by Adriane Dorr
A Lutheran communications team spent time with LCMS chaplains and the troops for whom they care at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. These are their stories.
Santiago (Jimmy) Aguirre and Jesse Salcedo sit quietly in a room at the U.S. Army Medical Department Museum at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. Both are Vietnam War veterans and recipients of the Purple Heart, a decoration for those wounded or killed in combat. Retired Chaplain Conrad (Connie) Walker, a member of Concordia Lutheran Church, San Antonio, is seated between them.
Salcedo, a machine gunner in Vietnam, and Aguirre, a medic in the same war, meet weekly with Walker to work through lingering pain, hear God’s words of comfort, and remember. Together, their military service has created a shared history and a marked dignity, a “fraternal love,” Walker says, one that–even to outside observers–is tangible. +++
Chaplains like Walker have an enduring history in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS). As pastors who wear the uniform of the United States military, these men have brought God’s Word and Sacraments to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines since the Civil War, through World War II and even now in the Middle East and Asia.
These men are an important part of any mission, the two veterans say. “The chaplain has a calming effect,” Salcedo remembers. “Most of the pain, most of the fear, it’s all in our head. But then the chaplain comes, and he provides comfort and peace.”
“[Chaplains] provided the strength that we needed during the time of battle,” Aguirre adds. “You need comfort, and the chaplain is there to provide it.”
Chaplain Walker says he was simply being a pastor. “Person by person, you do what a pastor has to do: shepherd his flock,” he explains.
The conversation continues as the three discuss two of society’s most uncomfortable topics: politics and religion. With the removal of combat troops from Iraq in 2011 and those stationed in Afghanistan scheduled to pull out by 2014, these three refuse to let the influx of military personnel back home go unnoticed.
They are standing up on behalf of a minority. Although 2.5 million troops have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, troops comprise less than 1 percent of the United States population. The men are also quick to note that the suffering experienced in combat doesn’t end when a soldier returns home. In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs notes that nearly 20 percent of soldiers now struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a result of the strain of war.
This often-silent suffering also contributes to the number of veterans who have committed suicide after returning home. Shockingly, the Pentagon reports that suicide now ranks as the number 2 cause of death for soldiers, second only to combat. But embedded deep within this culture of strength and sorrow, the LCMS’ chaplains, congregations and members stand ready to care for these men and women, both down range and back home.
“Better people than me died that day, men that were braver than me,” says Salcedo, his voice breaking as he shares that he has been nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor. “If I do get that medal, it would be for them, not for me.” He stops, unable to go on.
Chaplain Walker puts his hand on Salcedo’s shoulder. “God bless, Jesse,” he says, ever the chaplain. “God bless.”
Ugly, messy business
Home to several military installations–Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base and Randolph Air Force Base–San Antonio is “Military City USA,” says LCMS Chaplain Steven Hokana. Stationed at “Fort Sam” and dressed in his Army combat uniform bearing a large black cross, the mark of a chaplain, Hokana explains what it’s like to serve the Church as a pastor to the Armed Forces. In his 20-plus years of pastoral care, lived out from Iraq to Afghanistan to Alaska, he’s learned that “War is messy, ugly business.”
Hokana is the training manager at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School’s (AMEDD) Department of Pastoral Ministry Training, where the mission is to “produce the world’s best spiritual trauma care specialists to support the nation.” Here, Hokana helps prepare chaplains for medical ministry in combat and emergency situations. Chaplains learn how to deal with trauma and maintain spiritual resiliency, an understanding that will help in “reconciling soldiers to God and to their country,” Hokana says.
Perhaps the most difficult situation chaplains will face is telling a family that their soldier has died in service to the United States. “When they open that door and they see two people in the absolute best dress uniform you’ll ever see in your life, they look,” Hokana says, “and then they look again. And when they make that second look, they know that their life is forever changed.”
Chaplain Mark Nuckols serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Previously deployed to Iraq as a chaplain in the Army Reserve, he recalls his own struggles while caring for soldiers: “Reading theology is what helped me get through many, many difficult things. Herman Sasse and Luther were two of my best companions [while deployed] because of the difficulties they went through, because they stayed faithful in a very difficult environment.” That’s just one of the blessings of Lutheran theology, he says, the way that it “can look at something very, very violent like war and not try to sugarcoat it . . . but deal with it head-on. That’s the theology of the cross.”
The suffering Hokana and Nuckols experienced begs the question: While chaplains are busy caring for the soldiers, who is caring for the chaplains? Thankfully, LCMS Operation Barnabas stands ready to help chaplains and the soldiers for whom they care, lending support to veterans and educating congregations in how to serve the military personnel and their families in their midst.
DOXOLOGY, an LCMS Recognized Service Organization, also “strengthens pastors for the task of faithfully shepherding the souls entrusted to their care,” offering retreats specifically for chaplains. “Our goal [is] to assist them to remain mentally and spiritually healthy as they respond to trauma and to provide them with emotional resilience strategies,” said Dr. Beverly Yahnke, co-director of the program.
The support of the LCMS as a synod brings comfort too. “Our church loves us,” notes Hokana. “If we [chaplains] feel bummed out or isolated or put pressure on to stretch or violate the tenets of our belief, we know that our church stands behind us 100 percent.”
Still, he makes one more request of the LCMS: “Continue to be in prayer,” he asks simply. “We are still a nation at war.”
For one section of the military in particular, that war caused life to change completely after Sept. 11, 2001. Unfortunately, this same groupNational Guardsmen and Reservists doesn’t receive the attention that active duty soldiers do.
