Grief and Flapjacks
by Seanan Holland
The place is still dust brown, probably even more so than when we got here. The harvest is over and most of the green that was here is gone until next year. Things are still dust brown, but I don’t really notice it anymore. I am dust brown. The mongoose was at the mail container yesterday… looking for care packages? He/she/it is interesting, but I’m no longer impressed. The excitement of riding in the back of armored trucks across a strange, new land has faded. I don’t bother to take many pictures from the back of the truck anymore. Mostly it’s hot, bumpy, and uncomfortable. Which all feels pretty normal. I don’t like the explosions, but anymore it seems like most of us just frown, rather than jump, when the earth shakes.
Last week was Fourth of July. The chow hall served steak, lobster, hamburgers, bratwurst, cold sodas. We even had condiments! The next day we had fireworks… real ones. The EOD guys (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) brought in several IEDs that were discovered before they blew anyone up. I didn’t have my radio turned on, so I didn’t hear the announcement for the detonation. My teeth shook. I don’t think I’ve ever been overly bothered by explosions. In spite of the fact that my physical response is mostly reduced to a frown, I wonder if a person can ever get totally used to them. If so, I know I’m not there yet – probably a good thing. Even if you know it’s coming, it is disconcerting to have the Earth shake under your feet. It makes me mad.
My friend David, also a minister, explains that when you experience an event of grief, every occasion of grief you have ever lived through is present in you again. I can testify. The other day the sadness of losing five Marines caught up with me. I didn’t bother holding back the tears. There have been times when I could name all the people that I have known who died - either in combat or training for combat. As the list grows, I can no longer keep track. In my mind there is a visual image of David’s explanation of grief. It is a cloud shifting from its boundless potential to hold and store to its kinetic state of drops catalyzing every nearby drop and pouring profusely. Then the cycle starts again, only now there is more raw material for the next experience. People in combat report that it is the same with moral dilemmas. The weight of every decision they’ve ever made is present in the decision they are making now. When someone looks calm and cool on the outside, it’s hard for others to notice the existential mule of past experience kicking around inside them.
War changes your heart. It’s not so much whether you choose left or right and things turn out right or wrong. Your heart changed before the decision was made. What changes your heart is that you were the one called to that decisive moment – you were the one that had to choose and act. Circumstance is unforgiving out here. It’s a place where people become overly familiar with being between a rock and hard place. We learn about the severity of consequence and adjust our lives around considerations that feel rather ultimate, but eventually it just seems normal. When we get home, the rules will be different. There will be a few weeks, if we’re lucky, during which we won’t know what to do with ourselves. And we won’t really be able to either tell anyone what we need or listen to what they think we need. So, we’ll just go about our business of scanning the yard for signs of IEDs before we walk out to the car. The vigilance switch will remain in the “on” position for a while.
The other day we heard some chatter on the radio about an engagement and people getting injured. We waited for patients. The Aid Station was prepped for mass casualty. I’ve never seen a gunshot wound or an amputation up close. It was exciting in the way that terribleness can be exciting. We hold a fine emotional balance as we try to both urge providence away from any more casualties and accept the reality that we can’t influence what’s already happened. Everyone was in their well-rehearsed places. The mass casualty turned out to be one Afghan National Army soldier. The GSW and AMP turned out to be a superficial wound to the side of the head. He was taken to the ANA medical facility. They didn’t ask for assistance.
We’ve been eating a lot of flapjacks. I help cook them, and even though cooking a thousand flapjacks tempers one’s appetite for them, I still eat them… in a deliberate sort of way. By now, RP and I, and the cooks that have helped us, have served over 2500. Several organizations and individuals have made very generous contributions. I had been thinking about and planning the first pancake breakfast for weeks. The date was set. Wednesday, 13 Jun. Two other chaplains and two RPs (religious program specialists) were visiting my base. Everyone wanted to chip in. We were going to eat like kings. We mixed the batter the night before. By 0430 in the morning, both burners in the galley were running. Flapjacks were getting poured, flipped, and flopped into insulated bins by the dozen. At 0440, the executive officer walked in to the galley. He isn’t usually in the galley at 0440 in the morning. He looked at me. “Chaps, come outside for a minute.” I stepped outside. “We had a KIA last night,” he said. He told me the name of the Marine and what company he was in. My heart sank.
For weeks I had been coming back to my mud hut after the evening meetings and I would just sit down and pray thanks. People had stepped on IEDs that only partially detonated. People had taken one step to the side and bullets crashed into the wall behind them. We found many IEDs before anyone was injured by them. And now the XO was telling me that one of our Marines was dead. Within two weeks, four more would die.
War puts mundane things and ultimate things on the same shelf. A day that began with a sense of celebration culminated ten minutes later in grief. In my mind pancakes were at fault. I wondered if I would ever eat flapjacks again. By the hard bend of its lens, war distorts our sense of being oriented. Things that were friendly are now the enemy of serenity. My experience put breakfast and mortality next to each other. Many of our Marines and Sailors will face similar spiritual juxtapositions. The particular ingredients will be different. Using your hands to hold someone else’s guts gently inside them is a kind of intimacy that will challenge the prospect of intimacy that people hope for from love relationships. Putting a sheaf of artillery rounds on a building full of bad guys will blend exhilaration and nausea together in a way that Hollywood can only hope for. I went back into the galley. The more experienced chaplains probably already knew. I asked the chaplains, RPs, and cooks if they would gather around me for a moment. I tried to explain that in ministry sometimes we need to be present for both joy and lament in the same moment. In war, it is the same. I let them know that one of our Marines had been killed in an IED blast. At 0630 we opened the plywood doors of the chow hall and began serving. The Marines loved it – all but one. No one else noticed; the connection between death and flapjacks would be my private affair.
The other day I sat down next to a few Marines for evening chow. They asked if I was enjoying my time in Afghanistan. I asked if it was a trick question. We all laughed politely. I knew it wasn’t a trick question. I responded that it was exciting, rewarding, adventuresome… but that the reality of losing Marines tempered enjoyment. If it wasn’t for the snipers and IEDs, this probably would be enjoyable in an odd sort of way. It’s a place to face a challenge and be of service. Even if there are ways in which the rite-of-passage, which challenge and service ought to be, feels hollow, there are also ways in which this aspect of war is still profoundly true and rather thick. We lived in a world that was once familiar and seemingly within our scope of control. Now the spiritual furniture has been rearranged and we are going to stumble around for a while. Grief and moral dilemma will be our teacher – whether we want them to or not. What is still ours to choose is what we decide to learn from those teachers. Will we gradually add light to see the new furniture, or will we use the toe-stub method.
Apparently, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Colorado has suffered yet another tragedy. Let’s help each other to all shine bright. Next week, there will be flapjacks.
Lt. Seanan Holland is a Unitarian Universalist military chaplain stationed in Afghanistan. He has served as an intern with the CLF.
Disclaimer: All entries to CLF/Quest Military Ministries page reflect the personal views of the contributor. The views expressed here are in no way to be construed as an individual or individuals speaking in their official capacities for the agencies, departments, or service branches they serve in. This is not an official publication of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force, any government agency, or any other organization.