Conversation: Robert Leathers
Ministry at the world’s busiest trauma center
Chaplain Robert Leathers serves on the chaplaincy staff at
Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He has been an active duty
Army chaplain since 1993. He talked recently with Scott Harrup, senior
associate editor, about his service in Iraq.
tpe: How did you become a chaplain?
LEATHERS: When I was 18, I sensed God’s call to ministry
while I was attending Dexter AG in Dexter, Mo. I went to Central Bible College
and then Assemblies of God Theological Seminary to prepare. I learned about the
military chaplaincy at seminary.
At that time, I had not even heard of military chaplains
even though I had grown up in a military family. My dad was a Ranger instructor
at Fort Benning, Ga. Dad did not go to church most of the years I was growing
up. Fortunately, Dad came to Christ a couple of years before he died. I was 12
when we lost him. The chaplaincy allowed me to fulfill my dream of serving in
the military while answering God’s call to ministry.
tpe: You served two tours in Iraq. What were your
LEATHERS: I spent six months in the field my first
deployment and a year in hospital chaplaincy in Baghdad my second. The thing
about hospital ministry I love so much is that lives change. When people come
into that environment, nobody leaves it the same.
I spent the year at Ibn Sina Hospital in the Green Zone. We
would get rocketed, mortared and come under small-arms fire. Baghdad always
makes me struggle for words to describe it. It’s war. It’s the death of
innocence. It’s the best worst time you’ll ever have.
tpe: Could you talk more about that?
LEATHERS: Just to give you an idea of the carnage, trauma
centers are measured by how much blood they transfuse. The average large
hospital in the U.S. will transfuse about 40 units of blood a month. We
averaged 1,600 units a month in Baghdad. Baghdad is still the busiest trauma
hospital in the world.
From the time a patient comes in, we’re at the head of the
bed with them. When they leave on a medevac flight to Germany or Balad Airbase
in northern Iraq, or whether we assist in putting them in body bags and sending
them home on angel flights, it’s very emotional. We also do services on Sunday
and Bible studies. These are constantly interrupted by helicopters coming in,
so plans are not really plans, they’re just ideas to pursue.
tpe: What would you say to people to encourage prayer for
LEATHERS: Growing up in church, I would hear people talk
about “feeling” the prayers of others. I never knew what that was about, and
I’m not sure I even believed that — until I got to Baghdad. I can
honestly tell you there were times I felt like the Lord was carrying me. I knew
people were praying for me. I sensed I was surrounded by the Holy Spirit and
that He was telling me He was caring for me.
tpe: How did you see the support of people back home make a
difference in soldiers’ lives?
LEATHERS: We had churches that sent quilts for wounded
soldiers. I remember some soldiers soiling their quilt with their blood, and
they didn’t want the nurse to take it and clean it.
Sometimes the little things you do that you might not think
would amount to a lot — a simple prayer, a little card — go a long
way. The Lord can take a little and do much with it. There were times I thought
I’d give up, and I’d get a letter from someone offering simple encouragement.
That would keep me going.
You hear a lot about Iraq and Afghanistan and the challenges
there. Our chaplains are doing a fantastic job, but they need your prayer and
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