The phone rang about 9 p.m. in the chapel tent. U.S. Air Force chaplain Maj. Shane Gaster, 48, answered. It was U.S. Army mortuary affairs. A U.S. war casualty would soon be arriving at Baghdad International Airport. It was the 40th call like this in Gaster's then-first month of deployment.
As always, Gaster and his chaplain's assistant, Airman 1st Class Marco Avecilla, went to the flight line, where a C-130 Hercules aircraft waited to take the soldier's body home. When the U.S. Army truck carrying the body arrived, a sergeant called all present to attention. Gaster and his assistant led the pallbearers and Honor Guard into the cargo hold.
"There we were under dim lights looking at the flag-draped casket and thinking about the young soldier beneath it, lying in rest at our feet," said Gaster, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-endorsed chaplain.
He urged the troops to come closer and then shared with them. "I suspected he had slept in a tent last night with his friends and comrades, ate breakfast with them that morning and didn't plan to end his day like this," he said.
Moments later, "Hear the Word of the Lord," Gaster said. Airman Avecilla read Psalm 23. After a moment of silence, the chaplain offered a prayer for the soldier's family, hometown and the nation. Then he prayed for the soldier's comrades.
"When you see your friend shot or killed in front of you, it's stark reality. You had breakfast with them, but they are not back for supper. They won't answer roll call anymore. Their cot will be empty that night," he said. (12-30-04)