[Last Friday I had the privilege of seeing one of our Texas Air National Guard units off to war. For their security and that of their families I won’t mention the unit name, deployed locations, dates, etc.]
At once, I have the strangest and most wonderful “job” in the military. I am a chaplain. It’s part of my “job” to talk to people–to be there for them, to get to know them, and just to be with them. They call me ‘padre,’ ‘ preacher,’ or ‘our chaplain,’ which are all titles I am proud to bear because I am proud to serve them and to serve with them. I genuinely enjoy being with my troops.
Today was different.
It was different, because today I sent people that I know and love off to war. I visit with these folks each time we assemble. I see some of the full-timers during the week at Ellington. I joke with them. I cry with them. I drink coffee with them. I talk of serious events and about their favorite ball teams. I lead them in worship. I pray with them and for them. I read them the Word of God. I offer them the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sacrament.
It was different, because today I met many of their families for the first time–wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Today, I played with their kids as Mom and Dad embraced for the last time for a while. Today, I held hands and prayed with husbands and wives who were prepared for this day but not ready for it. Today, I exchanged hearty handshakes and smiles with those who looked forward to the adventure, and I gave tissues and a shoulder to those who were afraid. Today, we all bowed our heads in prayer together–those who are faithful to attend chapel and those whom I’ve never heard utter the Lord’s name without a closely-attached expletive. Today, in the midst of the deployment chaos, we stopped what we were doing and asked God’s protection to be upon those who were leaving and those who were left here at home.
Today was different.
It was different, not because it was the beginning of another deployment, but because it was a new kind of deployment for many of our troops. A deployment “outside the wire” where our folks are almost certain to come under fire. “Outside the wire” is the domain of the Army and the Marines, a place unfamiliar to many Air Force folks. “Outside the wire” is where in the harsh reality of war, people kill and are killed.
After we prayed, there was the call to say goodbye and the hurried shuffle of boots and bags out the door. There on the flightline, in Hemingway-esque fashion, our troops waved a final goodbye in the pouring rain and climbed on board the waiting C-130. As the dull drone of the Herc’s four engines revved to life, the plane gracefully lifted off, where it was soon engulfed in the low-hanging clouds and out of sight.
Some saluted. Some waved. Some sobbed.
There is a part of everyone who wears the uniform that wishes they were going too–and an even bigger part that wishes no one had to go at all.