Good morning, I’m Chaplain Michael Jaques, a chaplain with the US Army Reserve and with the VA. Today I want to share chapter one of my book “A Chaplain’s Battle: Transcending Powerlessness in an Explosive World.” It is a story of an Army chaplain who works through his feelings of powerlessness to finally find resolution. What he learns is applicable to many people who struggle with similar feelings. Hope you find it helpful.
We think of them as powerful defenders of life. In moments when bullets are flying, fires are blazing, blood is spurting and greater tragedy is looming, they make life-or-death decisions. Their instinct is always to save those whose lives are threatened.
But some of those die in their care. Others are left crippled by injuries or anxieties. Afterward, our soldiers, police officers, paramedics and firefighters often feel a powerlessness that most are unwilling to admit. Shame, embarrassment, or a crushing sense of failure inhibit conversations with co-workers. Troubling “why” questions haunt their sleep. And many struggle to admit mistakes or weaknesses. These universal feelings cause strong men and women to think they should abandon their calling.
But we don’t dare let that happen. Our society cannot afford to lose these compassionate and dedicated people. Our survival, in war or peace, depends on their willingness to serve. We all lose if their ranks are diminished because they incorrectly believe they are inadequate or berate themselves when they cannot save the lives of the bereft, the stricken, or the innocent casualties of terrorism.
I came to this topic as an Army chaplain deployed several times to war zones at the onset of our nation’s participation in the global war on terror. Through interviews and research, I quickly learned that this sense of powerlessness is widespread and unspoken. Yet when given the chance, I found my colleagues and other frontline caregivers quite willing to share their experiences—if only to help the thousands of other men and women who have yet to understand and to overcome it.
Therapists, theologians and researchers have known for decades that committed caregivers—those whose primary purpose in life is to assist others in crisis—all suffer from the debilitating experience of powerlessness.
Police officers feel it when they see innocent people suffer from criminal violence; doctors and nurses experience it when they can’t save the lives of chronically ill children; and first responders struggle with it when they see lives torn apart in accidents and fires.
Even leaders whose responsibilities do not include administering health care or protective services may fall into despair if they make a mistake that they perceive as harming the people they have sworn to help.
The five attainments I humbly offer herein are an answer to this pervasive problem. These simple yet profound steps to freedom are achieved by embracing an unexpected source of liberation—a willingness to accept our weakness. We cannot be broken by our human limitations if we are willing to accept them. In accepting them, we open ourselves to the only power that can help us transcend the explosive, often inexplicable world we live and work in.
Caregivers, take heart. Your gift to society does not need to spell personal ruin. Quite the opposite. Your commitment to shaking free of despair is a path to the fulfillment you imagined when you first answered the call.
To express the range of emotions and situations many caregivers experience, I created a fictional character, Chaplain Tim Parker.” His traumas and challenges are based on real events that either I or my colleagues have experienced. This approach allows me to be a storyteller and a facilitator of dialogue about our true-life struggles. I believe these stories will help us embrace and ponder the expansiveness of our unique role in the world.
Drawing on my research and interviews with other caregivers about powerlessness, I also offer analysis of the chaplain’s travels. By blending a fictional narrative with the insights of modern and historic thought leaders, I present the paradox of faith in our explosive world.
Michael D. Jaques
Wounded Warrior Chaplain/MDW/JFHQ-NCR
Receiving the Wounded
The day Ronny died
Chaplain Tim Parker watched as the C-17 Globemaster pierced the cloud layer and descended. After six years in the service, he was still in awe of how quickly Air National Guard troops could turn these giant cargo planes into flying intensive care units that shuttled wounded soldiers from our Ramstein airbase in Germany. It was an example of the strength and ingenuity of the military.
Chaplain Parker was proud to be a member of the welcoming team that watched the arrival from buses and medical vehicles parked outside the aeromedical staging facility at Joint Base Andrews near Washington, D.C.
As the enormous gray bird touched ground, the chaplain exchanged greetings with others on his bus. Each branch of the military was represented by a liaison who would greet the plane along with doctors, nurses, and mental health experts. Together they would assist the arriving troops who would be taken to other destinations—Walter Reed, Fort Bragg, or an airbase in San Antonio. Some would be fed a meal and assigned overnight lodgings before moving on.
Normally, the chaplain enjoyed these events. He knew how much it meant to injured troops to be greeted on home soil. Yet his initial pleasure at watching the plane arrive safely quickly surrendered to anxiety. He became so pensive that he barely responded to the Army nurse who sat next to him.
