in the hospital."

Like many other soldiers, Smith has never really shared his stories. But sharing them with other chaplains at the retreat was "dynamic, personal and inspirational. It has been a healing experience."

Living with stress

Another Army Chaplain, Scott Weichl, told the group that "being able to reflect on my experiences in Iraq with people I know and trust makes being here at this retreat worth it."

Air Force Chaplain Joel Warren is stationed at Ramstein (Germany) Air Base and greets C-130 aircrafts when they touch down loaded with injured troops from Iraq or Afghanistan. What he has seen as he boards those aircrafts weighs heavily upon him.

"The war does not go away," Warren said. "I can't tell you the importance of sitting down with my fellow United Methodists and being reminded of who we are."

Hilly Hicks serves as director of United Methodist Productions; Kathy Gilbert serves as a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.