War's Wounded Find Guidance in Aftermath

By Greg Trotter
Religion News Service
Saturday, March 29, 2008

Capt. Darrick Gutting is the friendliest guy in Ward 57.

The bald-headed, 40-year-old Pennsylvanian roams the halls, engaging passersby -- soldiers and medical staff -- in conversations that are equal parts jive and heartfelt concern.

"Sorry, man, but this is part of being a chaplain, too," Gutting said after talking with a male nurse for 10 minutes about a favorite hunting store in West Virginia. "You gotta let the people know that you care."

Gutting is one of 10 military chaplains in the pastoral care department at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They come from Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Charismatic and evangelical churches. There is also a rabbi on contract and two volunteer Muslim and Hindu clerics.

The chaplains at Walter Reed provide spiritual advice and a listening ear to soldiers, staff and families. They also guide many amputee soldiers through the difficult process of coming to terms with a new reality.

As of Feb. 29, the most recent date available, 705 amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan had been treated in Army facilities, including 555 at Walter Reed, according to a Walter Reed spokeswoman. There are about 150 amputee patients in some stage of healing and rehabilitation at Walter Reed. Regardless of religious or cultural background, many of them wake up at some point and ask very similar questions: Why? Why did this happen to me?

"As chaplains, we are not peddlers of religion," said Col. Charles Howell, senior chaplain at Walter Reed and a 52-year-old Mississippi native. "We allow them to ask the questions and then show them a host of answers out there."

The chaplains face a range of emotions among the amputees: anger, sadness, fear and joy, or some mixture thereof, Howell said. Some soldiers become angry at God, or the Army, he said. Others go straight to gratitude and happiness that they are alive at all.

"Everyone has a pretty good idea of what they project their life to be," Howell said, "but when you wake up with an injury that leads to amputation, you begin to realize things aren't going to happen the way you thought."

The chaplains help them transition, mentally and spiritually, back to some form of active duty or civilian life. About 40 percent of them want to go back to active duty; 14 percent actually do, Howell said.

"They are trying to adapt to the phantom children they might never have, or that phantom job they might never have, or that phantom future that has now been canceled or changed," Howell said.

When Cpl. Jeffrey Reffner, 25, approached in his wheelchair, Gutting greeted him like a long-lost friend. The stubble on Reffner's face and his shaggy hairstyle indicated that he had been here awhile.

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