This post was originally written as a reflection paper for Clinical Pastoral Education at the Durham V.A. Medical Center.
In life, it seems that there are those who we encounter for only the briefest periods of time; and yet, during those brief periods, they leave indelible marks upon us. Such was the case of my encounter with Sergeant Major W___ A___ B___ (USA, ret.).
On the morning of Wednesday, August 29th, while most of my colleagues at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity were heading off to their first day of class for the 2012-13 school year, I was at the Veterans’ Affairs Medical Center in Durham, for my second day of Clinical Pastoral Education. At the request of one of the chaplain residents, I had intended to begin my rounds that morning by visiting a new arrival to the VAMC’s Community Living Center – their nursing home, of sorts. The chaplain resident had asked me to spend some time chatting with this individual, write down my notes afterward, and to return to the student office, where he would walk me through the process of charting a “spiritual assessment”.
However, I never made it to the room of this new arrival. As I crossed the lobby of the CLC, I was stopped by an attending physician. “I need you to come with me,” she said. “Mr. B___ probably isn’t going to live the day, and we need somebody to sit with him until his family gets here.”
And so, I went with the physician to Mr. B___’s room. I introduced myself to him, but it was clear that he didn’t know I was there – he was unresponsive, his eyes open and fixed on a point on the wall, occasionally blinking. I sat down in the chair next to his bed, said a brief prayer for him, and settled in for what would be an hour-and-a-half wait for his sister and brother-in-law to arrive.
While waiting, I looked around the room. Here and there were little reminders of who Mr. B___ was, what he had done with his life. On the closet door, directly across the room from where I sat, was an 8×10 photo of Mr. B___, probably from the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. He was in his dress green uniform, with the chevrons and rockers of a Sergeant Major on his sleeves – probably for the first time in an official portrait – and truly looked the picture of a very senior US Army NCO. However, looking at that picture and looking at the man himself – it was difficult to reconcile the two. The only way you could tell they were the same person was that, though his body had withered away, his face still looked generally the same, albeit about twenty years older.
And then there was the journal his sister had left on the window ledge, with “Visitors Please Sign In” written on the cover. Thumbing through the journal, I discovered that Mr. B___ had been in the CLC for about six months, and when he had entered back at the beginning of March, had done so just for what he thought would be a short rehabilitative stay. However, as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, it became clear that his stay was going to be markedly longer. Nonetheless, there was still hope that he would be going home, as indicated by the notes left on his chart by another chaplain intern in mid-summer.
And so it was that as I sat there, considering this man, who he might have been and what remained of him now on this earth, I came to the realization that I was serving almost as his escort from this life into the next. Very soon, he would be gone from this world, and it was my job to make sure that that transition happened peacefully.
But even as I considered that, another thought came into my head – a thought that struck me in its insidiousness, yet its likely and horrible truth – This man was a Sergeant Major twenty years ago, my mind said to me. That means he served in Vietnam. That means he was part of a generation of soldiers who got scorn from the American people rather than the respect he deserved.
And that point is when another voice echoed in my head – the voice of Machinist Mate Chief Jamie Hebert, the Recruit Division Commander for Hotel Company, ODS Class 12070. “THAT IS UNACCEPTABLE!” his voice boomed, a phrase which I heard more than once earlier this summer – and in this particular case, I couldn’t have agreed more.
But what could I do? I wracked my brain, looking for an answer, and came up with only one – but what an answer it was.
Finally, an hour-and-a-half after I had arrived in Mr. B___’s room, his sister and brother-in-law arrived. After greeting them, I said, “If you’d like, I’ll give you your privacy with him,” to which his sister nodded. “Alright,” I told them, “but if you don’t mind, I’d like to offer a prayer before I go.”
“Yes, please do,” his sister said. And so, I joined hands with his sister and brother-in-law, who took Mr. B___’s hands, and together we prayed for Mr. B___. Then, after the prayer ended, I stepped back, and did something that definitely caught his sister off guard, but at the same time, brought a smile to her face – probably one of the few smiles she smiled that day.
Coming to the position of attention at the foot of Mr. B___’s bed, I said, “Sergeant Major B___, on behalf of the United States Navy and the US Navy Chaplain Corps, I would like to most sincerely thank you for your service.”
And with that, I asked Mr. B___’s sister to let chaplain services know if she needed anything, and took my leave.
This morning, when I came in to the VAMC, I pulled up Mr. B___’s chart, and there indeed was the final note, dated 30 August 2012, at 0650 hours. He had passed from this life into the next, leaving behind only the memories of a life of service.
When I initially mentioned all of this a few days ago, I mentioned how difficult it had been for me to sit with Mr. B___ during that time, knowing how soon he would be gone. However, some of the most encouraging words I could imagine came from a nurse who had been one of my shipmates in Hotel Company this summer. “Being with someone who is dying can be one of the most trying things about any profession that puts service above self,” she said, “It can be devastating, but at the same time think of what an incredible gift you gave that man – in his time of need you were there for him so that he would not be alone. You also gave his family comfort that their loved one was not alone while they were getting to the hospital.”
All this… and it’s only been one week of CPE. I can’t even begin to imagine where the rest of the semester is going to take me. But wherever it is, I know that God’s going to have new and different lessons in store for me every time I set foot in the VAMC.