Forever Changed #17: How to pray during mortar attacks

As of Monday I took over Patriot Details for the next week. No sooner did I take over responsibility than I was called. After I got back from that Patriot Detail, I was told there will be more coming up soon.

I am almost done here, about two weeks to go, and I will be on my way home. If you were to ask me what I miss the most I would tell you I miss my daughter, my bike, Taco Bell, and being able to go to the bathroom without having to put on socks, shoes, an official uniform, and possibly my battle rattle (helmet and flak vest) then walk 200 feet to a trailer that lets you know the minute you open the door you do not want to stay in there for long. But at least there is always plenty of “wholesome” writing to read right there conveniently placed on the wall by someone named the Poop-House Poet, the Poop-House Picasso (forgive the gross slang please), or some other less than talented person who thinks their thoughts should be known to everyone who comes into the latrine trailer. I digress…

Actually, as of yesterday I have “shortitis,” that pesky thing you fight off as long as possible that let’s you know that you don’t have much further to go so why not just kick back and slack off from daily duties. Then I was called to do a Patriot Detail, and none of these details really mattered as we looked at that flag draped casket of a defender of freedom, a patriot who gave his life, the ultimate sacrifice, for our nation and for the freedom of Iraq. I stood there at the head of his casket, while one who is more worthy than I was being carried to his rest. How humbling. Of course my job there is to console, to lift up a prayer for those who mourn, and to offer a place where we soldiers, airmen, and sailors could give and receive strength to one another. There were about 100 people there in 115-degree heat marching in formation, standing on a hot tarmac at the rear of an airplane, just to honor this one fallen comrade. I was accompanied today by two Army chaplains who had never done a Patriot Detail before. I walked them through the steps, and we all took part, I opened up, one prayed, and the other offered some verses of Scripture. There was an Army staff sergeant in tears to my right, beside her was a brigadier general. Others weeping in that C-130, members of his unit acted as pallbearers. When I was done with my opening, I stared the rest of the time at that flag draped casket and at all those gathered in.

Everything else ceased to exist. There was no war going on, there was no “shortitis,” or concerns for myself then. I found peace at that moment. My thoughts were suddenly wrapped up with this man’s family back home awaiting his remains to arrive. I thought about the 25 wounded we loaded up last night on aircraft headed out for Germany. And I was at peace. I didn’t care that I was deployed, that I missed family and friends back home, that life here is not as comfortable. I was at peace in the presence of one who had already entered his final rest. His flag-draped casket representing all that we stand for, the oath that each of us took to defend this freedom and be willing to risk our lives in order to share it with others.

Then yesterday the other Patriot Detail occurred. Three flags this time, all from one IED attack. The fourth person in the humvee was standing, bruised and battered as he was, to my left. He was being escorted by one of our hospital personnel who would be putting him on an aircraft headed for Germany where he would recuperate and probably return to finish his tour. How he must have felt? You could see it in this eyes. He is a hero, and his unit made sure he knew it. Not because they used that word, sometimes you just don’t have to.

Today, there was the mortar attack. I was talking to my boss in the chapel tent when we heard two loud thuds, that sounded like pallets dropping. My boss and I looked at each other and got quiet, but then continued, figuring it was just pallets. They were not pallets, because in the next few seconds the “whoomp whoomp” sounds began, the sirens rang, and the dreaded voice you do not want to hear, “Incoming, incoming!!!” The incoming voice is an automated system that sounds automatically when the radar determines that incoming fire is coming into your sector. We heard the explosions first, both of us hit the floor, grabbed our gear and radios. Laying flat on the floor, I could hear my boss praying as I thought to myself, “Why can’t I crawl up under this tent, I only have two weeks left.” Funny what goes through your mind. I began to pray and listen to determine if the explosions were hitting anything, or if they were getting closer. This time they seemed to be going off all around us. What’s funny about a mortar attack is that when it stops, you don’t realize it. You just lay there waiting for the next one. Back home during exercises they always set off practice mortars that make a loud bang, and I don’t ever remember any of those ever scaring me like these do, although the ones back home are a lot louder, your mind always reminds you that it’s only an exercise.

Later in the day, I walked into the hospital ER. There were two guys who had just come in fairly recently. And while I do not want to relive the experience here with you, what I can say is that I am really tired of seeing guys in the hospital. I don’t know what happened, but I felt physically sick today for the first time hearing and seeing what was going on as they treated these two fallen warriors. I thought to myself, “I don’t want this anymore, I don’t want to see this anymore.” I’m not sure I am going to go back to the hospital for the rest of my stay. I think I have given my all there, and I am just out. I am spent. We’ll see how I feel in the morning. But four months has been enough. I hope that this email has not been too draining. I have really tried to figure out what to write, and this is the third draft. Seems like this is all I can muster, all that seems to be boiling to the surface. Thanks to all of you who have helped me get through this deployment by encouraging me in response to these mailings. Just know that I am so proud to have served in this wing. I am now part of the Tuskegee Airman heritage. I am so proud to have served for the cause of freedom the Iraqi people are enjoying more and more each day. I am proud that there have been no more attacks in the United States.

I guess I say all of this because I want to say that service before self is not a jingle. Service before self is one of our core values in the Air Force. It is serious business for those who choose to join the armed forces. We are constantly reminded that this kind of Air Force is going to be the norm for possibly the rest of our careers. Of course right now we are the only Air Force wing under fire. Who knows how many more there might be to come? Of course, this base is only getting bigger as we pull the FOBs in and consolidate. What I do know is that as long as these bases exist, the Air Force will be doing it’s business and selfless men and women will be serving wherever they are called. I will most likely return here one day, and I will be ready. We all will. If not us… who?

ABPnews will publish one entry a week from the journal then-Capt. Charles Seligman kept while deployed to Iraq as an Air Force chaplain in 2005. Now a major, Seligman currently serves as the deputy wing chaplain for the 59th Medical Wing at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. He is endorsed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

You can read more of his story published September 11, 2013. You can also read older journal entries from Maj. Seligman. Watch a video documentary of the ER where Maj. Seligman served – he’s even in the video for a few seconds!

Chuck Seligman

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