Ministry Reflections from Balad Air Base, Iraq, II


Dear Friends/Family:

Late yesterday afternoon, my Air Force Theater Hospital chaplain called me.  They had just admitted an “expectant,” a young man so severely wounded that he wasn’t expected to live. He was Hispanic and his dog tags said, “Roman Catholic.” In such circumstances there is only one response — drop everything and go!

When I arrived at the hospital, a nurse told me he had received a gun-shot wound in the head while serving in Mosul. I will call him Antonio. He was totally non-affective, and it seemed as if his life was quickly coming to a close. Now on a ventilator and given enough meds to ease any pain, the doctors and nurses stood back, brought around a screen and gave me some privacy with him. His face was still covered in the blood from his wounds.  

I always treat the wounded as if they can still hear me even if they are unable to respond as was this man. I’m told that hearing is the last of the senses to go.

“Antonio,” I said, “I am Father Linsky, a Roman Catholic priest. I’m here to anoint you and to give you the Apostolic Pardon for the remission of all of your sins.”

Speaking directly into his ear, I went on to explain what I was about to do. After a prayer for him, I gently laid my hands on his head to invoke the Holy Spirit before anointing his forehead and hands.

One of the doctors who accompanies the seriously wounded on flights to Germany had stepped in. He had often attended Mass. He looked at the patient and the chart and admitted that Antonio’ prognosis was not good. Here was a young man, in his absolute prime, seemingly about to die.  

After going around the hospital checking on any other Catholic patients and greeting the staff I made my way back to Antonio. Two staff members were gently washing his body.  There was a tattoo presumably of his daughter on his arm. These staff members had seen too many like Antonio. I was touched by how they treated him with love and kindness.

Watching their labors, the words of Jesus came back to me, “Lord, when did we see you a stranger, and take you in; or naked and clothe you? Or when did we see you sick, or in prison and come to you?” And answering the king will say to them, “Amen, I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me.”

Some patients strike us more than others. Thankfully, I am only called in for the Catholic ones — how I admire my young Protestant chaplain who handles all entering our hospital doors. But the silence of Antonio was deafening. There were no final words, no goodbyes.  

I offered Mass that night for him, praying that God would be benevolent with his soul. But that was not to be the end of this story. I woke up having dreamed that I was next to Antonio, holding his hand in prayer when he opened his eyes. But like Moses, any time I would begin to let his hand go, Antonio’ vital signs would weaken.

Antonio lived through the night. The doctors noted some responsiveness when he was weaned from some of the sedatives, and he was taken into surgery to lessen the pressure on his brain. The hospital became an early stop. Antonio was being prepped for a five and a half hour flight to Landstul Army Medical Center in Germany on an Air Force C-17. He still had not gained consciousness and remained on a ventilator, but he was still alive.  

I prayed with him again. I told him to keep fighting to live. His wife had been called by the medical staff and was on her way to Germany to be with him.  

Will Antonio live? I may never know. But he did become another reason and cause for prayer. After leaving the hospital I went to the motor pool.  Five of the mechanics are Hispanic or from the Philippines and attend Mass and the “Catholic Class” I teach every Sunday night. My request: pray for Antonio!  

After leaving them, I was driving to a staff meeting when I saw the C-17 and the ambulance bus carrying Antonio and several other critically ill or wounded patients. In green letters on the tail was this word: Charleston.

Not only did it remind me of the many Catholics I served in places such as Columbia, Gaffney, Union and Winsboro, but also that the priest who is to replace me is to come from Charleston Air Force Base. I had just mailed him a box of empty oil stocks which were ordered months ago and arrived a few days ago with the hope that he might obtain the Holy Oils from Msgr. Joseph Roth, the diocesan vicar general and pastor of the Cathedral. Then the tie to home would be complete – for future Antonios would be anointed by oil blessed by my own bishop.

Thankfully, most of my time is not spent in the hospital and American injury rates seem to have decreased. Perhaps my words might cause others to think about service and the chaplaincy. At home or abroad the need for priests is so great. For now though, I can simply say thanks to you, the people of the Diocese of Charleston for allowing me to continue to serve these brave young men and women — your sons, daughters, brothers and sisters.

Father Gary Linsky, a priest of the Diocese of Charleston and a U.S. Air Force chaplain, is currently stationed at the Balad Air Base, Iraq.

Editor’s Note: Father Linsky did not use the soldier’s real name out of respect for his privacy. As of press time, he said that Antonio has been transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and remains in serious condition. His family is with him.