We're going to the field

Life in the field is very different than back at garrison. Garrison is (fairly) predictable. Wake up at 0500. PT formation at 0550. Motor pool Monday, meetings on Tuesday, maybe a Soldier lunch on Wednesday, sergeants-time training on Thursday, reports due on Friday. I try to be home by 1900, it doesn't always happen. Of course there's a lot more details, but point being, it's fairly predictable. It's also fast-paced. I often feel like I am rushing around every day trying to keep up with requirements, Soldier needs, events, and meetings. However, things are quite different in the field.

For me, time slows down in a field environment. No one is going home at the end of the shift, so no need to rush. Chaplaincy includes religious support in an operational environment. That means we must know where our troops are located, what they are doing, and circulate in order to provide for their needs. At my first duty station in WA, my chaplain assistant and I once spent over 40 hours in our HMMWV at the Yakima Training Center in a three-week period. Sometimes we found our people, sometimes we got ourselves lost. Lessons learned. On another occasion I jumped in a large vehicle (called an LMTV) with a First Sergeant to deliver chow. It was cold, dark, and so foggy we couldn't see much at all. But Top knew where he was going and hot chow is always a welcoming sight to Soldiers. No time to keep track of. In fact, nothing but time.

The field can also bring additional challenges when moving from place to place. On numerous occasions we drove in blackout conditions. For training purposes, no lights at all, sometimes for many hours at a time. How is this done? We attach a device called NODS to the front of our helmet (AKA: ACH) and are able to see a small circle of green infrared through it. Through it the driver can just make out the infrared strips on the back of the truck in front of them. (Side note: the stars look AMAZING with this device.) This is what you might call night-vision. It works, but it takes some getting used to and gets heavy after a while. Unit Ministry Teams must be able to adapt to the environment and use this type of equipment along with everyone else.

The field is also an opportunity to engage with more Soldiers and I find it easier to get a pulse on what is happening across the formation, both good and not so good. Since no one has anywhere else to go, my counseling conversations usually increase. People open up more about their struggles, which are often more than difficult. I find that I appreciate people so much more when I know the hardship they are wrestling with.

If I'm fortunate, there's a chapel or a building we can use as a chapel. This affords some level of privacy for counseling and a dedicated place for worship services and Bible studies. Whenever possible, I also sleep in the chapel. As an introvert, I need any time alone I can find to recharge my batteries. Since there is very little privacy in the field, the chapel can be that place.

One final story. On a month-long mission at Ft. Hunter-Ligget, CA I had been up all day, all night, and all day. I finally got back to my area and was trying to figure out how to get some sleep in the back of a medical Stryker. It was full of equipment and just about the time I found a less than decent sleeping position I heard a simulated mortar round and then an observer-controller opened the hatch and gave me a casualty card. Well, looks like I'm not going to sleep anytime soon. So I was up all night again moving from the initial treatment area to higher levels of medical care. After a few hours I finally landed in a casualty collection area where many Soldiers, also simulated casualties, waited to get picked up by their units and returned to the fight. I laid down on the freezing ground, right next to someone snoring very loudly. I am a super-light sleeper in any circumstance, so I had almost no sleep for two days or nights. Even when it started to get light it was still freezing cold. I had bundled up quite a bit, but a Soldier near me couldn't say the same. He had nothing but his uniform and a sorry little thin emergency "blanket" which wasn't much more than tin foil. He still shivered in the early morning light. I was freezing as well, and due to my level of exhaustion I struggled with even caring about his condition. I was bundled in layers and had more than my share of cold weather gear. In my mind I knew what I should do. But my body and emotions did not exactly agree with my mind. After walking around for around half an hour or so, I finally gave in to what I knew to be right and gave him my wool blanket. He was quite appreciative, but I was embarrassed that this chaplain had failed to immediately help a young Soldier in need. After I recovered from that long, cold, and exhausting experience, I determined I would do better given another opportunity. It didn't take long and in just another day or two I got my wish. It was another cold night and a large group of my infantry Soldiers were going to sleep on the ground. I saw many who could use another layer, so I farmed out every piece of cold weather gear I had packed in my duffel bags to about a dozen Soldiers. I didn't feel like I had done anything special, just the bare minimum of what Soldiers should expect from their chaplain. I learned that the field environment can wear down your mind and body. So I have to be on guard for that. It also helps me remember why I do what I do...and it's not about me.

1SG Lopez and me serving up some chow in Korea

Rodriguez Live Fire Complex in northern South Korea. Dressed in chemical training gear.

With Soldiers training in Thailand. My first overseas experience.

While out visiting the troops, I found another Chaplain Wright!

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