It was a foggy morning when an aircraft overshot the runway and crashed “outside the wire,” the safety perimeter of the military base in Iraq. The unit of Lt. Colonel William Hensen, a Christian Reformed chaplain, responded to the scene of mass casualties.
The combat medics worked in the midst of still-smoldering bodies, jet fuel fumes, and debris spread over a few acres of land.
Loneliness, fear, hopelessness, and despair are issues faced by all pastors in their congregations. Add mass-casualty explosions, post-traumatic stress disorder, separation from family and friends, and an unfamiliar culture, and a picture begins to emerge of what chaplains on the front lines in Iraq face as they minister to their congregations.
“Your brain records every detail, the sights, sounds, and smells, even when you’re not aware that it is happening,” said Hensen. “Then the critical-incident stress ‘leaks out’ when flashbacks and associations are made to that event in the days that follow when faced with seemingly unrelated situations.”
The Christian Reformed Church has four chaplains currently serving in Iraq: Hensen, Lt. Commander Douglas Vrieland, Lt. Colonel Gordon Terpstra, and Captain Insoon Hoagland.
“The first and primary importance of chaplains in a war zone is to be available in case of death, to comfort, pay respects, and perform funerals. That is absolutely critical,” said Vrieland.
For Hoagland, the past four months have been especially difficult. Her brigade has lost 23 soldiers. “Chaplains,” she said “serve the needs of soldiers to honor, to grieve, to strengthen, and to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Vrieland said chaplains also help counter the tendency to dehumanize the enemy. “Chaplains remind people that God loves Arabs too,” he said. Vrieland recalls sitting with a dying Iraqi, despite religious and cultural differences.
But the chaplains don’t attend just to the needs of the dead and dying. Whether conducting worship services or providing counseling, chaplains know the importance of “a ministry of presence”—simply being there for troops, officers, and others they meet.
“Last Sunday we had a response to an altar call, and we’re now planning on an adult profession of faith and adult baptism in the near future for a soldier who committed his life to Christ,” said Hensen. “Praise the Lord.”