Life and death: A chaplain's perspective

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Daryl Knee
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The pain consumes your mind.

There is nothing but agony, a throbbing cadence brought about by the tattered flesh of what used to be your body.

You hear the ambulance siren, although it sounds distant -- as if your ears are plugged with cotton. Someone's asking a question, and rough hands lift you onto a litter. The pain of being lifted shatters your consciousness. Darkness engulfs your thoughts.

You awake upon a table inside what appears to be a tent. It's cold, and the smell of disinfectant lingers in the air. The pain is still there, but it's ebbing. In fact, you can't feel your limbs at all.

A warm hand plants itself upon your brow. Gentle words are spoken into your ear. You ease into comfort, close your eyes and know no more.

The scenarios at Shared Resilience 2012, an international medical exercise, are testing the one U.S. chaplain team here June 5.

Simulated earthquakes, fires and vehicle accidents are some of the driving forces of the mass casualties processed and treated by the joint medical teams inside the mobile hospital tents. Some of the mock victims survive the exercise, and some do not. Chaplain (Capt.) Matt Glaros, 48th Fighter Wing, and assistant are with the patients all the way to the end.

"It's a sacred time when a soul goes to meet God," he said. "We're here to be the compassionate, non-judgmental presence to make a person right with God, so they can die in peace."

The medical professionals from RAF Lakenheath are good at what they do with taking care of the body, he continued. But the chaplains take care of the mind, specifically in regards to spirituality. Spiritual first aid is as important, if not more, as medical care.

"Death is a natural part of God's journey for us," said Glaros. "Some medical professionals count mission success in terms of if a patient does or doesn't die. However, it's still a success if a person does die but is surrounded by people who care for and love him."

Glaros said that some chaplains integrate with medical teams during contingencies, emergency situations or humanitarian efforts to provide that human link. Patients who are inconsolable even with medicine can sometimes connect and be calmed with a prayer or kind words.

The medical professionals and chaplains form an interdisciplinary team that works together to provide the best care possible to a patient. Spiritual triage, similar to medical prioritization, allows the chaplain to take care of the most urgent needs first. The acronym LIDO explains the guide: life-threatening, intense psychological or emotional pain, duress or day-to-day stress, and all other needs.

The chaplain said he uses the guide to determine where his efforts are needed most.

Those who have significant life changes -- or who are on the cusp of death, as in this exercise -- can sometimes ask questions about the point of life, human nature and the significance of it all, he said. Chaplains can answer some of those questions and set the person at ease.

"People need something to lean on," said Tech. Sgt. Andrew Morgan, 48th FW chaplain assistant. "Especially in humanitarian missions or during long deployments in those austere locations."

They need to process suffering in a redemptive way, Glaros said. It may not be easy to suffer or grieve, but spirituality gives a person a rock-solid foundation, an undying hope or a light at the end of the tunnel.

Faith acts as a resiliency tool even in a crisis situation, he continued. Patients, and the caregivers themselves, can believe in a higher force to achieve a peace beyond themselves.

"After every dark night, there is the dawn of a new day," he said. "In the darkest of night, how do you sit? Do you turn to prayer? Do you handle life's difficulties creatively, or do you let it bring you down?"

Glaros and Morgan will continue to integrate with the medical professions and build Airman resiliency as the exercise continues until June 8.

The chaplain removes his hand from the cooling forehead of the now deceased. He brushes his hand across the dead's face, closing the eyes. He bids the soul a safe journey and continues to the next patient awaiting last rites.