BBFI Chaplains are serving a unique mission field.
By Jeremiah Caitlin (as told to Jim Smith)
When we first arrived in Kuwait, I saw several units that did not have a chaplain. I asked my colonel if I could cover them. He asked me, “Well, aren’t you busy enough with ours?” I told him, “I just want to cover them.” Agreeing that the other units needed a chaplain, he gave his permission as long as I didn’t slack off on our guys. So, I started riding with the route clearance men.
When I first went to them, I told the unit that, although I had heard they were getting shot at almost every day, I wanted to start riding with them. They were shocked to hear that from a chaplain. You see, among the soldiers, the image of a chaplain is that we just sit in an office. But not all of us sit in an office, there are several that go out and get their hands dirty with the soldiers.
I asked the unit which was their toughest route — where they were fired upon the most and where they found the most IEDs. (An IED is a roadside bomb and it stands for improvised explosive device.) I would make that my first route. I wanted to know I could handle it.
Two days later, I went on my first route. Not one shot was fired. Afterwards, all the soldiers were coming up and hugging me saying, “Chaplain, you can ride with us any time! As a matter of fact, every day would be fine!” At first they viewed me as their protector. I knew that would change.
I made a schedule and began riding with the route clearance men every seven to nine days. I rode on whatever route they were doing. Since I handled the first one I figured, “I’ve got this now.” I rode with them for almost two months and never really heard anything. The soldiers kept saying, “If the chaplain is going with you, you are going to be safe.” I kept praying, “Lord, if you are going to keep it up, that is fine with me too. Not getting shot at is quite alright.”
The route clearance team’s job is to find any roadside bombs, blast them, and make the way clear for other vehicles. They ride in a Buffalo — a huge six-person vehicle with a mechanical arm on the right side. When a roadside bomb is found, the mechanical arm is used like a shovel to carefully grab the bomb, pull wires off of it, and move it, all while hoping the bomb doesn’t go off. Then the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) guys send out a robot with C4 and set it on the bomb. Once everyone is at a safe distance, the bomb is blasted in place. After the detonation, the clearance team moves on to look for the next obstacle. With the road cleared of IEDs, future patrols can move along safely.
One day, we were rolling through a really rough area of town when, all of a sudden, something went off and shook the Buffalo I was riding in. We had missed a bomb and it was really close to us! Fortunately, the Buffalo’s armor is designed for such incidents. After the dust cleared, a unit pulled up and looked at the blast hole. They started to put the Buffalo arm in when they yelled, “Back off!” and quickly moved the vehicle.
It takes a relatively composed demeanor to handle the tense situations the clearance teams regularly face, so when these soldiers get excited, you know it’s serious. What the team had seen in the initial blast hole was a second, much bigger, explosive device. The first bomb was really more of a dud, not intended to kill or maim, just to catch our attention.
While we were backed off and the clearance team was preparing to disarm the larger bomb, the first sniper shot rang out. It became clear that this was not just an explosive-detonation situation, it was an ambush. Those who set up the roadside IEDs know exactly how our clearance teams work — when a bomb goes off, the team pauses to investigate. That gives the sniper time to fire at our troops and vehicles.
The sniper’s first shot went right through the Buffalo’s “boomerang.” The “boomerang” is an electronic device on the roof that detects which direction shots are coming from and helps soldiers determine the location of incoming fire. After the “boomerang” was knocked out, it wasn’t long before the sniper’s second shot hit our vehicle. With another display of targeted precision, the bullet had struck the window next to my seat directly in line with my head. Thankfully, the Buffalo’s seven layers of thick armored glass did not allow the bullet to penetrate the vehicle, but instead trapped the shrapnel within the window.
The EOD guys continued to work on the large bomb, and by the time we blasted the second bomb and picked up the robot, it felt like we had been sitting there for a long time. I was glad when we finally got moving again! God really protected the chaplain that day — and I have the bulletproof window as a reminder.
