Scenes of war, yet a job to do

25 years in military fail to prepare chaplain for devastation at Pentagon

Terrorism Strikes America

Washington

September 14, 2001|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a 25-year military career that put colonel's wings on the right collar of his Army National Guard battle fatigues, Chaplain Bob Chance had never seen the wages of war until he crossed the Potomac River Wednesday morning into Arlington, Va.

Riding in a government-issue sedan, he saw a pillar of smoke rising to the south, dazed civilians wandering aimlessly through the trees, depleted rescue workers sleepwalking to shady plots of grass.

And off in the near distance, fires still raging on the west side of the Pentagon - nearly a full day after it was torn by an exploding airliner.

"I don't even know what to compare it to," he said Wednesday night. "Maybe, it's what you'd feel like if you pulled into your driveway and found your house burned down while you were away. Nothing I saw on TV prepared me. It was almost too real. Like maybe ... I still can't describe it."

Chance was among the first military bereavement counselors to volunteer for duty at the Pentagon crash site Wednesday. He showed up for work at the D.C. Armory the night before after a dash down Interstate 95 from his home in Ashton. Slept on a cot with his duffel for a pillow. Headed into Arlington shortly after daybreak.

University of Maryland, Class of '68; doctorate from Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky; pastor of Aspen Hill Christian Church; decades of training for "mass casualty situations," as he described it, in his best attempt at military detachment. He thought he was ready for this.

But by late Wednesday night - back in his tiny office at the armory, down the block from RFK Stadium, surrounded by the familiar mementos of a long career with the Washington National Guard - the father of three was reaching for Kleenex.

"We have not seen anything near the worst of this yet," he said. "The bodies are still to come." And after that, he said, the already unbearable grief will deepen to something unrecognizable in national memory.

His own worst hours were a blur.

There was the midday survivors briefing at the Army National Guard Readiness Center in Arlington - "full of people with missing friends, family and loved ones who were only then finding out: `He's all right, or she's OK. Or not.' A lot of people still don't know, and they're getting more desperate by the hour."

There was the impromptu prayer service in the cafeteria that drew 70 people "from all walks of life - civilians, uniformed personnel, paramedics, people of every faith and denomination, or no denomination at all; half of them had no idea why they were there, except need."

And then, there were the troops.

Young guardsmen and women from units as far away as Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the Carolinas, streamed in throughout the long day and night - "on their own, without orders, some of them without uniforms, willing to do anything or go anywhere."

"We use the word hero way too much," said Chaplain Chance, blotting his eyes with a ball of tissue. "Sometimes, it's just a matter of `there's a job to do.' And there's more than enough of that to go around right now."

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