Driven out but going back in

Chaplaincy, Theology

Keep the earth below my feet

For all my sweat, my blood runs weak

Let me learn from where I have been

Keep my eyes to serve and hands to learn

Keep my eyes to serve and hands to learn

– “Below My Feet” Mumford and Sons

An inmate got under my skin yesterday. I walked away frustrated, angry, and hurt. I didn’t deserve the triad he laid on me. This sort of thing used to happen quite a bit. When I first started at the Facility, I was constantly walking away hurt and angry but then, over time, I began to recognize that their anger was not about me but about the bigger world. I have been able to differentiate between what is theirs, mine, and the governments. 

So what happened yesterday?

I let my guard down. I forgot that no matter how friendly and kind I am with the inmates, no matter how many needs I meet or services that I oversee, I am the enemy. 

It was a reminder that I didn’t want but, in fact, needed. 

There is no education like adversity.” Benjamin Disraeli 

The real test will be whether or not I can go back in there today, maintain my professionalism, give great pastoral care, listen and lay aside my anger to be a pastor again. This is the calling of the chaplain, being able to lay aside “your stuff” in order to minister. It’s not the explosion avoidance in the moment that is the test of character, it’s the going back in the next day that defines.

I remember. New Jersey. The Towers. My students. Life as it was.

Army, Chaplaincy

Eleven years ago today.

I was sitting in my classroom, first year of teaching. I was in the midst of a gargantuan effort to bring my Jr. High under control. They happened to be a rather undisciplined lot. I was a brand new struggling teacher just learning how to do what I was paid to do.

It was my prep hour. I was grading 8th grade history tests.

A student burst in my door.

“MR. FISHER!!! TURN ON YOUR RADIO!! SOMETHING IS HAPPENING IN THE CITY!!!”

I stated at him. “Huh?”

I reached over and turned on the radio.

The announcer on the AM station was cursing. He was broadcasting from downtown NYC and was totally unsure what was going on. Through the fragments I heard that one of the Towers had been hit by “something.” No one really seemed to know what was going on.

I sat, stunned, I stared at the radio. It went dead. There was silence in the room.

It was broken by the timid voice of the student. “Mr. Fisher, Are we going to be in a war?”

I was teaching at New Life Christian School in Dunellen, New Jersey, a suburb of NYC. I had students whose parents and extended family worked at the WTC. For a month after the event my best friend and I could still see the smoke and steam rising from Ground Zero from the roof of our building. When we went to Washington Rock (a local tourist site, where Washington had viewed British Troops during the Revolution, you could see the skyline of the city from there) the view had dramatically altered. The most prominent site, the long obelisks, those monuments to American economic power, the World Trade Center, was simply gone.

I was shaking. I looked at the student, “No‚” I said, not quite sure myself. “They don’t even know what’s going on.”

We walked down the hall. I remember the sound of our footsteps on the tile of the 1930’s era building. I had never been able to hear that sound during school but that day of days it was as if the entire school was empty.

Jesse (my best friend who taught English at the school) and I set up the television in the common room. We sat with the students that day and watched history unfold before us. A 35 minute train ride away people were screaming, just trying to stay alive.

My students sat quietly and cried. One student, whose father worked there started screaming. He ran downstairs. Moments later the administrator appeared and told us to put the TV away. He was furious with J and I for allowing the students to see this. I argued that we needed to experience this together so that we might be a comfort to each other. He was the boss so he prevailed. Its not as though anyone had any experience with trauma like this. I had gone through several very grievous events with my family but nothing prepared me for such collective sorrow.

Since then, tragedy has been a distinct part of who I am and what I have done both professionally and privately. There is a line from the film, Donnie Darko‚ which seems to describe myself and family.

Some people are just born with tragedy in their blood.

So I was born, to be in the midst of tragedy.

In my journal the only record of this was written a week after the event. I wrote of how profoundly I was affected and concluded that I would join the military to avenge this act.

Vengeance.

I tried to join the military twice as a 19D Cav Scout. The first time I was turned away because of a physical ailment. The second time I had actually joined and then got out to help with my family during yet another hard time. I thought that this war was going to pass me by, I would have be content to teach it, having not lived the part.

Little did I know that I would not be sent as an avenger, but as a healer of the warrior.

Not to fight the battle but to be with those that paid the price of tragedy.

I have accepted the role that God has given me for this life; the role of the healer. I went to the war on terrorism and returned markedly different. My spirituality has changed, my outlook on life has changed, my emotions have changed, my love has changed, my very heart has changed.

We have all changed because of this fight. We have given up freedom, liberties, conveniences and necessities all for safety. We have sent our sons and daughters into foreign lands to fight a fight that we are growing tired of. I ask you to remember that this war was engaged with the full consent of the Congress and the it was the desire of the people to strike out at a faceless foe whether they were perceived or not. Do not lose courage now. Do not lose strength now. The fight goes on, whether we like it or not.

