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Welcome, friends! 

Saying thank you to a veteran

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Jeffrey Neuberger
From time to time, I receive brief recollections of service from military chaplains I've come to know. I'm always delighted to hear their thoughts and eager to share them with others. Here, I'd like you to listen in while retired Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Jeffrey Neuberger explains the importance of ceremonies of remembrance.  Read More 
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A bit of Romania in Kandahar

Recently, I came across this lovely letter written by Fr David Alexander, one of the chaplains in Miracles and Moments of Grace: Inspiring Stories from Chaplains. Fr Alexander writes of conducting services in a church that was constructed for the Kandahar air base in Afghanistan. The beautiful wooden church is patterned after an Orthodox church in Romania and was designed by a Romanian U.S. Army engineer. It is said to be the only Christian church building in Afghanistan. Chaplain Alexander reports that it is quite a contrast to the Army tents he usually conducts services in!

I have heard from other chaplains who have seen and appreciated the chapel. Chaplain Shawn Found, who is currently deployed to Kandahar with the NJ National Guard (and who lives three doors down from me!), recently had a memorable experience at the chapel. Chaplain Found told his story to me:

"We had a soldier who lost his grandfather a few weeks ago. He wanted to light a candle in remembrance of him, but the other chapels on the base forbid open flame. So I told him, "Let's go to the Romanian Chapel. I'll bet they allow open flame."

Sure enough, they did.

The soldier took a few moments with his candle in front of a beautiful Icon, alone in the sublime Romanian Chapel. This is one of those moments I'll remember from this tour for years to come." Read More 
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They laughed through their tears

In writing Miracles and Moments of Grace, there was no getting around the fact that many of my chaplains' experiences were of tragedy and sorrow.

Retired Army Chaplain Dick Martin, for example, tells a story of when he was stationed in rural Iowa after serving in Vietnam and was chosen by chance to perform the funeral of a fallen soldier. After arriving at the small Methodist church where he was to conduct the ceremony, he came to realize with a start that he had known the soldier well, a young man who was firm in his faith and proudly serving his country.

Chaplain Martin's was a poignant story about the comfort he could bring to the distraught parents of this young boy. He assured them of their son's strong faith and joyful spirit. He told them stories of their time together. He threw out the scripted funeral he thought he'd be conducting, and in its place, spoke from the heart about the young man he had been privileged to know.

The stories I heard while writing the book tore at my heart. I could have filled a book twice as hefty with stories such as these. But once in a while, I would hear a story that leavened the sorrow with humor for just a moment. These moments are crucial to the morale of deployed soldiers.

In fact, Chaplain Martin recently told an interviewer for an online oral history project, They Remember War, by Robert B. Gentry that in the military "everything is funny."

Chaplain Martin offers this anecdote as his most light-hearted moment of his time in Vietnam:

In Vietnam I would have my services usually after the evening meal, just as it's getting dark. Frequently at night we would get mortared by the Viet Cong. Shells would come flying in and hunker us down in holes our guys had dug. I'd usually have a service not too far from one of those holes.

I went through a whole series of evenings when, just as we would get going on the service, here would come the mortars, so we would jump down in the holes.

After several of those episodes, one guy said, "Chaplain, I think we ought to change the benediction. It ought to be 'In the name of the Father and the Son and in the hole we go!'"  Read More 
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Save the whales

Stan Giles, my chaplain who is in Antarctica right now, sent one last missive from McMurdo Station. It's no surprise that in this incredible place, Chaplain Giles is waxing poetic about creation:

"While this continent is one vast white wilderness (1.5 times the size of the 48 states), punctuated only by a scenic range of mountains separating West from East Antarctica, along the coast, where I’m at, there is some variety including the ocean which supports a few species of seabirds and penguins, a seal population (but no polar bears) and, now that the ice has opened up somewhat, some whales. Orca whales (the kind at SeaWorld) do range here, but the most common are minke whales – a smaller, thinner breed that seems to lope along the ice edge like a foraging land animal in absolutely no hurry.