“More passengers than usual, Chaplain,” she said.
Then he looked up and gave an uneasy nod.
“It worries me.”
He would have preferred to say nothing, but did not want to seem rude. “Me too. The war, it’s still …”
She finished his sentence. “… messing up good people.”
He nodded and whispered, “Yes.”
During the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were as many as fifty passengers on the C-17s. That number had shrunk in recent years, sometimes to as few as five or ten. Yet this flight carried twenty-nine service members, and that was troubling. Chaplain Parker had deployed several times to the Middle East. He had witnessed the carnage of war— multiple fatalities and injuries from improvised bombs, merciless mortar and rocket attacks, and enemy suicide missions. He also knew too well the anguish soldiers faced on the home front—missed birthdays and holidays, marital and financial problems, kids failing in school and unexpected deaths of friends or family members.
On this day’s flight, all the patients had life-altering issues to contend with. Many had been wounded in action and airlifted to Germany for intensive care. Among them were young men and a woman who had lost limbs, been paralyzed or were suffering from brain injuries. The chaplain was already anticipating the fear and questions that would be etched on their faces.
Other soldiers had suffered accidental injuries while fulfilling basic duties or recreating—broken bones for example. Civilians stateside might assume these troops felt lucky to be shipped home without life-threatening wounds. The chaplain knew otherwise: Most felt guilty about having to leave their fellow warriors, men and women who faced death every day.
Dire medical diagnoses also brought troops home. One Michigander had learned that he had terminal cancer; and a female G.I. was emotionally wounded by a sexual assault.
The chaplain knew their stories because each time a C-17 landed he was given a list with short profiles of each passenger. He stared now at one name and injury synopsis as his vehicle begin to move forward.
“Here we go,” the Army nurse said.
This time the chaplain did not respond. Not even a nod. Instead, he stared out the window, overcome with nausea and enough tension to make breathing difficult. The discomfort increased as the huge aircraft taxied to a stop.
Greeting this arrival would be different from all the others. He would board the plane burdened by an event that jabbed his conscience whenever it came to mind. The knives of regret would be ever sharper now when he came face-to-face with the man who had witnessed his moment of shame. The chaplain was certain he would be recognized by the soldier who had since risen to the rank of sergeant.
He startled when he felt the nurse touch his arm. “Huh?”
“Are you OK?”
“Oh, sorry, yes. Yes, I’m fine,” he lied.
The rocket attack began at midday, and like all the other enemy onslaughts, it came without warning or mercy. It was 2004, the chaplain’s first deployment, and he had just dozed off in his tent on a U.S. Army base near Fallujah. The first screams he heard were the rockets speeding overhead, shredding the peace of a sunny day, then exploding helter-skelter in various sectors of the camp.
When he jolted upright, the Bible that had been spread open on his chest fell heavily to the floor. As Chaplain Parker leapt to his feet, he landed awkwardly on the good book. Before he could stand, he was hurled backward by a blast that shook the ground like a violent earthquake. Alone in his barracks, he heard for the first time the terrible agony of shocked human beings crying out for help. At first he froze, paralyzed by fear. Next, he willed himself to run toward the horror.
A mortar round had blown apart a tent where troops slept. Some would never again awaken to the joy of a new day and a fresh cup of coffee. Some who survived had been ripped open. They howled and cursed as blood spurted from their wounds. A few others, miraculously, stumbled out of the flames with only burns, bloodied faces or broken bones.
The chaplain joined other young men and women in fatigue pants and T-shirts who rushed toward the carnage, shouting, cursing, even bawling at the sight of fallen friends. Above the fray, mortar fire continued to hiss and intimidate. Chaplain Parker felt amazed and pleased that his arms and legs were still functioning despite the panic and chaos. He and other personnel picked up the wounded and rushed them to a makeshift triage area. Back and forth, again and again, he helped deliver ravaged bodies, explosions unyielding.
Yet the weight of the falling sky and mounting casualties took its toll. He was a man of God, his mere presence invoked a higher power. In a moment of unfathomable despair, surrounded by corpses and dismembered beings, he felt useless and even betrayed. Why am I here? What called me to this place?
Then a hand gripped his combat boot and would not let go. The chaplain looked down at a man whose torso had been ripped open. Guts spilled out like lava and stained the earth a dark red.
“Save me,” he whispered. “I don’t want to die. Please, chaplain.”
