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Religious support teams provide hope and comfort at Bagram hospital

Chaplain (Capt.) Gary Willeford and Chaplain Assistant Tech. Sgt. Brian Ramirez pose for a photograph in front of Craig Joint Theater Hospital, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Willeford and Ramirez are one of two religious support teams providing religious support and counsel to patients and caregivers at Craig Joint Theater Hospital. (Courtesy photo)

Chaplain (Capt.) Gary Willeford and Chaplain Assistant Tech. Sgt. Brian Ramirez pose for a photograph in front of Craig Joint Theater Hospital, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Willeford and Ramirez are one of two religious support teams providing religious support and counsel to patients and caregivers at Craig Joint Theater Hospital. (Courtesy photo)

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Medical personnel at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital see patients from all over Afghanistan with medical issues ranging from kidney stones and appendicitis to trauma battle-related issues, but other teams are also present to provide another type of healing that goes beyond medical care.

Two sets of Air Force chaplains and chaplain assistants, known as religious support teams, or RSTs, provide religious support and spiritual counsel to this group of U.S. service members, International Coalition Forces and local nationals.

"It's the unseen scars that we deal with," said Chaplain (Capt.) Gary Willeford, a member of the hospital RSTs. "Issues of faith may come up with the traumas that they have experienced. We come alongside of our patients and remind them that God has not forgotten them in the midst of their crisis."

"We are faced with many different patients from different cultures and faith backgrounds," Willeford added. "We try to treat each one with respect and honor their faith and culture by showing them kindness."

This approach extends to even the most unique patients, those who are considered enemies. Willeford recalls hearing an injured Taliban soldier communicating concern for his personal safety to his interpreter as he was being treated in the trauma bay.

"Being a patient in the trauma bay is hard enough. You are naked and laying on a bed with medical folks poking and prodding," Willeford said. "Doctors take a Hippocratic oath to do no harm, but the enemy does not expect compassion. After he realized they were going to do everything they could to take care of him, he incessantly thanked the nurses and doctors for not killing him."

As part of the wide range of patients the medical staff sees, the hospital also treats local nationals within coalition force humanitarian efforts, such as malnourished infants and young children with cancer. Though language can sometimes be an obstacle, the teams have learned gestures and phrases to communicate effectively and respectfully. Often a visit and a prayer from the chaplain, no matter the language barrier, helps bring peace and comfort to those being treated.

For U.S. forces in particular, the Air Force RSTs have found a great way to connect with service members; they do this by helping them connect to their social networks.

"We provide mini laptops that have access to the WiFi network," said Chaplain (Capt.) Michael Johnson. "The laptops are very popular with the patients because they provide means for the patients to communicate to friends and family, often for the first time since being admitted, via Skype, instant messaging, Facebook or email."

But often, something even simpler than Internet connection does the job to provide comfort to service members in pain.

"I'm usually one of the first ones they see at Craig Joint Theater Hospital since I respond to all traumas in the trauma bay," said Chaplain Assistant Tech. Sgt. Brian J. Ramirez. "When wounded warriors come in the trauma bay they are usually in pain and scared. I've seen many times an instant comfort come over them as the chaplain is praying for them."

As RSTs in a combat zone hospital, these caregivers face a unique challenge of helping healing service members find hope while also encouraging them to experience the grief process at their own pace.

"The most difficult part is letting (service members) work through the grief process in their own way," Johnson said. "Some of the challenges are in ministering to those who come in from improvised explosive device blasts. Many of them have lost limbs and are beginning to realize that their lives will be drastically different. Sometimes they are still grieving the buddies they just lost."

For these caregivers, who work alternating 12-hour shifts, compassion fatigue is a very real threat. Also called secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue can affect individuals exposed to trauma and suffering, and can result in anxiety, stress and a feeling of hopelessness.

Johnson recalled a recent indirect fire attack, or IDF, and the feeling of being stunned as medical personnel rushed casualties and injured Soldiers into the hospital. Recognizing that he would be in the way in the emergency room in the time immediately following the attack, he directed his mission to honoring the fallen. After checking the identification tags of the casualties to determine their religious preference, he prayed over each of them.

"I was stunned by the events, but I knew that I had to take charge of the situation and provide for the spiritual needs of those in the room," Johnson said. "I knew that any words I could utter would be inadequate, so I sat with them and joined them in their grief."

Ramirez had just returned back to his dorm after a 12-hour shift when the IDF alarm went off.

"I was exhausted and had nothing left in me at that time," Ramirez said. "I was given no info, just return back to work. I knew something bad had happened at that point."

When he returned to the hospital, he faced a frantic atmosphere as medical staff rushed casualties into the facility.

"I was getting overwhelmed; I was not sure what I needed to do next, and things seemed to be moving very fast," Ramirez said. "Moments later, Chaplain Johnson asked me to go find some water for the Soldiers [who had survived the attack]. My training clicked in and things slowed down. I remembered my training taught me to take care of people's basic needs at this point."

Working long and stressful shifts, the RSTs recognize that they need to carefully monitor their own well-being so they can effectively take care of others.

"We need chaplains too," Johnson said. "Interaction between day and night shift can be as much about processing the events of the day as it is about turnover. It helps to have a chaplain that is experiencing the same things to be able to relate to and process with."

The fact that each chaplain and chaplain assistant operates as a team means they always have a partner to work through whatever challenges their shifts may bring.

"I have a chaplain assistant that goes with me on my entire visitation," Willeford said. "When I am especially hit hard with someone's situation, we talk and are able to release our stresses by prayer and just talking it through."

As caregivers to the ill and severely injured in a combat zone, the medical staff and RSTs work together to help patients heal inside and out. For those who have experienced trauma and loss, the chaplains and chaplain assistants seek to provide comfort and hope through prayer and counsel.

"It reminds me of our frailty and our resilience," Willeford said. "We all need to be cared for and are dependent upon one another for our health and welfare. It reminds me of the hope we have in God when sometimes a situation that looked like there was no hope turns and hope is reborn. No matter what our physical condition is we have a purpose and make a difference in the world."

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