Having a Prayer: a First-Person Account From a Battlefield in Afghanistan

Nov 12, 2002 03:00 AM EST

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - It was the best part of the day, the part when the boots came off, marking the end of one more day of MBWA - Ministry By Walking Around - and one step closer to going home.

I had just sat down on my cot when a soldier came running in, breathless, and gasped: "Sir, an Apache (helicopter) went down, they need you at the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) right away." As I got dressed, I thought: Was it a crash? Were they shot down? Are the pilots OK? Arriving at the TOC, I went to the battle captain for an update. He told me that an Apache was down and that the pilots were alive but very seriously wounded. MEDEVAC was on the way, as was a platoon of infantry and two more Apaches, to secure the area for recovery. A surgical team was already standing by.

We all crowded around the radio and listened. Someone went to a map and marked the location of the downed plane; it was about 30 minutes away. Other pilots arrived, concerned, anxious, perplexed.

The wounded men were experienced pilots, members of Alpha Company, heroes of Operation Anaconda. They were expected at our Charlie Med (the field hospital at Kandahar) in about 45 minutes.

So many soldiers had gathered by now that some of the medical staff was working crowd-control. I slipped through and approached the surgical team. Introductions were made. They showed me where I could stand, explained some procedures, discussed their plan. I felt out of place, but they insisted that I stay. We waited.

Finally we heard the helicopter approach. Minutes later, the ambulance arrived in front of the tent. The Apache's doors opened, and my battalion commander stumbled out. He was in shock, dehydrated and disoriented. He had been the first on the scene, the one who pulled the pilots out of the heavily armed, fuel-soaked helicopter.

The commander was taken to another tent to be checked out. The two injured pilots were brought inside, writhing in pain. The surgeons began their frantic work. I shouted encouragement from the corner. A major told me, sharply, "Stand over there, and put these on," tossing me a pair of gloves. As I struggled to get them on, a nurse brushed by. I was in the way.

Slipping out of the brightly lit tent into the night, I was blinded for a moment. When my eyes adjusted, I saw that several soldiers from our unit were gathered outside, eager for news. Even the toughest were clearly shaken. We stood and waited together. Hours seemed to pass as the surgeons worked to stabilize the pilots for evacuation to Germany. Someone suggested that we pray. And we did.

In the following days, it became clear that the crash had had a powerful effect on many of the soldiers in our battalion: the fueler who had topped off their tank an hour before the crash; the team of crack mechanics that went out to the site to recover what they could and try to figure out what had caused the crash; the battalion commander who wondered whether he'd compounded the pilots' injuries by pulling them out of the aircraft he'd feared might explode.

As an Army chaplain, I had been trained in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), a process designed to help survivors of tragic events sort out their feelings. But after the crash, it was clear that there wasn't much interest in the formal CISM process. My commander was ready to move on, learn from the accident, evaluate our response. He was an Apache pilot himself, a warrior. He wasn't interested in dwelling on the past.

But beneath his tough exterior, I saw a man deeply shaken. He needed to tell his story, and needed a nudge from his chaplain to do so.

"Sir," I said, "we need to have a debriefing. Here are the names of the people who need to be there." I gave him the list. His name was at the top. He asked a few questions, sighed, and said: "All right, Chaplain, tomorrow at 0900. I'll be there."

Chaplain (Capt.) Trent A. Hancock, a Presbyterian minister, serves as chaplain with 3-101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). He recently returned from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. On Sept. 20, 2002, the pilots who survived the crash he wrote about were on hand for a battalion award ceremony at Fort Campbell, KY, and were presented the Air Medal for service in Afghanistan.

By Rev. Trent Hancock