A few days ago I traveled a short distance to a nearby research station operated by New Zealand. In that location the ice had opened up closer to shore and about a hundred yards out there was a hole about the size of a SeaWorld tank. In that natural enclosure were two whales, swimming around, enjoying the bright summer sun and the warm temperatures (it was about 25 F).

I took a few pictures but not wanting to spend that moment staring through a viewfinder, I slipped my camera in my pocket and just watched for the better part of ten minutes. Had I the eyes of Superman there likely would have been hundreds more, but these two were in my view, oblivious that I was staring at them as they glided along diving for a minute or so before returning to the surface, expelling a cold mist through their blowhole. It was like being at SeaWorld – only colder!

Then I had one of those rare, National Geographic moments as one of the whales stood up, so to speak, on a fin and looked over the ice for what seemed like a long time, but was certainly only second or so. I’m told they occasionally do that looking for a sleeping seal or a misguided penguin that they might snatch for a snack.

And in that moment I came face to face with what has to be one of the most gorgeous of God’s creatures. I was reminded of a song by Matt Redman, taken from Psalm 150, that has the refrain 'let everything that has breath praise the Lord' and I have that moment frozen in my brain.

That moment with those two whales is a gift that I’ll always be able to pull out of my experience bag and mentally replay and treasure.

It’s not rare to find some people who mock those committed to preserving the environment, including those who would 'save the whales,' relegating them to the extremist range. No doubt there are some like that, but my belief has always been that we are stewards of God’s creation as it speaks and even shouts of His glory. I call it the theology of ecology. Plus, does anyone really want to live in a dirty world?

Antarctica is unique because this is one part of the creation that cannot sustain life and therefore has remained quite literally pure. There is no other place where the entire ecosystem - air, water and land - has been almost entirely untouched by human hands.

As a result, here you are breathing the purest air on earth, with no pollution and no humidity – part of why the mountain range in front of me stands out with such clarity. While 43 miles in the distant, it seems so close. Divers tell me that the ocean here is the cleanest in the world with 400–500 feet of visibility.

Thus it is a wonderful laboratory for research. The Antarctica Treaty calls for the removal of all human debris and so quite literally all human trash and waste (and I mean all!) is packaged up and shipped back for disposal in the U.S. They are serious they are about preserving the environment.

While here I was able to attend some science lectures and engage with a number of scientists whose research brings them here. My background in such is minimal and so I could only understand them around the edges, but I am more and more convinced of a Creator God whose handiwork is intricately woven together on both a large and a small scale. Those two whales that I watched, in some way, speak of the Creator God – of which mankind stands as the pinnacle of His creation."

You can certainly see why Chaplain Giles had a story to share for Miracles and Moments of Grace . His story, A Single Death, is a moving tribute to his wife's brother, a Marine who died in Vietnam.  Read More 
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A homily from waaaay down under

One of the chaplains in Miracles and Moments of Grace is posted to Antarctica at the famous McMurdo Station for two months. Chaplain Stan Giles, a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, is sending dispatches (otherwise known as e-mails!) home from the icy south. I thought you might like his latest missive, a homily, really.

"We all need to feel appreciated! I was reminded of that by a conversation I had a few days ago.

Each year fuel is brought in here on a vessel (with a huge ‘No Smoking’ sign!). There is a narrow window of time in which the sea ice melts sufficiently for an icebreaker to chop a path for two ships to safely traverse – a fuel ship and a later cargo ship. While the cost of doing business here is enormous, it would be even greater if everything had to be flown in versus a shipped in.

Anyway, the fuel ship docked and the chief engineer attended worship and invited a few of us for a tour. It was a fascinating tour and afterward the captain invited us to join them for dinner. This was a U.S. flagged ship (apparently a requirement when moving government goods) and it had a traditional captain’s dining room. The food was excellent.

The next evening I came to the chapel and there was a man sitting quietly in reflection. I didn’t bother him, but I wanted him to know I was around. A few minutes later he introduced himself as one of the two cooks on the ship. After he mentioned it, I recognized him. He lives full time in Florida, travels in 60-day increments and rarely gets to attend church. Surprised to see a chapel here at the bottom of the world, he took advantage of it for some private reflection.

