Thursday, July 03, 2008

Greetings from Ramstein, Germany!

I’ve been here for a week now and am able to stop and take a breath, so thought I’d send a note to let y’all know what and how and I’m doing. Many of you have sent emails and I appreciate hearing from you. I’m not often able to reply to messages because I may have just a few minutes to get online. I hope this will catch you up.
I’m the chaplain for what the Air Force calls a Contingency Aerospace Staging Facility, or CASF, at Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany. A CASF is a bit like a holding area for anyone moving into a higher level of medical care. We have resources to care for just about any patient, but not for a long period of time. Most patients we encounter come from Afghanistan or Iraq and have been sent here for the hospital at Landstuhl, an Army base about 20 minutes away. Other patients move from here to the States for more care, which can range from significant burn treatment to physical therapy in a hospital in their hometown. Some patients stay in our facility, but usually not for more than a few days.
The CASF meets each plane with nurses, maybe a doctor, and several EMTs. Some patients on the plane can walk off, others we carry on litters with equipment that looks right out of an Intensive Care Unit in a hospital. As chaplain, I might be the first person they’ve seen in days whose only goal is to listen to them and be present without an agenda.
Outbound planes carry all kinds of patients. Most patients that are able to walk come from the hospital to the CASF the night before outbound flights. I have the opportunity on days of outbound flights to once again be present with patients. I offer communion and try to prepare them for resources and some of what they will face returning to the states. (For example, for outbounds this week, we’re suggesting they be purposeful about how they celebrate the Fourth: some of the skills that will keep them alive in a war zone might lead to an awkward moment in a town park’s fireworks show.)
I have brief contact with patients on inbound flights but I’ve been surprised at how much pastoral care I can provide in that time. On outbound days, I get more time with patients and by letting them talk have heard all kinds of stories of what they have faced. Some of these stories humble me to in the presence of such a fine human being, some of these stories make me cringe, some lead me to cry with someone, some make me, too, question where God is. War is brutal and ugly. The men and women we ask to conduct our wars are never the same.
The staff here is amazing. They have volunteered to be here and feel tremendous pride in their work, which they do very well. There are about a 100 people who work here, around a quarter of them are stationed here and this is their job for three years. Those in the permanent party end up doing a lot of admin and oversight. Most of the direct care is provided by the people, like me, who are here temporarily. Some come for as short as two weeks, most are here for four months. There are four rotating shifts, but some positions only have two shifts so they take turns being on call. I’m the only chaplain, but I have an enlisted “Chaplain Assistant” with me. We’ve split up the job so that we are seldom together and therefore able to multiply our resources. For example, I slept in this morning and Jerry handled the inbound mission. Because we’re on call so much, I won’t have much of a chance to travel a lot in Europe. I plan to make some day trips here and there as I’m able.
I’m living at Vogelweh, a former base that is now nearly exclusively housing for folk who commute to Ramstein. Because I’m not at Ramstein, where the CASF is, I have a rental car and get to drive a bit on the Autobahn to work every day. (That sounds more exotic than it is.) I’m living in what is best called a hotel suite, a couple rooms with a microwave and tiny refrigerator. I happen to be in a quiet part of the base, with my back windows looking into a forest, on the other side of the woods is an elementary school for families working here. It’s raining today, the first since we arrived. The weather is much like New York, but feels hotter here since we are often out on the flight line where the sun can beat down pretty hard and since none of the buildings I work or live in have air conditioning.
For the rest of this morning, I’m going to explore a bit more to get my bearings. We’ve been working hard since we arrived – generally two missions a day, plus I’m still absorbing and processing everything from the previous chaplain who stayed on to get us trained up.
Peace be with y’all. Have a great Independence Day and please take time to pray for the physical, mental and spiritual health of the men and women we have sent into harm’s way.

Jake

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