STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 03/30/2007

ARTICLE | The Accidental Chaplain

Story Robert Whittet '78

Landstuhl Hospital, Germany
It was a beautiful Monday in May. My academic robe and hood were back in my closet; my final grades had been turned in. I was ankle deep in cement, helping my colleague, Mark Cannister, pour a cement slab at his house in South Hamilton, when I received a phone call from the administrator at Bethany Church in Greenland, New Hampshire. I was surprised by his question: Was I available to fly to Germany immediately, hopefully by the end of the day?

We had heard the day before that Sgt. Conan Marchi, a former member of my youth group and student leadership team, had been shot and critically wounded by a sniper in the city of Hit, Iraq. I'd led prayer for Conan, his wife, Hope, and parents, Bob and Jolene during worship that Sunday morning. The administrator explained, now, that word had come that Conan was on his way to the Landstuhl Hospital at Ramstein Air Force Base in southern Germany. He was in critical condition, with a life-threatening straight-through gunshot wound to his abdomen. His wife and parents were on the way. It would be important for Conan and his family to have someone from Bethany on scene--and the pastoral staff felt I was that person.

After I hung up I said to Mark, who was looking at me quizzically, "I think I need to go to Germany . . . right now."

Mark and I gave the cement one last skimming; I jumped in my car for the hour-long trip home to Rye, New Hampshire. In the car I called my wife, Jean, and then my travel agent, asking him to please get me on the first available flight later that day. He called back with the news that there was one seat available on a Continental flight to Frankfurt, scheduled to leave Boston at 3:30. I glanced down at my watch--it was one o'clock, and I was in Salisbury, Massachusetts, northbound. Once at home, I changed my cement-covered clothes, literally tossed a few things into a suitcase, and grabbed my passport in the kitchen on my way out the door.

At Logan Airport I was quickly ticketed and then sprinted for the gate, where the flight was already boarding. Settling into my seat, heart pounding, I rubbed my face and realized I hadn't shaved while I was at home. In fact, I hadn't shaved in three days--after all, it was the beginning of summer.

On the ground in Frankfurt, I made a quick stop at the Budget counter to get a car and a map, eager to get to the hospital before dark. The Autobahn, with its average middle-lane speed of 105 miles per hour, was just what I needed.

Clearing security at Gate 3 to Ramstein AFB with what appeared to be divine intervention (I had no idea how I was going to get onto the base), I came upon Landstuhl Hospital, the largest U.S. military hospital outside of the United States. I wound through the long corridors with a tall sergeant from Georgia who had offered to help me find Sgt. Marchi. I began to wonder what awaited me when I got to the room. In 18 years in the pastorate, I'd made plenty of hospital calls, but never one like this.

We entered Conan's room. The young man whom I'd first met as a gangly middle school student, and whose wedding I'd officiated at five years ago, lay there under a plethora of IV bags and pints of transfusing blood. When our eyes met, his jaw dropped. "Conan, don't worry," I said. "This doesn't mean you are going to die."

After we'd had a few hours to pray and visit together he asked, "Do you want to hear what happened?"

I said that I did, indeed. I had to wonder if Conan was mad at God for allowing the serious wound he had suffered. But as I listened to his story of what had happened three days before, it quickly became evident that just the opposite was true.

Four months into their 12-month deployment, he and his squad of five soldiers and their Iraqi translator had been on patrol on the streets of Hit, looking for weapon caches. His squad walked up the street, three in front of him and two behind. Conan was momentarily distracted by something and happened to glance down. It was exactly then that he felt something rip into his hip, as if he'd been hit by a baseball bat. His legs went out from underneath him and he collapsed on the street, hearing a gunshot ring out from up the street. A second shot then hit the translator in the knee--again there was a delay between the arrival of the bullet and the sound of the shot. Saving him from a possible follow-up kill shot, one of the men in the squad grabbed Conan by the loop on top of his armored vest and threw him behind some metal barricades off the side of the street as others fired their weapons in covering fire. Another, a medic, worked feverishly to control Conan's bleeding until the rescue patrol arrived with an armored vehicle to evacuate him.

Conan said of the sniper, "He was really good, placing that bullet less than one inch under the bottom of my armored vest from that distance." The sniper had been an expert marksman, shooting a high-powered rifle from possibly as far away as a half mile, which explained the delay in hearing the sound of the gunshots. "But God saved my life," Conan went on. The momentary distraction that had caused him to look down took away the possibility of the fatal forehead shot-the favorite of snipers. Glancing down at just that moment had also tipped his bulletproof helmet down, leaving the second-best shot that the sniper hopes will hit your femoral artery. The shot missed Conan's artery by less than half an inch.

Conan recounted his subsequent airlifting to a medical facility in Iraq where he had the first two surgeries required to save his life. Another round of surgery the following morning stabilized and prepared him for the medical evacuation flight to Germany. Upon arriving in Germany it was another trip to surgery. By the time I arrived on Tuesday afternoon he was already up to his eighth surgery. Little did either of us know then that the surgeries required to battle against infection would eventually number more than 20.

Over the course of my visit, I came to realize that the military is a community unto itself, with its own language and customs. After the fourth straight person I was introduced to greeted me as "chaplain," I decided to go with it, and took on the role of chaplain not just for Conan and his family, but for a steady stream of visitors who stopped by, many of them fellow wounded who were also recovering in the hospital. Most of the wounded were victims of shrapnel from roadside bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). One soldier moved briskly around in his wheelchair. It was his third time to Landstuhl to be treated for wounds. This time he had been driving a Humvee up a street when he ran over an explosive device. The shrapnel passed up through the floorboards and took off three of his toes before striking him in the jaw. His feet were healing. He had had some reconstructive surgery done on his jaw, but would need more.

"I need to go to Walter Reed to get my good looks back so I can get back to my unit," he explained to me.

Every soldier that I had opportunity to talk with at Landstuhl talked of getting back to his or her unit in Iraq. As I heard their stories, I could not escape the reality of people like these whom most of us will never meet, who are willing to serve and sacrifice on behalf of all of us.

The ravages and the uncertainties of war were exemplified in Conan's up-and-down recovery. His temperature would be 99° one minute and 104° less than an hour later as infection in his wounds festered--usually requiring yet another trip to the operating room. I watched him panic when someone opened the curtains in his room to check the weather. "Exposure!" he yelled. His body was in Germany, but his mind was still in the war zone where something as simple as opening the curtain can be a fatal decision, as you expose yourself to a sniper. Plucked from the pressures of combat, it would take him some time to realize he was now safe. He would eventually decompress and begin to look forward to heading home.

I returned home several days later to continue my summer, blessed by the high honor of bringing spiritual comfort to some extraordinary people, the wounded members of our military.

Sgt. Conan Marchi (pictured right), who received a Purple Heart for being wounded in action, continues to recover from his injuries at the Landstuhl Hospital in Germany. He is in daily physical therapy and working hard to be able to walk and move about normally. Having joined the military after high school, he is looking forward to starting college studies after he is discharged, and is considering Gordon College.

Bob Whittet, M.Div., serves on the faculty as an associate professor of youth ministries. He resides in Rye, New Hampshire, with his wife, Jean '81. They have four children: Ethan '04, Justin (Westmont '07), Aaron '09 and Amanda '09.


Bob Whittet and Conan Marchi