I visited with him for a bit about his family, his faith, etc. and then he began telling me about his job and how he came to travel the Seven Seas cooking. He took great pride in his work – but it was work that demanded long hours and obviously long durations away from home. When we were finished I asked him a question – 'Do you feel appreciated by the Captain and crew?'

He admitted that it was a question he’d never been asked, and he paused to think of the right response. I was expecting a ‘no’ answer and was formulating a response when he picked his head up out of his worn hands, smiled and said, 'Actually I do. Almost everyone always says thank you!'

I was reminded of the Apostle Paul’s writings, which tell of the importance of everyone in the church and, by extension, of any large complex organization. In watching this very complex organization work together to provide scientists a platform for research, I see daily the absolute importance of everyone – drivers, cooks, dishwashers, maintenance people, heavy equipment operators, cargo handlers, finance people, janitors – everyone here contributes in some way and absent any one of those groups, among others, things would soon grind to a halt and there would be no research.

I was reminded of just how powerful those two words are: "Thank you." Or as the Kiwis would say, 'Thanks, mate!'" Read More 
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Reverse Trick-or-Treat

My faithful friend and fellow writer (and a darn good photographer, to boot!) Chaplain Jeffrey Neuberger shared a Veterans Day reflection with me this week. It is my pleasure to share it with you.

"My grandson just entered the first grade, but I think he’s on to something. This past Halloween was his first opportunity to welcome 'trick-or-treaters' at his door. He had recently moved from an apartment to a new home, and the concept of Halloween was ever on his mind, with costumes at school and the like. The first group of kids arrived and stood at the door with bags outstretched.

In the background, my daughter watched as Andrew greeted them. The trick-or-treaters held their bags wide open as he paused, and then slowly reached into each bag to retrieve a piece of candy. It was a case of reverse trick-or-treating! I can imagine the bewilderment of those kids. My daughter handled it perfectly, and after a brief explanation Andrew understood the concept and the rest of the night proceeded 'in keeping with the tradition.'

As I write this article, it’s Monday morning, the day after we honored veterans in both worship services at our church. It was really wonderful to have each of the veterans stand to be recognized. I was amazed at how many veterans were in the congregation. We also recognized three of our acolytes, each who has a parent currently deployed. In my sermon, I noted the important statistic that a mere 1 percent of our citizenry are in uniform to protect and defend the other 99 percent.

You may be asking yourself at this point what a 'reverse trick-or-treat' has to do with our veterans. It occurred to me that as citizens we are like my grandson Andrew, unknowingly taking from a bag which we should be putting into. The difference, however, is that our veterans, the men and women who serve in our military, stand before us freely offering the gift of their service for us to enjoy and appreciate as a nation. With their permission, we can reach into their 'bag' whenever we want. On this Veterans Day, give thanks for them."  Read More 
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"Am I heroic?"

A chaplain friend of mine who has contributed several posts to this blog, retired Air Force Chaplain Lt. Col. Jeffrey Neuberger, sent me this reflection from his deployment to Balad in 2006. This is a good day to remember those who have come forward to serve our country in times of war and in times of peace.

"Among the many opportunities to boost morale here, there is a large movie theater -- it’s very near an outdoor stadium complex. This was not only an Iraqi Air Force base but the Olympic training center for Iraq. The Morale, Recreation and Welfare program offers full-length films. Several of us from my office drove early to attend the first showing of 'Flags of Our Fathers' about the men who were involved in the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima.

As we approached the movie theater, it appeared parking would be a problem -- the parking lot was full of Humvees, ASVs, trucks and other vehicles. We stood in line with dozens of soldiers and Marines. Every soldier is required to shoulder his or her weapon at all times, even in PT gear. Marines shoulder weapons no matter where they are. So there we were, filing into a large movie theater with 95 percent of attendees carrying guns. Though we were early, almost every seat was filled. Our small group of five had to disperse and look for single seats. The theater was filled to its capacity of more than 300 people.