Although the chaplain was dressed like all the other troops, his shirt included a black cross over his heart. It was his duty to assist and pray for anyone who needed him. But he stood mute, unable to move as he stared down at the mangled soldier whose eyes pleaded for assurances, comfort, or maybe a prayer.
“Please, chaplain. Please?”
“Help him, damn it!”
Stunned, the chaplain turned to find a soldier who raged and glared at him in disbelief. Then he watched as the G.I. fell to his knees to cradle his friend’s head.
“Hang in there, Ronny, OK? The doc will be here soon. You’re going to be fine.”
The wounded man began to sob. “I can’t, Matt. I’m dying. I can feel it.”
“No, no. The chaplain is here and he’s—”
Numb, trembling, the chaplain felt like he would implode into grains of sand. He was no longer threatened by the mortar attack. A sense of powerlessness had eviscerated him.
Then the raging soldier, Pvt. Matt Kennedy, shot up from the ground, grabbed the chaplain and shook him so hard the man of God thought his neck might snap.
“You’re useless preacher! This man is dying. Say something! Bless him! At least bless him, Damn it!”
Blood had dried in the corners of the injured man’s mouth, and his chest had stopped rising.
It took four infantrymen to pull Pvt. Kennedy away from the chaplain, who stood for a long time in triage, shaken and ashamed.
When the rockets finally stopped and relative calm returned to the base, the chaplain found a remote spot, fell to his knees and tilted his eyes to the darkening sky.
“Dear Lord, why would you bring me here, but not give me the power to save lives and heal?”
As the chaplain walked up the ramp at the back of the C-17, he immediately saw the most critically wounded troops. They were always the first to be removed from the aircraft. stretched out on hospital beds installed on each side of the otherwise raw interior. An Air National Guard crew could transform a plane this size into a trauma center in about ninety minutes including modern medical equipment that monitored each patient’s condition.
As flight physicians and nurses prepared for the transfer, Chaplain Parker greeted each warrior.
“How are you doing? How was the flight? They feed you well?”
Some smiled, pleased with the light humor and a handshake. Others were unresponsive because of induced sleep or their fragile conditions. A couple expressed fear for the future, fully knowing their travails were far from over.
“I’m scared, chaplain,” one said.
“We’ve got you covered. You’re home now. Rest easy.”
The chaplain didn’t rush. He answered questions as well as he could and murmured prayers with the intention of connecting with each of the twenty-nine passengers. Immersed in the goodwill of welcoming personnel, he was at ease.
The anxiety returned when the chaplain walked into the section of the plane where troops who did not need immediate medical attention were waiting to disembark. Sgt. Matt Kennedy would be here.
He was easy to spot. His broad back and height distinguished him as a superior warrior. Yet his physical strength masked a contradiction. His injury synopsis said he’d been evacuated after threatening suicide.
The chaplain knew he could not avoid the reunion, so he moved forward, prepared to meet his fate.
“Welcome home, Sgt. Kennedy,” he said, reaching out his hand. “Remember me?”
The recognition was immediate, if not exactly warm.
Kennedy paused, nodding slightly as he took in a deep breath.
“Fallujah. The day Ronny died.”
“Yeah. For all of us, right?” Kennedy averted his eyes, as though he needed a moment to recover from the reminder of a terrible loss. “But you know what? You gave me a lot that day.”
The chaplain couldn’t help but search for sarcasm, or a subtle slight of some kind. He found no such thing in Kennedy’s voice or demeanor.
“Forgive me, but are you sure you remember who I am?”
“OK. But then how was it that I helped you? I did nothing. I watched your friend die. And I’ve been …”
“Beating yourself up ever since, right, Chaplain?”
Now the chaplain paused and reminded himself to breathe. “It’s a painful memory.”
The two men stood awkwardly, as members of the welcoming team began to guide the men and women to their next destinations.
Finally, Kennedy spoke. “Look, they’ve threatened to serve us a meal before we’re all shipped out. I hope it’s not something they pour out of a can. I’m tired of MRE’s. Remember those?”
“Meals ready to eat.”
“So they say.”
The chaplain laughed. Camaraderie, shared experience, a salve for so many wounds.
“Anyway, can we talk in the cafeteria while I stuff my face?”
“I’d like that.”
The chaplain resumed his duties, chatted with the other soldiers, and then heard Kennedy call from a distance.
“Chaplain, there was nothing you could have done for Ronny.”
He believed Kennedy was only trying to absolve him of blame. Even so, the chaplain felt his heart sink—again.