In October of 2006, we were deployed to Kuwait. We ended up in the northern part of Iraq. Mosul, which is the Ninawa province, is the Biblical city of Nineveh. The city still has the ancient walls around it. We had some of our soldiers on the mountain to the east. If you read in Jonah, after he went and preached to that city, he went to a mountain to the east to overlook and watch its destruction. I would go up and preach to the guys up there and tell them this could very well be the same mountain that Jonah stood on and preached.
In early November 2007, while still in Iraq, I started feeling pain in my right shoulder. It was so severe I couldn’t even shift the gear on the truck. I went to get it looked at on a Wednesday. The doctor said it was probably just some muscle strain. On Thursday, I went to a different doctor because it was hurting worse. That doctor said, “Well, you probably just pulled something.” By Saturday everything changed. While standing in formation, the pain got worse. I looked down at my hand and it was turning purple. I fell out of formation and as I did, one of my soldiers did also. He came over and put his arm around me. He was looking at my shoulder when he asked if I knew I had a lump on my shoulder.
I was rushed to the hospital across the road. After looking at it, the doctor said, “Pack your stuff. You are going to Germany. You’ve got to be flown out now.” They did a needle aspiration, hoping fluid would come out — that would mean it was just a fluid buildup. However, no fluid came out, indicating it was a mass.
When I arrived in Germany they did surgery, removing most of the lump so I could move my arm again. After surgery, I asked the doctor what it was. He said all preliminary reports and tests leaned toward a very aggressive melanoma cancer. That is why it had grown so fast over the last three days. It surrounded my jugular vein and my brachial artery going to my right arm. “You definitely have less than a year to live,” he said. I was in Germany by myself. I was 32 at the time.
Within a few days, I was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The Army flew my parents and my wife to Washington D.C., paid for their hotel, and picked them up in a limousine. They were told they needed to come and prepare to say goodbye.
After another surgery, the doctor said, “Go home and enjoy your Christmas, and then come back and see us.” When I came back, we talked about my prognosis. “It’s not good. You probably won’t live a year,” said the doctor. So I began getting treatments to slow the cancer down.
One doctor I met heard my story and told me he would like to help. He was a Christian and loved what I was doing for the troops. He assembled the best team of surgeons he had ever assembled out of Johns Hopkins just for my case. He wanted to make sure this one got taken care of. I was flabbergasted. I went in at 05:30 and it wasn’t until 18:30 or 19:00 that my wife got to see me for the first time. It was a long surgery. The jugular artery and brachial artery had ruptured while they were performing the surgery. I turned purple and they didn’t get a pulse after three attempts. They almost amputated my arm.
After surgery, they asked me how much I wanted to know. I said, “Being a chaplain in Iraq, I have been in the operating room several times and watched amputees get something removed. I am fine with it, tell me everything, I want to know. God has obviously blessed me; I want to know how much.” The doctor told me everything. “You’ve got a really rough-looking artery. We have done a lot to it. But, you are going to have complete use of your arm. With time, I am sure you can make it even stronger.”
At my most recent scan in March of this year, the doctor said, “You can’t even tell you’ve had cancer. You are just so clean on the scans. Beautiful scan…turned out great.”
I was offered a discharge and I refused it. All the paperwork says I am 100 percent disabled without any question. The bottom line is I could get out and it would be fine. I would be taken care of for the rest of my life. However, the Chief of Chaplains and I were talking and he said, “We have tons of vacancies and you are still on active status. Why don’t we just try to use you in hospitals because you need to be around one for a while anyway?”
I thought it was a natural fit for me. Before Iraq, I could say I hated hospitals. I would ask my assistant to do the hospital ministry. But I have found it is the most needful area for these soldiers. They need someone that is there with them during those times. I guess God put me in that situation to start making me comfortable with it, since it looks like I am going to be around it for some time.
We have a term that we use in the military, “compassion fatigue.” I think this applies to all of us in ministry. We see the nurses go to the combat support hospitals and work on these soldiers day in and day out and everyone’s focus is on the soldier and the injured one. But, off to the side, if you look in the back, sometimes you will see a nurse or medic crying because of what they had to do. I started noticing that and ministering to them. I am looking forward to my new ministry as a chaplain to nurses and medics, starting at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. It will be a different sort of ministry from what I have done in the past. It will be challenging, but it will also be fruitful and interesting.