When you visit a movie theater stateside you expect to see movie trivia, advertisements, etc. Instead, we were treated to a short film on ‘attack responses’ at our base; overhead, we could hear fighters and helicopters flying.

After the standard previews we all stood for the national anthem, which is observed in every military movie theater. The room was full of so many young people, mostly young men but some young women.

I wondered how high the testosterone meter would climb during the battle scenes of this World War II movie. To my surprise, there was near silence. Three times there was laughter, a natural and appropriate response to humor in the movie, but for the most part it was eerily silent.

One of my colleagues, also a chaplain, was sitting in the midst of Marines who were almost reverent in their response to the film. We saw the iconic Marine Memorial (the Iwo Jima statue and raising of the flag) many times during the film, which I’m certain had an effect on them -- as it did on us.

As the final credits of the movie rolled by, there was the normal shuffling of a crowd leaving a theater, but absolutely no talking. I thought the place would reach a crescendo in a matter of seconds. Not so; silence reigned.

An important line spoken at the end of the movie, and heard in our context, was almost spiritual: They fight for their country; they die for each other.

I’ve heard so many stories that illustrate this truth. They watch each others' back. They are 'wingmen' for each other. I’ve heard the dramatic stories and I’ve seen small groups of soldiers visit a friend at the hospital. When life is on the line and you depend on someone else to protect your life, it changes one’s perspective. No doubt about it.

The movie closes with a reflection from one of the characters who considers what it means to be a 'hero.' His thought is this: 'Heroes don’t create themselves, others create them. We need them, at least the idea of those who perform noble acts.'

I couldn’t help think that this same thought was going through many young minds now, in the silence of the moment: 'Am I heroic?' I would like to answer that question: Yes, young Marine, Soldier, Sailor, Airman, you are heroic. You are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those military men and women who, 65 years ago, stepped forward in the name of freedom and liberty, and you’ve done the same."
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Thoughts on Memorial Day

One of the chaplains in Miracles and Moments of Grace,, retired Air Force Reserve Chaplain (Lt. Col.) John Groth, put his thoughts about Memorial Day into words. I'll reprint his facebook post here. Thank you, Chaplain Groth, for this tribute to our servicemen and women.

"It’s a pre-9/11/2001 night. The colonel's blackberry vibrates, he quickly looks at the screen, sees that it’s the call we've been waiting for and hits the answer button. A few quick words, some clarification, a sincere thanks to the young captain on the other end and he hangs up. He looks at the Navy Admiral and Army General and nods, he looks at me and says, 'Chaplain, we're on . . . again.' I hear a tiredness in those four words, the same tiredness I feel in my body and soul. I suppose the fact that it's 0230 could contribute to the feeling, but it's far more than that.

I head to the room next door where the honor guard is waiting. The USO has been feeding them and they've deeply appreciated that. I don't know of any time of the day or night that young troops aren't hungry. I walk up to their commander and tell him it's time. The sergeant has already figured it out and before the officer can say anything, the word goes out, the room becomes quiet, they begin to slip their white gloves on, adjust their hats, and then check each other's uniform for perfection.

They assemble outside in tight formation and with heels clicking move off with a quiet cadence. Behind them we wait. The Flag officers concur that the Colonel should give the orders. They’re new at this and tonight, who's in command is a non-issue. Giving dignity, honor and respect is the only issue. I move to the far left, the position for the lowest ranking officer. But the others don't want the chaplain's job, for the only words outside the simple marching and saluting commands will be the chaplain's prayer.

We march out to the big C-5, the advance party has all the transfer cases in exact position. I see 10 flags, 10 transfer cases. Calling them that in my mind doesn't protect me, I can't shut out that these are the remains of nine men and one woman. They have names, they have spouses, they have parents, they have children, they have friends and it seems out of place but for a moment, I think, they have pets.

My Yellow Labrador's face crosses my mind and evokes a sad smile from me, I'm glad it's dark, no one would understand, and then I'm back to what's before me.

