October 18, 2018

Death Letter, part one

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Sometime, somewhere in Iraq, I died.

. . . For my brothers and sisters I will record the events that led to my death and the death of the God who was on our side in love and war.

• David W. Peters

• • •

As a hospice chaplain, my work is done mostly in quiet settings. I participate in the hushed conversations of family members who don’t want their dying loved to hear the word, “funeral,” and in hushed corridors of hospitals where a spouse trembles and asks timidly, “How long does he have?” I work among the still, the subdued, the tearful. Occasionally I am called upon to be a calming presence for those who wail and throw things, but my work does not usually take place amidst shock and awe. Most of my patients slip away. Most of my families are decorous in their grief.

Today I will introduce you to another chaplain, who served in Iraq. His name is David W. Peters, and he has written a memoir of his experiences called, Death Letter: God, Sex, and War. Peters served as a battalion chaplain in Fort Hood, Texas from 2004-2007, which included a deployment to Iraq in 2006. After Iraq he also served as a chaplain clinician in the amputee, orthopedic, neuroscience, and psychological wards at Walter Reed Hospital.

His setting in Iraq could not have been more different than mine.

I am at an Army Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Baghdad, Iraq. I have been here for three weeks, and I am lying on the floor listening to the rockets roar over my little shed . The little wooden building shakes like a cheap apartment beside the train tracks. The floor of the office is dusty but I do not notice the dust until the moment that I realize I am trying to burrow deeper into the floor. If a rocket hits near the building, I want to be low enough to avoid the shrapnel. I know that if I am standing when the rocket hits nearby, a jagged piece of steel could sail over the concrete barrier outside my office and rip through my neck. One more rocket roars over the office and then all I hear is the whirring of the fan and the beating of my own heart. I never knew war could be so full of contradictions— so full of things that just do not belong together. I can feel my heartbeat against the thin wood of the office floor.

I’ve heard rockets before, but this time they whizz right over the little shed. War is loud. The explosions and bombs are so loud that I feel the sound waves hitting me in the chest and my ears ring for hours. I always wear earplugs with the hope that I will have some hearing left when I rotate back to Texas. I sometimes wished there were other ways to dampen the impact of war on my senses.

I am going to read this chaplain’s story slowly. Though I’ve never had to wear earplugs or dive face first into a dusty floor to avoid shrapnel, I feel a bond with this brother who has. We both deal with death. We both struggle with faith. We are both called to love our neighbors as life slips away and people seek hope and comfort.

Becoming a chaplain was a wake-up call for David Peters. When he entered the military, he was 19 years old, a virgin, and had never had a beer. He was an assistant youth pastor in a suburban church in Texas. He had been raised in fundamentalist Christian circles and graduated from Christian high school. The most serious warning he received from a fellow believer was to beware that others were going to try and show him pictures of naked girls if he joined the army.

By the time he wrote this book, however, Peters said, “Sometime, somewhere in Iraq I died.” And so did the God he was raised to believe.

I am anxious to read how his journey through the wilderness proceeds.

I don’t know much about war. But I know about death and being with those who are touched by it. I also know that becoming a chaplain saved me even as the life I thought I was called to live ended. And I can relate in my heart of hearts when David Peters writes:

I love the brave men and women who call me “Chaplain.” They know my voice in the dark. They know I am with them. They know to get me when someone dies.

Comments

  1. I ordered this for my Kindle about 90 seconds after reading this post. As a vet, a former hospice nurse, a Christian, and the daughter of a soldier, the wife of a former soldier, and the mother of a currently serving soldier, I must read this.

    ps……for other I-Monks, the reviews on this from others are also glowing…..with many warnings that not only will you cringe and cry and laugh throughout the book, but that you may have difficulty putting the book down once you begin. Consider yourself warned.

  2. The most serious warning he received from a fellow believer was to beware that others were going to try and show him pictures of naked girls if he joined the army.

    I remember those days. The real world has a way of making that seem…quaint. Seeing loved ones die…seeing institutionalized racism…seeing naked hatred and substance abuse and so much worse…

    It’s a small world. And then…it isn’t.

    —-

    Short story about war.

    During the early 90s, U2 would often do a live satellite link to Sarajevo while they were in the midst of war. Must have been a chilling splash of cold water during a concert to all of a sudden see live video footage of war and devastation in between the songs. The people of Sarajevo would play rock music incredibly loud, especially at night, to avoid the hearing the falling bombs.

    Few years later, after the war ended, U2 brought their entire production to Sarajevo to perform a concert for them in the bombed out stadium which had previously been used for a morgue during the war. They offered to do a stripped down version of the show, but the Sarajevo people wanted the full production.

    I’ve got a copy of the show on cd. It was an incredibly moving performance, even with Bono’s voice basically gone.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U2_concert_in_Sarajevo

  3. I once desired to be an Army Chaplain or Chaplain’s Assistant. (I spent 10 years Active Army and a few years in the Reserve and National Guard.) With that background I look forward to reading David’s book.

  4. Christiane says:

    my niece Linds is a Navy nurse, but has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan with medical units as a surgical nurse; but her last year in Afghanistan was the only time she let the family know just how her job could impact her spirit in the light of the tragic loss of young soldier’s lives . . . she wrote: ‘. . . there are no words . . . ‘

    we knew she was a thoroughly-trained professional and had seen a lot of service in combat areas, but maybe that last year, the cumulative effect of what she witnessed did show up when she wrote home . . . very strong woman, and very compassionate . . . our Linds is back in the states now and married, but I am proud that our military had such people there for our soldiers in their moments of crisis as our Linds . . . their moms would have wanted that for them, I am certain

  5. One of my older brothers served in Vietnam in the mid-sixties (not as a chaplain, but enlisted in the Army). Before going to Vietnam, he had been a devout Roman Catholic as a teenager. During his service, he lost his Christian faith; he only manged to hold onto a kind of thin, residual deism. He’s said more than once that he has a few frank questions he’d like to ask God face to face if he ever gets the chance. I suppose a lot of soldiers do.

    • When I was researching for a book on the Christmas truce, I ran across the letters of a WWI Marine who had been raised by missionary parents and was at a Wesleyan college when he joined–search Lt. West WWI for the letters on a WWI website. He was an amazing young man. The last letters are heart breaking. I talked to his daughter and she told me that he never returned to church after the war.

  6. david brainerd says:

    If only he had been a real Christian he would have known that war is wrong, and he’d still have his faith today. Too bad he was raised in one of them warmongering Calvinist churches. So sad.

  7. As for “war mongering Calvinsts’ Charles Spurgeon, Calvinist to the core, was just the opposite (though you would never know it by looking at his American fans). https://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

  8. FOR THOSE CURRENTLY READING THIS BOOK……do not be shocked or put off by the language (soldiers just talk this way) or the choices the author makes during the middle of this story. Even this old soldier and nurse was set back on my heels a bit, but if you keep going until the end, it makes more sense. Don’t want to be more specific and add any spoilers…..