Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Week on Taji continues

[as originally published in Hamodia, May, 2008]

(Names and events have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals where necessary)


I eat lunch, sitting with a couple of soldiers in the Dining Facility (DFAC). The Soldiers get fed pretty well, especially with the variety in the menu. Some joke about going to war and having to watch their weight. There are a few kosher items in the DFAC, mostly salad, and fresh fruit. I wonder what they must think as I carefully examine the lettuce before adding some dressing and eating my 'healthy' lunch.

The four of us talk about life back home, and it seems that they are all doing pretty well out here. The work shifts are long (12 hours), and then they have to do physical training (PT), turn in laundry, eat and sleep; so there's not a lot of personal time in the day. When I leave the DFAC, another Soldier walks outside with me and I strike up a conversation with him. It turns out he's been meaning to come by and see me. I have an appointment in 30 minutes, but we can talk until then. So I invite him to walk with me now and we can talk for a bit.

He tells me about his situation with his spouse back home, and the challenges his wife is having with his daughter from a previous marriage and her own children while he's gone. They are facing a lot of challenges as a couple, and having someone to talk to about it eases his worries.

I ask a few questions as we go along, to make sure I understand the real issues that are bothering him, and before we are done I tell him I'll check on him in a few days and see how things are going. He asks me for prayer and I reach up, put my hand on his shoulder and say "Of course." Then I offer a short prayer, thanking H" for the possibilities He sends our way and then I put this young Soldier's hopes and wishes into words; distilling the main issues out of our earlier conversation. As I conclude with a request for H"s help and continuing care for him and his family during the coming weeks and months, I notice the tears running down his face. He thanks me, looks less worried, and I continue on in my day.


A Soldier comes in for an early evening appointment. He's been feeling depressed and angry, and is concerned he'll lose his temper. He's a pretty big guy, and strong, so there is a real chance that if he lashed out, someone might get hurt. I've talked with him once before, so I already have an idea of his background and the issues he is dealing with.

I suggest we do a visualization exercise, and he agrees to try it. I had been counseling a friend of his for depression, and now this Soldier is coming to see me already expecting that I'll also be able to help him. I sometimes use a visualization exercise as a lead-in to doing clinical hypnosis. So many people have distorted view of hypnosis from seeing a stage performance that they don't know how effective it can be. Add in that hypno-therapists have variable levels of training and no licensure, it becomes more important to explain what I'm doing and how it can help. I often use hypnoses as a mode of treatment, but it still takes my expertise as a licensed therapist to know how to use the power of a hypnotic state to help each person individually in the context of their life.

For this young man, we work on a visualization and relaxation exercise I design for him on the spot. It's meant to help him with the stress he is experiencing on the job, and to help him access other emotions that he normally feels, but has been missing lately. I leave post-hypnotic suggestions for his unconscious mind to continue working, in ways that may help him with his ability to exercise free choice in otherwise anger promoting situations at work. He leaves feeling much better, and we arrange a follow-on session.

As I walk up to my office, after dinner, two soldiers are waiting there. "The First Sergeant (1SG) said to bring you." they say. I accompany them over to their Troop office, where the 1SG, who is the senior enlisted Soldier in a Troop, is sitting at his desk. "Sir, I need you to take a look at this..." and he motions to the computer screen. I read an email over his shoulder, written by the rear detachment back at Fort Hood, Texas.

It's sad news for a soldier, who was expecting to be home in a few weeks on leave. His wife was in the hospital, and had a miscarriage just a few weeks before she was due to give birth. We talk about the way the soldier is to be notified. The soldier's supervisor had gone to wake him up and bring him to the office. There the 1SG or the Troop Commander would tell him the news and I would be present to offer any comfort and help needed.

There is the risk with this kind of thing that the presence of the chaplain could become a sign of bad news in the eyes of a soldier. Mostly, that doesn't happen, but it's one of the reasons that chaplains are never the ones to deliver the message. Instead we help those who have to do this difficult task, and then the recipient of the message after they hear it. I once heard a story about a death notification officer fainting as soon as the spouse opened the door, leaving the chaplain standing next to him to catch him and then to figure out what to do next. These are the kinds of things no one is ever really prepared for.

In this case, I encourage the commander to be as direct as possible, offer condolences and help the Soldier return home immediately. I talk with the soldier individually after he's phoned home, just to be with him in this difficult time. He asks for prayer and I recite Psalm 121, which he is familiar with, and I try to express his hopes for healing and comfort. I know that there's not much you can say to a person immediately after a loss, as Chazal say in Avos 4:23, but there are ways a chaplain can help a person through grieving in the way we listen and then talk with them where they are in the moment.

Chazal say that when we visit with someone who is ill, we can take away 1/60th of their pain. So what happens if you visit 60 people in one day? After a very busy day of counseling, and when the problems are particularly painful, I sometimes feel physically ill, as though I have taken on some of their burden. It becomes important for me to find ways of dealing with those burdens, and I usually find that davening, calling my spouse or sometimes talking to another chaplain, and running several miles a day are the best ways to relieve my own stress. The work load here in caring for Soldiers is so high that I started drinking coffee again, something I hadn't done in over 20 years in the military.