What do I pray? These men and this woman did not die in act of war. They died in a training accident. Some define Memorial Day as a day to remember those who were killed in war. I no longer make that distinction and instead remember those who died because of war. Is it a subtle difference? Does it take away from those who died in battle? I just know that these 10 were doing their mission in peacetime, maybe preparing for a war that would have to be fought and something went horribly wrong.

I think about the grave of the Unknown Soldier and the dignity, honor and respect that the honor guard brings to them. I think about the vigil that is kept for one we don't even know.

I pray that we will not forget these ten. I pray for their families and friends. They no longer think about the grammar of 'in' or 'because of.' An officer and a chaplain showed up at their family's door as if it were war. Their families are just entering the denial stage of grieving.

Your names are unknown to me and I'm sorry about that. I didn't learn them on purpose. I had to protect myself as best I could and not knowing you helped, a little, maybe. You're my unknown soldiers and sailors. But ten years later, God is answering my prayer. In my prayers today and in the ramblings of old chaplain, I'm remembering you and your sacrifice and praying for your families. It's not mine to bequeath to you, but I do it anyway – Memorial Day is for you too. Thank you for serving, for joining the always swelling ranks of the 'last full measure' to make this nation what it is. God bless you and this great nation."  Read More 
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Wedding on a golf course

Chaplain (Capt.) Jack Stanley, foreground
Many of the chaplains I interviewed for Miracles and Moments of Grace had so many good stories to tell that it was hard to choose just one.

That was the case with Air Force Chaplain (Capt.) Jack Stanley, who kept a journal during his deployment and linked me to hundreds of pages! Still, this week I found yet another story that I wish he'd told me for the book.

It's a story of a bride and a groom and an impromptu wedding on a golf course!

Chaplain Stanley was participating in a golf tournament at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, Calif., to celebrate the retirement of a friend from the military.

Enter Blair and Jessica, a couple who were slated to be married in June -- church, white dress, flowers and all. But Blair's deployment orders to Iraq came, and suddenly the wedding was off and time was short.

The distressed couple tried to arrange a marriage at the local justice of the peace, but the lines there were too long. Blair had just a few hours left in the country.

So, they tracked down the chaplain.

Chaplain Stanley maintains strict rules for marrying couples but he believed Blair and Jessica had all the elements of a successful marriage covered. "I could see they were absolutely sincere in their hearts," Chaplain Stanley says.

"I said, 'If you can get here, I will marry you. I don't know what hole I will be on, but you can jump on a cart and come find me,'" Chaplain Stanley remembers.

Chaplain Stanley alerted the staff at the golf course, and the wedding plans were announced over a loudspeaker. Players gathered around the putting green. A wedding photographer -- a person with a disposable camera -- stepped up.

So, there on the golf course, Jessica in jeans and a sleeveless top, Blair in his desert camouflage uniform, Chaplain Stanley in golf shirt and slacks, a wedding ceremony began.

Chaplain Stanley asked his friend who was retiring, the vice commander of a military hospital, to start the ceremony.

"Well folks," his friend said, "We've got a couple here whose wedding has just been taken from them. It is only right that we give them something to remember."

"I saw tears well up in the couple's eyes, and at that moment I felt at peace," Chaplain Stanley recalls. "Not knowing when they would be reunited, Jessica and Blair needed the bond of marriage."

The day was a true blessing for everyone involved, Chaplain Stanley says. For him, it was one of many events that have confirmed his calling as a chaplain.  Read More 
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A chaplain's rousing communion service

Retired Air Force Chaplain Lt. Col. Jeffrey Neuberger sent me this hilarious short story. I think it's worthy of Readers Digest!

"While in Iraq at the combat hospital, I would offer a noon communion service in the chapel. The patient affairs office would announce the service on the public address system.

One day, I called and asked them to say that 'the liturgical communion service will be held in the hospital chapel at 12 p.m. today.' I waited for a few moments, and then the young woman made this announcement:

'The lethargical communion service will be offered in the hospital chapel at 12 p.m. today.'

Everyone must have been 'lethargical' that day, as no one showed up for the service!" Read More 
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