By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 26, 2009 - The boxes arrive daily from the United States, 15 to 20 each day, along with $8,000 to $12,000 in cash every week from Americans and U.S. nonprofit groups. The boxes and the money are meant for the wounded warriors who pass through here, most coming from Afghanistan or Iraq. More than 54,000 wounded warriors have passed through Landstuhl Regional Medical Center's doors since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001, according to a hospital spokesman.
Lined with shelves organized in a manner that would make even the most obsessive-compulsive supply sergeant proud is the "Chaplains' Closet." The name is a misnomer; it is about the size of an average neighborhood convenience store and its official name is the Wounded Warrior Ministry Center.
The Chaplains' Closet shelves are stacked with clothing, toiletries and shoes. A box of shoes marked "single shoes, left" is for servicemembers who are amputees. Their spirit shows in their humor. Recently, one soldier took a left shoe and another soldier took a right from the same pair. They looked at each other. "We're brothers," one quipped.
The servicemembers who receive the donations didn't expect to be here -- they arrive suddenly, with nothing, because they required treatment for wounds suffered on the battlefield. The medical center is a jointly staffed, Army-commanded, 138-bed hospital near Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It is the largest American hospital outside the United States.
"We have Conex boxes full of stuff," said Air Force Lt. Col. Curtis Wagner, a Protestant chaplain from the Ohio Air National Guard's 179th Airlift Wing, serving a 120-day rotation here. "We have a whole warehouse at Ramstein that's filled with these donations. We just get so much in, and then we distribute it to the soldiers."
About 1,200 servicemembers visit the Chaplains' Closet each month. If they are bed-ridden, a liaison officer gets their supplies for them. On average, servicemembers spend three to five days here before they are sent to the United States or back into theater.
A team of volunteers -- family members and the local community -- donates 500 to 600 hours each month to help the chaplains accomplish their mission.
"We have distributed over $2 million of financial support in these last seven or eight years," Wagner said.
Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, the chaplains take wounded warriors on trips in the local area to help them relax and sightsee. The chaplains use some of the donated money to pay for transportation and meals. "That helps break up their time here," Wagner said.
Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Barry of the Illinois Air National Guard's 183rd Airlift Wing, a Roman Catholic chaplain and teacher from Chicago, is serving his sixth tour at the hospital in five years. "It's the best ministry I've ever done," he said.
Until Sept. 11, 2001, the medial center had two chaplains and two assistants. Since then, that staff has grown to seven chaplains and six assistants. The chaplain staff mirrors the jointness increasingly found throughout the Defense Department. Two chaplains and two assistants are active-duty Army; two each are Navy; two each are National Guard; and one is from the Canadian armed forces.
Servicemembers at the medical center can talk with chaplains from a variety of religious backgrounds, including Buddhist. When they do not want to talk to a chaplain, the chaplains encourage servicemembers to talk with someone, because they believe talking helps with stress.
"One of the things we try to do is to get the guys to talk about what they've been through," Wagner said. "It's a privilege to me. I get a front seat to these incredible, heroic things that they've done."
(Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill serves with the National Guard Bureau.)