|Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Sholtes (left) with colleague in Kandahar|
by Rev. Andrew Peter Sholtes Lieutenant Commander, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN (08/17/2011)-The words from Isaiah echoed in my ears as I came to Southern Afghanistan, a parched and war-torn land, to serve the wounded and the dying, to honor those who perished, “ADONAI will always guide you; he will satisfy your needs in the desert, he will renew the strength in your limbs; so that you will be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails.” -- Isaiah 58:11 (CJB)
War… combat… combat support… combat medicine -- these are phrases we use in the military. They are loaded with meaning and emotions for us. They imply that we are deployed to places where we are denied basic commodities and safety, twelve time zones away from the people we love.
Death has become a normal part of every day. Body bags are consumable items, just like gauze and band aids in your city’s Emergency Department.
There is nothing more spiritual and intimate than death, dying -- war in general. They affect everyone profoundly.
The days melt into each other: soldiers clearing roads of explosives hidden in rubble or carcasses -- truck drivers using the same roads day after day to bring in essential supplies -- engineers building schools and mosques in the tiny villages -- nurses who bring their supplies to the local clinics to treat the neglected girls and mothers -- trauma teams getting the mangled bodies off the helicopters full of bullet holes and rushing them to the sterile trauma bays, kneeling on top of the gurneys, performing CPR, and praying that this time it will work -- even cleaning crews mopping up pools of blood after the surgery -- they are all affected by the brutality and horror of this human condition we call “war.” At the end of the day, they don’t have much to look forward to other than connecting with loved ones back home, and perhaps a nice cup of coffee.
Chaplains are a little bit of all aspects of war. We talk to all of these people. We pray sincerely with those who live in a secure base and work as cooks but fear the rockets, which are fired at us on almost daily basis, because some of them can and have died. We pray just as sincerely with those who have survived eight IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) and disarmed over 250. We face every day, in our own unique way, the same mystery: death.
My only tangible comfort for all these people in the last ten months has been a cup of the best coffee available anywhere, available 24/7, provided by the generous people of my church. The countless United Church of Christ churches across the country participating in the UCC Coffee Project, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, FedEx, Carmelite Monks in
making coffee beans: all have donated to Holy Joe’s Café. They've placed those gifts in the loving care of Tom Jastermsky of the First Congregational Church UCC in Wyoming , who has taken it upon himself to coordinate, solicit, and ship tons of coffee to chaplains in combat zones during the past five years. Wallingford
Holy Joe’s Café is a place where chaplains in the small Forward Operating Bases, hangar bays, hospitals, aid stations, and their makeshift chapels are able to bring a taste of home to the tired, the anxious, the angry, the lonely, and the wounded. They all can get gourmet coffee, a reminder that the world they willingly left behind still cares. It is still there waiting for them to come home.
It is a place where light conversation often ends in tearful stories, quiet prayers, and the long hugs of warriors.
We often don’t realize the full extent of our actions. Small gestures can go a long way. A nice cup of coffee will add some small measure of comfort to many at our trauma hospital:
· For the wife of a very badly injured soldier in the middle of the night.
· For the surviving platoon members of an IED attack.
· For the tired surgeon after his fourth amputation in one day.
· For the corpsmen in bloody uniforms after their fifth run to the flight line to bring in dying soldiers.
· For nurses in the ICU on 12 hour shifts tending to young men missing legs and arms.
· For the chaplain who has no days off and prays for all of them above and attended to the last rites of 117 victims of this war in the past 10 months...
I send my gratitude to all of you who made Holy Joe’s Café possible. Thank you!
The Rev. Andrew Peter Sholtes is a Lieutenant Commander in the Chaplain Corps of the United States Navy, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and former pastor of Calvin Reformed UCC in Lynwood, Illinois.