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Military chaplains: Prayer and humor hold a combat trauma unit together in Afghanistan

National Guard First Lt. Kurt Bishop listens to medics letting off steam, nurses coming to terms with death, and doctors showing stress.

By Lee LawrenceCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2007

Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno, Afghanistan

Reporter Lee Lawrence spent three months embedded with US military chaplains in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the last of six weekly print and Web video profiles of them. The series concludes tomorrow with Lawrence's personal reporter-on-the-job entry.

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First comes a chirping alarm over the PA system, then a woman's lilting voice wafts over this dusty military camp: "Attention on the FOB, Attention on the FOB. Mustang blue. Mustang blue." The tone belies the seriousness of the matter, which is that casualties are incoming and the Army's 396th Combat Support Hospital team – "the Mustangs" – should be ready. The number of victims are color-coded: red for one, white for two, blue for three, and black for mass casualties.

US medics, nurses, doctors – and a chaplain – converge in interlocking tents that form the hospital, preparing for the arrival of three Afghan National Army soldiers injured when their vehicle rolled over an improvised explosive device.

Faces are serious as the team checks supplies and readies the triage room. Among them, Arizona National Guard First Lt. Kurt Bishop – one of five chaplains at this forward operating base of 1,500 soldiers and contractors. He doesn't look the part of either soldier or cleric. His well-fed torso matches the round softness of his face, and he is more likely to trumpet his allegiance to the Ohio State Buckeyes than proclaim his Baptist faith.

"I'm burning that hat of yours," he fires at a medic who'd been wearing a Michigan cap earlier. The medic's attention is yanked from the business at hand, and he looks up, rolls his eyes in mock despair, and then gets back to work. Chaplain Bishop responds with a goofy grin, then scans the closed expressions of the men and women around him, scouting for opportunities to crack them open, if only for a moment. His jokes aren't always knee-slappers, but his almost childlike delivery breaks the tension the way a Roman candle momentarily dispels darkness.

Yet the moment the first stretcher is rushed in, Bishop is all business. He sinks into the background, his jaw working chewing gum, eyes sweeping the tented space. Noticing that a nurse needs a fresh packet of gauze, he picks one off the shelf and hands it to her. Then he pulls on blue gloves and shuttles bloodied bandages to the trash. As an X-ray machine is wheeled in, a young female medic scurries out of the way. She looks worried.

"The fat sterile guy will protect you from the rays," he says, pulling her behind him. She laughs. Her face relaxes. Mission accomplished, Bishop fades into the background watching, ready to lend a hand, a shoulder, an ear.

In this pressure cooker environment, Bishop offers release and relief, whether by listening to a medic let off steam, helping a nurse come to terms with a death, or expressing concern when a doctor shows stress. As the head of this medical team, Lt. Col. Richard Philips explains that by working together on the edge of life and death teams like the Mustangs bond intensely. But with the camaraderie and support also comes the danger of destructive dynamics such as extramarital affairs or pent-up anger. Having a hands-on chaplain is not only good for individuals; it helps the unit. From Colonel Philips's perspective, Bishop acts as an early detection system. Typically, he says, "we call the chaplain when people are drowning, but a chaplain like Bishop is here all the time. He sees them when they're struggling to swim."

Because Bishop has made himself part of the team, Philips adds, when crises come, "even the most foul mouthed, anti-Christian, I-don't-need-any-help person ... pulls [Bishop] aside and goes, 'You know, I did have a question about something.' I've seen more counseling go on by that little port-o-potty out back." He laughs. "You'd have to be here for a year to understand. We're completely cut off from normal life ... and we become like a family. The chaplain tends to the spiritual side that's intangible, and Bishop does that better than most."

• • •

Bishop is new to the chaplaincy but not the military. His father was an Air Force fighter pilot; his older brother flies Army helicopters, and Bishop himself was an enlisted soldier with the 82nd Airborne from 1987 until 1991. He later joined the National Guard, working as a driver at the Officer Candidate School at Fort Lewis, Wash.

When he talks of being called to the chaplaincy, he means it literally. He was sitting at a Burger King, working through the aftershock of a girlfriend's Dear John letter with two chaplains he'd been chauffeuring. Then and there, he says, "I heard God, just as audibly as we're talking, say, 'This is what you're going to do: You're going to be a chaplain.' "