I was making a phone call this morning to one of our military bases to take care of some Navy business. The chaplain I reached had a distinct accent identifying him as an Englishman. Well, I couldn’t let that go by without a comment, so I asked him if he was here on the exchange program. He said he was. By explanation, the exchange program is when one of our chaplains trades places with a British chaplain for a year.
I began to reflect on my experiences serving with military chaplains of other nations. Last year when I was the command chaplain for Camp Commando in Kuwait, I met Ron Martin, a chaplain with the British Royal Marines. Ron is a Scotsman. We had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time together. He and his “mates” (Royal Marines) invited me to share dinner in their chow hall. British food being what it is, the British troops often tried to eat in the American chow halls. Serving alongside these British warriors made a lasting impression on me, driving home the fact that this War on Terrorism is affecting more than just Americans. The same young faces of these Royal Marines could just as easily be the faces on our own U.S Marines.
A few weeks later we had a most unfortunate incident take place. One of the recently arrived Royal Marines suffered from dehydration in the intense desert heat of Kuwait, collapsed, and shortly died. I visited with these British comrades-in-arms to share in their grief over losing one of their own. Before the body was to be shipped back home on a C-130 Transport, I was told they were going to have a brief funeral service at the airfield on the tarmac. I was invited by the senior British Chaplain in Kuwait, Stephen Ware, a Roman Catholic priest, to assist him in the ceremony. A special detail was provided to line the way into the rear cargo area of the aircraft. The priest and I stood by the back hatch. All those assembled maintained a solemn presence while awaiting the arrival of the casket containing the remains of the fallen Royal Marine in the back of at stake-bed lorry (British for “truck”). The honor guard marched in two lines in typical British military fashion – long-legged stride with arms swinging from the sides up to shoulder level and down slightly past the waist before swinging up to shoulder height again. The casket was slowly and carefully hoisted onto the shoulders of the honor guard and reverently marched to the rear of the plane. Once there, the casket was placed just inside the plane, at which point Father Ware began the eulogy. I then offered a prayer. When we had finished, the casket was pushed on rollers deeper into the belly of the aircraft where it was secured firmly for the long flight back to England.
As I watched this procedure, seeing this plain, ordinary casket sitting alone in the middle of this aircraft, I couldn’t help but reflect on the loss that the family of this young man would be experiencing. He, along with his mates, joined their American cousins in fighting against a band of terrorist thugs on the other side of the world. None could possibly know the outcome of such a decision. I remained standing in my place as they finally closed the back hatch. Reluctantly, I moved away from the plane as the engines began to turn. We stood together and watched as the plane slowly taxied to the runway and then lifted into the evening sky. I was struck by the fact that the body of this Royal Marine was the only “cargo” on this flight.
So, as you hurry about your various holiday activities, parties and shopping, be sure to pause frequently and offer a word of thanks to God for not only our American service members, but those thirty other nations that have joined us in the fight. Yes, you can sleep more securely because these warriors are doing the hard work.
And offer a prayer of thanks to God for the families of both the fallen, and the ones who continue to press hard against a ruthless enemy. This is a fight we must win.
God bless America. And God save the Queen.