Chaplain’s perspective: ‘God pushed me’
USAF photo: Chief Master Sgt. Ty Foster Chaplain (Capt.) Eusebia D. Rios blesses one of three triplets in the children's ward of the University of Miami Hospital compound adjacent to the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Port au Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 29. The babies were born in the wake of the earthquake which devastated the capital city. Chaplain Rios, deployed from the 27th Special Operations Wing, serves as the only chaplain to more than 1,500 military men and women encamped at the airport as part of Operation Unified Response.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The noise is constant. C-130s, C-17s, DC-10s, Cessnas, Lears and other engines run through the day and night. The vibrations from planes taking off on the flight line conceal the rumbling of the earth beneath every step we take. Each face, weary and red, has a determined look. These are Air Commandos and they know only one thing — there is always a way to get the mission done.
As the dust and broken concrete spring off my boots, I make my rounds to each individual. I hear “Hey Chappy!” and I smile and wave at a security forces troop weighted down in gear and weapon. I traverse through more broken concrete and stop dead in my tracks as a Gater vehicle stops by with two sun burnt faces smiling at me.
“Hey chappy, got an ‘Amen’ for us today?” I laugh and say, “Amen.”
It has been five days now since we last showered, and even though my senses say I should be repulsed by the odor that I expel, we all share this badge of honor — sweat and compassion and a desire to touch the lives within Haiti.
In the medical tent there is laughter and unity. Immediately, I feel as if I walked into a family gathering. They know each other and anticipate the needs of each other with very few words. I know they are more than a team, and the small tent is more like a home away from home. Their mood changes quickly, however, when the helicopter arrives with the injured.
I reach for my work gloves in my cargo pocket, and in step with the medics, take off in full sprint toward the helicopter. This routine is repeated several times a day and the injured come in by vehicle as well. I grab one of the litter handles and wait until all are ready to move forward. Our steps are between a sprint and a fast walk. We hurry to the med tent and place the patient securely on the litter stand.
As I back away from the litter, the doctors and medical technicians assess the patient and move quickly to begin stabilization. Watching them work, I see their unity even more. They respond to the tone in each other’s voice, to a gesture. They move together with one focus — to save the life of this complete stranger. A man was brought in. He was found after being buried in rubble for five days. His family thought he was dead. His broken English pierces through the gauze around his face. His eye is unveiled from the wad of gauze covering his wound. He looks into the eyes of the medical technician and asks, “’I am alive?”
During all this, I pray. I stand to the side amazed at the medical staff’s passion. I speak their names in a quiet prayer and ask God to strengthen the heart and soul of the patient. As the chaos ends, and patients are now stable and resting in the litters. In the dimly lit tent, I watch a med technician slowly giving the patient water with a plastic tip syringe. Then she feeds him oatmeal and then peanut butter. He responds to her voice. He smiles each times he looks at her.
Meanwhile, a woman lies in a cot in the corner. She is a missionary worker who came to help with the orphan babies in a town right next to Port-au-Prince. She was found in the midst of several bodies in a place ravaged by the earthquake. Her name is Peggy. Peggy has a tender heart and loves people so very much. She lies very still for fear of injury to her spleen. She does not ask for food or water she lays in her cot still. I walk over to her and kneel beside her cot.
Without me asking one question or saying a thing, Peggy begins to share her story. As she shares the events of the earthquake, she stops mid-sentence and places her forearm over her eyes. Her lips tighten. She begins to weep. I reach for her hand and I listen to her lament. She asks me several times, “Chaplain, why? Why did I get to live? These are poor people. Why did the children ... why did the people have to die? Why did I get to live? Why am I still alive?”
I said nothing. I allowed the silence. The pause speaks to her soul. I placed my other hand on her forehead and consoled her by rubbing her head the way my father would calm me down when I was scared at night.
Peggy took several deep breaths. Several more tears rolled down her cheek. Then she said, as she gripped my hand, “Chaplain, thank you for being here. Thank you for being here for me.” I waited and said nothing. When a peace embraced us as I knelt there by her cot, I asked her if I could pray for her. My prayer was short, but long before I said a thing, I believe God already spoke. After prayer, Peggy said, ‘"I believe God is not done with me yet. There is still more He wants me to do.”
As I left the medical tent, Peggy’s words strengthened me to continue my long walk down the flight line to embrace the weary who were leaving and to encourage those who were coming to assist in the rescue and treatment of the injured. By the hundreds they left and by the hundreds they waited to board planes.
There were many stories of incredible portion on the flight line, but the story of one lady still stands out for me to this day.
Maggie is 81 years old. Her hair is grey and white. She was sitting on a bench waiting to board her plane. There was something about her that drew me to her, so I asked her if I could sit with her while she waited. She spoke English and invited me to sit next to her. She asked me what I do. I told her I was a chaplain, and I pray for people.
She said to me these words, “God is so very good. God pushed me you know. God is so very good. I was sitting in my living room asleep on the chair when all of a sudden the hand of God pushed me and woke me up.
“Yes, at first I thought I was imagining it, but I swear it the hand of God pushed me. God pushed me out of my chair, and then through the living room. God pushed me into the dining room and then into the room in the back of my house.
“Then as I stood there God would not let me move out of the room. Then the earthquake started and as I stood there motionless, my house fell all around me. The only room in the house standing was the room God pushed me into.
“God pushed me chaplain and that is why I am here — I am alive.”
As I think about the day and all the events that transpire I am amazed that 18 hours later we all still have time to smile and laugh. One of my security forces troops says to me, “Chappy thanks” I ask him for what and he says, “For just being here.”
I laugh, because, I thought to myself, God pushed me and here I am.