LCMS chaplains, World Relief respond to Fort Hood shootings

By Linda C. Hoops

“It’s been an awful week.”

These are the words of Chaplain Dann Ettner, one of four Missouri Synod chaplains assigned to Fort Hood, in the wake of the Nov. 5 shootings there. fort-hood-new.gif Ettner, an active duty reservist, lost five members of his division during the rampage that left eight others dead and 42 wounded.

Because all five of the dead in his division were from other states, chaplains in their home areas were responsible for notifying their families. Ettner’s duty “turned to comforting the living.”

In an e-mail, he wrote, “I spent the first night in the ICU with four of my [injured] soldiers.  On Friday morning I attended the military ramp ceremony where they loaded the 13 caskets into a military aircraft bound for Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.” 

The base serves as the transit point for slain soldiers prior to their funerals.   

“We continue to work with the hospitalized, their families who have traveled here, as well as the soldiers who were released from the hospital and returned to their units,” he added.  “Survivors’ guilt is huge right now.  Soldiers are starting to say, ‘I should have, could have, would have.'”

It fell to LCMS Chaplain Oliver Washington to notify the family of the death of a civilian employee who worked with his Army National Guard division.

“When the initial news reports went out about the shootings, there was no mention of any civilians who had died,” he said.  “Therefore, when I showed up with the CACO [Casualty Assistance Calls Officer] at the home of [the civilian], his wife was caught off guard by the news.” 

“I assisted [his wife] in making phone calls to tell loved ones, and made sure a friend would be staying with her until her family arrived.  They are a strong, Christian family,” Washington said.

In the days immediately following the shootings, he and mental health providers conducted debriefing sessions for anyone directly related to the incident, then served as host to the three victims’ families during the memorial services.

“The whole event has been surreal,” he said.  “I find myself often reflecting on God’s good grace in what He has brought me through in the past, through my deployments, to have me serve here at this time.”

As part of the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center’s (CRDAMC) mass casualty team, Chaplain Joe Pederson, who retired from active duty as an Army chaplain in 2005 but was voluntarily recalled in 2008, reported to the emergency room at 2 p.m. that Thursday while the wounded were still being brought in. 

“I worked in the ER until all the soldiers had been forwarded from the emergency room to the operating room, the third floor, or sent on to other hospitals,” he wrote.  “I stayed at CRDAMC until 9 p.m., visiting the wounded.”

On Friday, Pederson counseled the soldiers and civilians in his battalion who had been either at the hospital, in the building with the shooter, or who came from the graduation ceremony next door to the site of the shooting and rendered first aid.

“That evening I was assigned to the Fort Hood Spiritual Fitness Center from 6 p.m. until midnight.  A woman who was very upset came in with her husband. I ministered to her for about 40 minutes,” he wrote.

Chaplain Mark Schreiber, director of the Synod’s Ministry to the Armed Forces, said all the chaplains will continue their ministries by visiting the wounded who remain hospitalized and their families for several weeks until the trauma has settled and the families are better able to cope. 

“All chaplains are trained in mass casualty exercises and stress management and know what to do in these terrible, traumatic events,” Schreiber said.

But while the chaplains have the training to respond efficiently in these types of situations, they, too, may need some assistance in processing their experiences. 

To that end, Dr. Robert Preece, first vice president of the Texas District and pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Dallas, hosted a breakfast Nov. 23 in Killeen for the four LCMS chaplains assigned to the base, several pastors of nearby congregations, and a circuit counselor. 

Preece began the breakfast with questions: “What were you doing when you heard what was happening on the post?  What was your reaction?  What would you erase from your memory, if you could?  What was hardest to handle?” 

Along with the other pastors, he said, the chaplains described what they saw, did, and felt as the day’s events unfolded.

“It was a chance for them to process what had occurred, because for them, this was a combat situation.   It also was an opportunity for me to do something — not only for Christ, but also for my country,” he added. 

The breakfast concluded with a devotion, with each pastor and chaplain offering a collect appropriate to the time of war. 

Rev. Carlos Hernandez, director of districts and congregations with LCMS World Relief and Human Care (WR-HC), flew to the base Nov. 9 to assist area LCMS pastors and their congregations in responding to the shootings.

On Nov. 13, he wrote in a message that has been posted on WR-HC’s Web site (www.lcms.org/?16049): “Probably the most intense moments of the week were during the memorial ceremonies when ‘roll call’ began and the [names of the] deceased are called — three times — and there is no answer.  The silence was a powerful and poignant reminder that precious lives were senselessly silenced.”

“These ceremonies tear your heart out,” Hernandez said that same day in a radio interview on KFUO-AM.  “To see afort-hood2.gifll these young people, just children practically, whose friends and comrades have been taken away, it’s so emotional.”

WR-HC has provided a $5,000 initial grant to Grace Lutheran Church and School, Killeen, one of four LCMS congregations near the base, to assist a Family Readiness Group (FRG) that is assigned to the 20th Engineer Battalion.  Four of the battalion’s soldiers were killed and 11 wounded. 

The FRG, which provides a supportive network for the spouses of deployed soldiers, is using the grant money to help families of the wounded as they stay in the area to be close to their loved ones.

“Most of them came in with limited resources on a moment’s notice,” said Nancy Ingenloff, leader of the FRG and a pre-kindergarten teacher at Grace.  “We are trying to help them with food, gas, housing, and other basic needs while they are here.”

The FRG also assembled activity packets for the children of the families, which included materials that tell of Christ’s love for them, said Ingenloff, who is the wife of a company commander in the battalion.

“When people are hurting, we would like them to seek comfort in Jesus’ arms,” she said.  “They need to know there is a just and loving God, even in times like these.”

Grace’s pastor, Rev. Andrew Greene, told WR-HC staff that the majority of the church’s congregation is in some way connected to army life, with about 15 to 20 members having spouses deployed. 

Hernandez visited the three other LCMS congregations that surround the Fort Hood base:  Trinity and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Copperas Cove and Immanuel Lutheran in Temple, whose members already have contributed more than $1,100 toward helping the victims and their families.

Rev. Bernard Schey, pastor of Trinity, Copperas Cove, said that, although no one in the congregation had family members injured or killed, the event still affects the congregation indirectly, as many are either retired military or employed on the post.

One Trinity member is a respiratory therapist and was on duty at the hospital where the more seriously wounded were taken.  “Not only was she treating the young men and women who were wounded, but then she also had to treat the alleged shooter, an obviously difficult position, and she became extremely upset,” he said.  Schey added that he has been ministering to her through phone calls and visits.

“The work here has just begun,” Hernandez wrote in his Web site message.  “We know that recovery is a long-term process.  But we are blessed to be here in the early aftermath of this tragedy.  As the chaplain said in his meditation at the memorial ceremony for the soldiers, ‘We are to make God real for each other in our grief.'”

To help WR-HC assist the families of the wounded:

  • Make a credit card gift online at http://givenowlcms.org (click on “LCMS World Relief and Human Care Disaster Response,” then “Fort Hood Shootings Relief”).
  • Make a credit card gift by phone at 888-930-4438.
  • Send a check to LCMS World Relief and Human Care, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861. (Make checks payable to LCMS World Relief and Human Care, and note “Fort Hood Shootings Relief” on the memo line.)

To learn more about LCMS chaplain service, visit the Web site of Ministry to the Armed Forces, a division of LCMS World Mission, at www.lcms.org/?1224.

Linda C. Hoops is a freelance writer and a member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Sunset Hills, Mo.

Posted Nov. 18, 2009

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