They are now “basically active duty,” Nuckols says. “There are numerous Guardsmen and Reserves who have gone to two and three and even four tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Deploying and then returning to jobs, family members and a congregation made up of civilians is difficult. “Re-assimilation can be overwhelming,” he points out. “It’s an interesting compartmentalization of feelings and issues that you have with yourself and with your family.”
Congregations can bridge that gap, he says, by showing Christ’s mercy to these troops, an incarnational love that “is embodied in the theology that we’ve been given.” In fact, Nuckols says, the LCMS is primed to care for these warriors. “Talk to them,” he encourages. “Everybody has a story. They want to be listened to.” And to the clergy: “Pastor that person,” he urges. “Encourage them primarily to get back into the church again regularly.”
Northwest of San Antonio, the almost 30,000-acre Camp Bullis serves as training ground for the military. Sixteen young future medics sit on bleachers under muted shade, sweating in the heat of the Texas sun, uniforms covered in dirt and dye, weapons still in hand. They’ve just finished “trauma lanes,” an exercise in which soldiers simulate a combat situation. Under fire, they must treat and remove their wounded and fallen com- rades. Completing trauma lanes is the final step in qualifying to be a combat medic; most of them will be deployed within the next six months.
One young soldier, Private Heather Green, leafs through her Bible. When she ran out of paper for taking notes during Basic Training, Green started writing on the only paper she had left: the blank pages in the back of her Bible. Wiping sweat from her forehead, she opens the Bible to those pages and starts reading. “The different types of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices),” she says with a slight Southern drawl. “The five C’s [of IED awareness], the five things that you need to make one.”
“It’s not only my Bible,” she explains, tucking it back in her pocket. “It’s a reminder of everything I’ve been through.”
The Leapin’ Deacon
Chaplain Connie Walker is a Master Parachutist. Trained as a Paratrooper, he made hundreds of jumps out of airplanes, once in combat in Vietnam. Nicknamed “The Leapin’ Deacon,” Walker recalls winsomely that those jumps, made from an aircraft moving at 150 knots an hour, 1,000 feet above the earth, “increase your prayer life.”
“The next to the last command before you jump, by the Jumpmaster, is, Stand in the door!'” Walker says. “It ran through my mind–the Gospel of St. John, where the Lord Jesus says, I am the Door,’ and it was comforting.”
Other experiences in the chaplaincy were more chaotic. As a chaplain in combat, Walker learned to go “where the need is,” he recalls. “And when [soldiers] yell, Medic! Medic!’ the chaplain has to crawl with them, and you try very hard to pull them back out of the direct line of fire. They are terrifying moments.”
No matter the circumstances, Walker says, a chaplain does what he is given to do: bring Christ’s forgiveness and peace to hurting, fearful souls. “Under exceedingly hostile conditions, you go to [the soldiers] except you aren’t armed,” he says simply. “You don’t carry a weapon. You have the Word of God and the blessed Sacraments.”
Now in San Antonio, Walker’s work with soldiers has continued after his retirement. He currently serves as National Chaplain Emeritus for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. In both situations–active duty and retirement–Walker says a chaplain’s comfort and focus never change: “to stew in the juices of God’s Word, the
Confessions, and the hymnal.”
Don’t Be Afraid
In the lobby of San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC), a lullaby of chimes plays over the intercom. “Did you hear that?” Hokana says, his face lighting up. “That means a baby was just born!”
The tinkling chimes offer a bit of hope at this leading medical treatment center. Here, troops are treated for burns, the loss of limbs and countless other wounds inflicted in combat. But SAMMC welcome civilians as well. The birth of a baby is a reminder of what all of the troops say they want: a little bit of normality.
Captain Larkin O’Hern is determined to regain it. A 2008 West Point graduate and a member of the 101st Airborne Division, O’Hern lost both legs and an arm to an IED blast while deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.
“Joy for me was when I was out there getting the job done with my soldiers. Now,” he explains, “there is a sense of accomplishment that when it was my turn, I said, Send me,’ and not, Please send somebody else.'”
Walking in to the Center for the Intrepid, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility located on the BAMC campus, O’Hern has some encouragement for Christians: Don’t be afraid to talk to “somebody that’s either in the military or somebody that’s been wounded. Engage with them the same way that you would anybody else that you met or that visited your church.”
As a Wounded Warrior, he notes, being injured is an “important part of your identity but not more important than you being a Christian.” In other words, soldiers “just wanted to be treated like anybody else who walked in to church.”
The cherry on top? “It always helps to know that people are praying for you.”
Pro Deo et Patria
“War is messy, ugly business,” Hokana said. Yet the LCMS and her chaplains stand ready to combat the chaos of war with the promises of Christ, offering His forgiveness and grace to those whose lives have been forever altered by service to their country.
“Others think you’ve changed; you know you have,” wrote LCMS Chaplain Alvin Katt from Pearl Harbor in 1941. Leaving the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School at Fort Sam Houston, a sign above the door explains why: “Pro Deo et Patria,” it reads.
“For God and country.”
> The original purple heart award was instituted by George Washington in 1782 to reward troops for “unusual gallantry” and “extraordinary fidelity.” To learn more, go to purpleheart.org.
> The department of defense reports that 1,409,877 soldiers are currently active duty.
> To see more photos of LCMS chaplains and troops, go to www.facebook.com/TheLutheranWitness.
> For more on how to care for soldiers, go to witness.lcms.org.
> Go to www.lcms.org/thosewhoservevideo for a video on LCMS chaplains and the troops with whom they live and work.
> To learn more about Chaplain Walker, read his autobiography, The Leapin’ Deacon.
> Interested in the chaplaincy? Learn more at www.lcms.org/?pid=537.
About the author: Adriane Dorr is managing editor of The Lutheran Witness.