My days are blending together to the point that I’m not always sure which day of the week it is here. There’s not been a day here yet without and inbound flight, so I’ve come to divide our time into one of two categories: Outbound days and MTD days.
MTD is our abbreviation for Medical Transportation Detachment, or something like that. On these days, in addition to greeting the inbound flights of the day, which generally arrive in the mid morning or mid afternoon, we host the folk who are flying back to the States the following morning. They have been in the hospital at Landstuhl and are healthy enough to spend the night out of the hospital. Sometimes they have minor injuries, maybe a broken arm or leg, sometimes they have minor psychological issues like depression. The docs have cleared them to go home and the hospital wants to open beds and make the next day’s loading go faster. We’ve had as few as few as five one of these nights since I’ve been here, but generally there are closer to twenty or twenty five.
On MTD nights, which start when the bus from the hospital arrives at about 7pm, these patients come into our facility and meet with a nurse and a doctor for one final evaluation. The process usually takes a few hours. I greet them and amid all the information they receive tell them that as a chaplain, I am here to listen to their stories and anxieties if they care to share them with me. I have found this night, and the time I spend with them the following morning, the most productive ministry I’ve ever experienced. Some guys are going home to broken marriages, some to infants they’ve never met, many have seen or experienced such horrible events “downrange” that they just want to talk. I never know what will happen on a given night: I’ve assured snipers they are forgiven. I’ve swapped out a pair of crutches for some more comfortable. I’ve listening to cries of “Where was God when my sergeant was blown up?” I’ve done relationship counseling. I’ve helped people call home to tell a spouse what’s happening to them. I’ve assisted the Red Cross in telling someone her grandmother was in a car accident.
I leave these evenings emotionally exhausted, but with a feeling that I’ve helped some folk make steps closer to health or faith.
I get to sleep in a bit on Outbound days: the day starts traveling one exit on the autobahn so that I can arrive no later than 8am (it’s about a 15 minute drive to work). I’ve already met most of the patients who are flying out that day, though we get at least one more busload about 10am. I offer Holy Communion and anointing for healing; sometimes I get a big group who want to receive, more often only a few. I’m around again to hear stories, I end up spending a lot of this time escorting guys to the smoking area where tongues tend to loosen up a bit more. I have an official “briefing” in the midst of all this that is intended to offer some tools to help them move into their new lives at home.
We load the busses in time to be on the flight line usually by 11am. I continue listening and encouraging and counseling as we load them onto the plane. I’ll help carry patients on a litter, maybe carry a backpack for someone with a bad back. Often an ambulance will arrive from the hospital with critical care patients. Once all the patients are onboard, the crew will begin to close up the plane. I’m often among the last people to walk off the aircraft, climbing down the steps the pilots use because the loading ramp in the back of the plane is already closing up.
Inbound flights can come at any time and we’ve not had a day without at least one. Some come early in the morning, most in the middle of the day. For inbound flights, I get on the aircraft as soon as I can and begin to meet the patients. I welcome them to Germany – some have no idea where they are – and explain to them what the next hour or two of their life will be like. We offload patients onto busses again and they drive the 20 minutes to Landstuhl where they are met by a team of volunteers who help get them off the bus and into wherever they are headed in the hospital. Some go straight to ICU, some walk to the dining hall for a meal. All are met by someone from their branch of service who is assigned to be their liaison through the chaos – paperwork, briefings, signatures, ID cards, new clothes, appointments with specialists – they experience before they are checked into their rooms. I sometimes ride to the hospital with patients, but generally at that point head back to the CASF with the staff.
Of course, often these things happen at the same time. I’ll leave for work in about ten minutes to meet the MTDs for the night. I’ll come home for the first half of my night’s sleep and then turn around to help meet an inbound scheduled to arrive at 2am. After that, I’ll get the second half my night’s sleep and then do the Outbound work. Tomorrow another inbound aircraft will be on the flight line right about the time we are done sending off the Outbounds so we’ll just stay out there to greet them. Since tomorrow is Sunday, I offer a worship service for the CASF staff who are unable to attend the Base Chapel on Sunday because of our schedule. I should be back to my room tomorrow night by 7pm at which point I’ll probably crash in bed so I can be ready to meet a morning inbound on Monday and the MTD patients Monday night.
I’ve returned from the MTD work and discovered that we have additional missions tomorrow. Within fifteen hours, we have five missions. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I’m not alone.
The military has taught me the value of teamwork.
Jerry called tonight. He’s the enlisted Chaplain’s Assistant. We don’t have any backup other than each other when we deploy. We also don’t have any other team to back us up: there are two docs, two pharmacy techs, and four shifts of nurses/medics. But only one chaplain team. And so we haven’t had much as far as days off. I’ve been more faithful to Jerry’s days off than to my own, to be honest: I’ve worked ten days straight now without a day away. Today is Jerry’s day off and I didn’t want to call him to ask him to do the 2am flight, mainly because I wouldn’t want him to do that to me. Nonetheless, he checked in with the CASF tonight, found out about the 2am mission, and then called me offering to do it. Offering. I agreed, and that means I get a full night’s sleep – if I can fall sleep tonight.