washingtonpost.com
War's Wounded Find Guidance in Aftermath
Walter Reed Chaplains Help Amputees, Other Soldiers Confront Unpleasant Realities

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.

"Man, are you trying to set the record for days at Walter Reed?" Gutting teased.

Reffner has been at Walter Reed since July 2006, when a improvised explosive device in Baghdad blew apart the front of his truck -- and his left leg. He suffered a broken tibia and fibula below his knee, and extensive burns, muscle and nerve damage. Five inches of his tibia were missing.

After the blast, doctors began talking amputation. He begged them to save his leg. After 23 surgeries, including a stem cell bone grafting, Reffner still has his leg. And he still has his faith.

"Every time I prayed, it got answered somehow," said Reffner, a member of the Assembly of God church.

Farther down the hall, Gutting found his buddy Sgt. Brent Hendrix in an empty weight room. The 23-year-old North Carolinian sat in his wheelchair looking tired and pensive. When Gutting swung open the door and shouted his name, Hendrix turned around and chuckled. He stood up slowly, carefully balancing his weight on his prosthetic right leg.

"He's a tall drink of water, isn't he?" Gutting said, looking up at the 6-foot-6 Hendrix, grinning broadly.

With a resigned voice, Hendrix explained that he used to be 6-foot-8 and that the doctors are going to re-break his leg to give him back those two inches.

That is just one more step in a long, trying journey for Hendrix. He was an infantryman on a raid in Iraq in June 2006 when his vehicle rolled over two buried roadside bombs. He woke up in Walter Reed with tubes coming out of his nose.

Hendrix has died twice, he said -- once for 58 seconds and a second time for two minutes. He has had close to 70 surgeries since the blast. He was told he would never walk again.

He's walking now and can bench-press 275 pounds, an impressive feat by any standard.

"God still wants me around for some reason," Hendrix said. "So I'm just waiting to see what he's got in store for me."

And for a moment, Gutting looked somber.

"We get through this together," Gutting said, slowly and deliberately, "because not one of us is as good, or as strong, as all of us."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company