Even now, I sit in wonder of how that day changed my life.

We are all of us changed.

But we are strong.

The only true solution to this is the love of Christ. We fight, for we must. Let us not forget the injunction of our Lord to “Pray for our enemies.”

Pray for peace.

Pray for strength.

Epilogue:
I wrote the above passage several years ago. I was deployed at the time. Little did I know that years from the writing I would be a prison chaplain in the Army system, picking up the pieces of men whose bodies and minds are paying the price for our wars. There is always a price. I think we have only begun to see what these years of war have cost us as a nation. Tragically, we often think of the cost in terms of dollars but it is much deeper than that. Once a person is that familiar with killing, destruction, anger, and tragedy, I fear it just can’t be “turned off.” We will continue to pay the price.

But there is hope. Our country seems a little more resistant of putting their Sons and Daughters into harms way. We are trying to work for a better future. Beyond the darkness is life and hope.

My prayer for this land is that we will seek peace, pursue it, live it – with each other first and throughout the world.

Army Hazing

Army

Its stories like this that really frustrate me when I hear people talk about “the old Army.”

DETROIT (AP) — A soldier from Michigan who was struck with a large, wooden mallet at his Army base in North Carolina was seriously injured, his father said, expressing anger and shock that the incident was allowed to occur.

Ken Roach of Battle Creek said his son, Sgt. Phillip Roach, was hurt at Fort Bragg during what the Army later called an unauthorized “hazing” event to mark his promotion to sergeant. The 22-year-old knocked his head on the cement after getting hit, causing a seizure and head wound that required six staples, his father said.

Right. Cause that’s the “good ole days.” I hear it sometimes, somebody will say to me that “back in the day, they would just take it outside and settle it like men.” This new pansy Army with all it’s political correctness and sensitivity, they just need to get a case of intestinal fortitude. Right. Cause the old Army just was better.

Come on. This “pansy” Army has sustained combat for well over ten years. All volunteer. I think they’ve proved themselves over and over again to be able to “get it done.” You really want an Army where this kind of hazing is appropriate? Where a senior non-commissioned officer or commissioned officer can just do whatever they want to your child?

I don’t. I want some rules in place. If my children ever want to join the Service of their own free will and volition, I trust that the system in place will not deliberately hurt them without betterment. In other words, I get that Soldering is tough. I get that training has to be realistic, difficult and therefore dangerous. I get that sometimes people are going to get hurt – it’s training for war! I also do not want people to abuse the power and trust invested in them to train our nation’s finest.

I’m sure in this instance, there was no ill intent. I’m sure that there were traditions that are in place that this young Soldier was following. That does not make it right.

War is dangerous enough, our Soldiers are getting hurt in the field enough to allow for senseless traditions for the sake of traditions. Sometimes, this “new Army” is actually an improvement.

Further thoughts:

Last week, I watched my new Chaplain Assistant, MOS 56M, a PFC straight out of AIT take pepper spray to the eyes. It’s part of the training regimen for a Soldier who works in a prison. Here is a young man who wanted to serve his country, signed up for the Army, succeeded at Basic Training, comes to Leavenworth as a CHAPLAIN ASSISTANT and then has to take OC pepper spray in order to do his job.

Here’s how it goes, Soldier stand at the ready, OC pepper spray – spray designed to be so painful that being in contact with it will incapacitate an enraged, fighting individual so that they can be subdued – this 20 year old PFC from Virginia takes  the spray directly to the eyes! Not a wipe across the forehead, not “in the room,” and certainly not on some other part of his body where it would hurt (I speak from experience) – no, he takes it right in his eyes. He then has to complete five actions all related to being in a riot and subduing unruly people. The entire training take him about five minutes. Five minutes of shear agony. It is a hundred times worse than CS gas training or anything like it. It takes him two days to recover, both of which he comes to work and while his eyes are red and he is constantly wiping them, he does not complain.

That is training. That is tough, realistic, hardcore, hooah training. I have no issue with it. In fact, as the individual whom the 56M is supposed to protect, I am glad that I have a Chaplain Assistant who can take that kind of pain and come out swinging. And maintain his professionalism. He didn’t curse, didn’t scream, didn’t lose his cool – just grimaced through the pain with open eyes and completed his mission.

This business of hazing has nothing whatsoever to do with “making hard Soldiers.” Hazing is about the abuse of power over those who are so committed to being “one of the guys” that they take it. It has no place in a professional, all-volunteer force. I meet hardened Soldiers every day, Soldiers who don’t bat an eye at doing the hard parts of their job – but they don’t abuse others.

Hard training makes hard Soldiers.