Photo: U.S. Army
By Fr. Donald Van Alstyne, MIC
"Stand by, incoming wounded soldiers!" sounded the alert over the loud speaker.
The medical staff would scramble to their respective positions getting the necessary medical equipment ready to go into action. A faint humming sound would get louder as the helicopters came in for the landing. A triage would be set up to take care of the most severely injured first.
They would be the ones I would minister to first as well.
Such harrowing scenes played out many times at the field hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where I served. Such scenes point to how vital my daily prayer life is in my ministry as a U.S. Army chaplain.
As the medical team worked intensely on the soldier, I would lean over whispering into his or her ear stating who I am and offering words of reassurance. I would tell the soldier, "You are safe now. You are going to make it because you are in the good hands of the doctors and nurses." All the while I'd be saying brief words of prayer and then repeating, "Jesus, I trust in You."
Tragically, there would be rare moments when the doctors would inform me that the soldier wasn't going to make it. They'd ask me to say a few prayers. On one occasion that I'll probably never forget, the soldier's buddy heard what the doctor said. He was behind a drawn curtain. He was lying on a cot. He shouted, "I want to pray, too." The nurse opened the curtain, and there was the soldier leaning on his side with tears in his eyes looking at his buddy.
With oils in hand, and prayerfully reciting the words for the Commendation of the Dying, I finally said, "Saints of God, come to his aid! Come to meet him angels of the Lord! Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High."
I sensed during such moments that all the members of the medical staff who were gathered around the soldier were feeling the presence of God. I could see peace on their faces. I would pray silently. I would ask our Blessed Mother, standing at the foot of the cross, to intercede for the medical staff — for people who have such a passion to give life to our soldiers. My prayers then would turn to the soldier's loved ones back home who would be getting the sad news that their husband or wife or parent or son or daughter had died defending our country against terrorists.
This memory has brought home to me the importance of maintaining a constant, deep relationship with the Lord, in good times and in bad. My human energy will always be limited, but I know that through daily prayer I can be sustained and given the strength I need.
The summit for me is the celebration of the daily Mass. I have always cherished this privileged moment and remember in a special way at Mass the souls of our departed soldiers and those who are serving in combat.
Then, there is my prayer of the Holy Rosary, which keeps me centered and rooted in the Lord and reminds me to turn to Our Blessed Mother in all my needs. I also pray with the mind of the Church by keeping the Liturgy of the Hours, found in the Breviary.
In my prayer and service to our soldiers, the depth of the mystery conveyed is all the more profound for me because of the principles we stand for in defending our country. I am also inspired to see in the eyes of our soldiers the need to know and love God.
My mission is to bring God to soldiers and to bring soldiers to God. All of these experiences give me a joy and energy in my heart and soul that no one, or no tragic moment, can take away.
Major Donald Van Alstyne, MIC, has served as a U.S. Army chaplain in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and in South Korea along the DMZ. He is currently pastor at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.