Gosh, I miss making saw dust!
29 August 2011
“Chaplain Ganther . . . Chaplain Ganther . . . sorry to wake you, but a soldier just received news that his mother passed away. He’s pretty tore up.”
It was 2330 (11:30 p.m.) and I had been asleep for less than an hour after a fairly long Sunday. The day began with leading worship and preaching at a chapel service in the morning for about 30 soldiers and then, more than the usual number of serious conversations with soldiers about things going on back home throughout the afternoon and evening. I had sought out, comforted and prayed with a soldier earlier in the day whose mother was seriously ill with cancer back in Puerto Rico. I expected to be comforting the same young Hispanic soldier again as I pulled on my PT uniform (Physical Training T-shirt and Shorts) and running shoes to go to the soldier located at the headquarters building. After walking through the building, I was directed out the back door where I was surprised to find a different young soldier sitting on the steps with a cigarette dangling between his fingers and crying beside a caring Staff Sergeant. The Staff Sergeant excused himself and I slid over next to the soldier.
After expressing my sorrow for his loss, I gently began to discover the details. In this world of e-mail and cell-phones, news had reached him before it came through the “official” channels. An e-mail had alerted him to call home immediately. And when he reached his step-sister, he learned his mother had passed away suddenly at age 48 – a year younger than I.
I empathized with his pain and his difficulty in understanding. I prayed with him and expressed God’s care and love and strength available for him. But mostly, I just sat in the dark, late at night in Afghanistan, under a bright canopy of stars with a young soldier struggling in his grief.
I’ve been a full-time deployed Army Chaplain in Afghanistan for three months for the 111th Engineer Battalion Texas Army National Guard. I joined the National Guard as a Chaplain nearly three years ago, and I closed my 15 year local church ministry before I was deployed last April with the battalion. Sometimes I’m busier than others. I do many of the same things I did as a full-time Pastor in the States. I go to meetings. I prepare and lead worship (chapel) and I preach. I counsel those struggling with personal issues. I comfort the grieving. I’m “on call” 24/7. And I go “visiting.”
My “rounds” take me walking through company headquarters, training groups and the motor pool in the 100+ degree heat instead of to houses in middle class neighborhoods. Sometimes I talk with a soldier over a meal in the dining facility or in my office. Yet mostly, instead of sitting in an easy chair or at a kitchen table like back home, we chat and drink water as I lean against massive armored vehicles designed to keep soldiers alive if attacked by a road side bomb.
I have a couple of memorial messages outlined for quick personalization and completion “just in case” the bomb defeats the armor sometime in the coming months. I hope I wasted the days I spent preparing them, but history tells me that I probably didn’t. I still hope and pray history doesn’t repeat itself with “my” soldiers though. It’s been “quiet” so far. But who knows what the coming months will bring? A company of soldiers from Louisiana that we trained with in Wisconsin went to a different location than the bulk of the battalion and they have qualified for 9 purple hearts already!
The longer we’re away from home, the more we yearn to be home, of course. Yet, we’re actually just beginning “in country” and most everyone is doing well. I try to “practice what I preach” by staying physically and spiritually fit. Every day but Sunday begins with an hour of exercise at 5:00 a.m. followed by clean up and breakfast. But everyday, I do my spiritual exercises as well of Scripture reading, prayer and journaling for an hour. I’ve already discovered that the days are especially long when I don’t start them out this way. I believe the old adage to be true: “You can’t give what you don’t have.”
I “chat” a couple of times a week with my wife Rachel through instant messaging on Facebook. I keep up with my children by watching for their presence and messaging on Facebook, too. I could pay for Internet service in my tent, but we’ve decided to save the expense of that service. I use the computers and Internet provided free for soldiers in one of the two Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) tents here on the base. We’ve even “Skyped” two or three times. Rachel and I carefully plan our Facebook “dates” though because of the 9.5 hour difference between Afghanistan and Texas.
As I said, we’re only just beginning our deployment. We have several more months to go. We’re generally comfortable and well-fed on this particular base. Yet, it’s still not home and only one mission has encountered the enemy (with no injuries). This is my first deployment, yet I’m sure it gets tougher as time passes. The need for God’s support, encouragement and comfort will become more and more apparent to many more soldiers in the coming months. I’m here to be a conduit of that strength. I’m here to insure the religious liberty of the soldiers. I’m here to provide spiritual counsel for those who seek it. Yes, the Army recognizes that humans are spiritual beings.
In many ways the Army Chaplaincy “is a different world” than the local church, but in many ways it’s the same, too. I feel honored to serve these soldiers that are sacrificing so much for their country. If I can help one soldier come through deployment healthier and stronger and perhaps closer to God, it will be worth it.
Thank you for your love and prayers and support. Your care packages are much appreciated by the soldiers. I’ve written more letters and postcards in the past four months than I have in the past 25 years! I’m thrilled with every letter and piece of mail and the other soldiers are, too. God bless you.
In Service to God and Country,
CH (CPT) Paul Ganther
-- Paul, Texas