Wednesday, August 6, 2008


An Army Green Beret with a tumor asked, "Have you ever thought
you might die?"

Colby was a twenty-four-year-old hospice patient suffering from a tumor behind his left eye. He was in training to become an Army Green Beret when the tumor was first discovered. An aggressive individual, he did not understand the word quit. He hadsought out all the various cancer treatment protocols the very best military and civilian hospitals could provide. After nearly a year of intensive treatment, the Army sent him home to get his life in order. Colby was going to die. Part of getting his life in order was coming into the hospice program.

Some days he seemed to be handling things in his combative fashion, and other days he would go into a shell of passive, dark silence. He would lie on the sofa and drag his hand on the floor so his old dog, Randy, could lick his fingers.

As time went on, Colby became less and less active. He began to spend more and more time with Randy at his hand. On one of these dark days in his valley, I attempted to bring in some shades of light. We had a connection, because of my being a retired Army Chaplain. There were days when I would be able to share my war stories with him and he would kid me about being an officer protected by the enlisted grunts.

Today, he didn't want any small talk. He was drifting in and out of a weary sleep. His medicine was keeping him free of pain, but unconscious most of the time. Randy was lying by his side, allowing his master's hand to rest on his back. I had an agreement with Colby that if he didn't want to talk, I would just sit by his side for while. This was one of those sitting days.

After a little time he woke up for a minute. "You still here, Chaplain?"

"Yeah, I'm watching your dog enjoy your touch."

"He's a true friend," Then he seemed to go deep inside of himself and in whispered voice he asked, "Have you ever thought that you might die?"

I took a moment to let his question sink in, but before I had a chance to answer he drifted off to sleep again. My thoughts also drifted back to one of my first war stories, one I had not shared with Colby.

I was back in Vietnam. February 13, 1970; it was my first visit to a firebase since coming to Vietnam. Firebase Warrior. My commander was going to be leaving on permanent change of station (PCS) orders on Valentine's Day. We had a big change of command party for him that night. It was a great parting feast; steaks, wine and ice cream and even folk songs written and sung by one of our troops. The Division band was scheduled to arrive the next morning to participate in the change of command.

I was bunked down with a private called Speedy who had space enough for one more to sleep in his bunker. The party was over about ten o'clock. I hit the sack on an air mattress that I had to crawl on, because the bunker was only four feet high and seven feet deep. But, as Speedy said, "It's a safe hooch with two layers of sandbags over

I woke up at two in the morning to use the latrine. Speedy was snoring gently. I crept out to find the "pee tube" which was a pipe hammered in the ground, next to the dump. When I got back, Speedy was awake. "Should I take my boots off?" I asked.

"Chaplain, I wouldn't. You just don't know what might happen?"

He was more of a prophet then he knew. I was almost back to sleep, hoping to dream of home when the world around us began to explode with vengeful force.

I pulled back the split sandbag sack that served as the bunker door and looked out across the firebase. Blasts of orange explosives shouted out their disruptions like thunder and lightening coming from the earth upward into the dark, overcast night. Mortar pits were aglow with flaming orange blasts. Coming from the 105-howitzer area were loud, exploding sounds from Vietcong satchel charges blowing up the big guns. White smoke reflected a yellow tint thorough the night as flares lighting up the sky.

The Vietcong were wreaking havoc over the sleepy firebase. The command tactical operations center was as bright as sunbursts. A-47 rounds screeched though the air while bursts of M-16's answered their foes. Speedy cussed at his M-16. He had not cleaned it for three months and now he doubted its workability. Yelling at Speedy to stay put and guard the bunker opening, I started to pray. The firebase was being over-run. I truly believed I was about to die. My prayer was for my wife and my boys, asking the Lord to care for them and for the men on the base. Believing I was about to become a war casualty, in all that chaos, there was an inner peace that told me no matter what happened to me, all would be right.

Then as suddenly as the horror began, it stopped with a deafening silence. The voice of Captain Jones yelled over the bunkers across the smoking firebase. "All's clear. Chaplain you're needed at the helicopter pad."

Colby stirred and woke again. "I'm sorry, Chaplain, I guess I dozed off. I was just wondering, have you ever thought you would die?" He asked again.

"I sure have, one night in Vietnam our battalion was being over-run and I thought that I was going to be killed. I haven't been the same since. It changed my outlook on life and my approach to ministry."

Colby's eyes closed and his mouth curled up at the corners in a slight smile while his hand softly stroked the back of his faithful pet, Randy.

I had forgotten the lesson I had learned on that early morning on Firebase Warrior in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. It was a lesson that I had to learn over and over again as I ministered to the dying. My instructors were each of my hospice patients. The lesson is simple and inescapable: everyone, including myself, will face the shadow of death.

1 comment:

Kgraham said...

Wow - this is a tear jerker, and also a jerking me back to the true reality kind of thing. Thanks for sharing this...