Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Combat hospital chaplain

Jack Riggs
Morgantown, West Virginia, United States


Top photo – Several members of NMCB23 visit their former “Chaps” (in blue sweatshirt) and “Doc” (author standing next to chaplain) on their way home from Iraq.

Bottom photo – Chaplain (left) and author at St. Patrick’s Day “party” on grounds of US Military Hospital Kuwait in 2005.

“Chaps, how would you like the opportunity to leave your family and your church for a year?” I asked over the phone in an almost gleeful tone.

“Jack, if the question was not coming from you, I would think your question was a joke.”

I had served with this Navy chaplain for six years in a Navy reserve Seabee battalion (NMCB23) at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. We had spent many weeks together working in the field and sleeping in tents under often miserable conditions, had both qualified and earned our Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist badges, and had learned how US military ground forces organized to fight. With respect to our basic military skills, the chaplain was more accurate than I was with a 9 mm Beretta pistol and M16 rifle.

Since he lived in the Washington, DC area, he had been briefly recalled to active duty after the 911 attack on the Pentagon. He had assisted with the ministerial and spiritual needs of the military victims and their families, so I knew he was experienced in consoling individuals touched by terrorism. When I learned that I would become the commanding officer (CO) of a combat support hospital in Kuwait working under the US Army, I had asked for and been given permission to recruit “volunteers” for authorized billets in my unit for this yearlong deployment in 2005. However, once sailors received their orders, deployment was no longer voluntary.

The chaplain billet is exceedingly important to the success of any CO. A unit chaplain, particularly when deployed far from home, understands and appreciates better than most the heart and soul of the unit. Unit members often feel most comfortable taking their personal problems to the chaplain for advice, guidance, counseling, and consoling. They also understand that anything said to the chaplain is confidential. That chaplain confidentiality, however, is a two-edge sword for the CO. It does little good if one of the troops is on the verge of breaking, and the CO is unaware.

While I was in Kuwait, there were several suicides amongst US troops, all self-inflicted gunshot fatalities. That should come as little surprise in a location where everyone has ready access to weapons and is conducive to feeling helpless and hopeless. For example, one young soldier learned from a friend back home that his wife was cheating on him. That soldier’s escape was to put the barrel of his M16 rifle in his mouth and push the trigger.

If the chaplain learned of stressful situations, I wanted to be informed.

I would eventually terminate the orders of around fifteen sailors so they could be sent home early. The reasons for these actions fell into three categories: medical issues, psychiatric issues, and childcare plans of single parents that had fallen apart. These matters often first presented to the chaplain. Without disclosing specifics, the chaplain would describe these situations to me. I could then suggest to the chaplain how to advise these individuals so I could be openly informed of their issues and take actions to address them.

As another example, a corpsman went to the chaplain describing personal anguish caused by the joking and eating that occurred in the back of ambulances transporting the bodies of dead troops from the hospital to the mortuary affairs unit located near KCI (Kuwait City International airport).

The chaplain suggested that he personally accompany the transfer of all bodies. “No one would joke or eat in the ambulance in my presence after I prayed for the soul of a deceased service member and asked God to comfort their family members.” This became one of the chaplain’s additional self-imposed duties. This solution did not require open violation of the confidence expected by the corpsman who made the complaint; nor did it require me to stifle humor interpreted as disrespect. I was disinclined to take that action, as humor was the most utilized psychological adaptive behavior to deal with the tragedy and insanity of war.

Yes, I needed and wanted this chaplain for my unit. I knew that he knew how to minister to the spiritual needs of wounded troops and speak to them in their language, and that he could and would handle the stress in a combat support hospital. We had an interpersonal relationship of understanding and trust forged over a prior six-year history of military experience that I would not have with another chaplain randomly assigned to my unit by the Navy.

Chaps accepted my offer to “volunteer” for this deployment after he obtained the blessing of his wife and children. However, I knew it was an offer that he would not turn down. I knew that because of our six-year shared military history. I knew that because I was offering him an experience that would be the pinnacle of his military career. And I knew that because I was offering him the opportunity to live the most tangible purpose for why he had originally joined the military.



JACK E. RIGGS is Professor of Neurology at West Virginia University. He spent twenty-nine years in the Navy Reserve before retiring as a Navy captain. He served almost one year as commanding officer of a combat support hospital in the Middle East.


Fall 2018  |  Sections  |  War & Veterans

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