My heart aches even as I write this blog...
A few months ago I had been praying about a way that I could serve people and possibly share the Gospel with people inside during the inclement weather months. My mom had told me months ago that I should go to the VA Hospital and visit with the veterans. I thought it was a good idea, but never gave it much more thought because I knew that it was going to be a headache to get through the 'red tape' to be able to visit with patients.
About a month ago during prayer, God had really impressed upon me to contact the VA Hospital and see about visiting with some of the veterans at the hospital. I would not put it off any longer. Being a nine-year active duty veteran of the United States Marine Corps, I knew it was time to give back and visit with these brave folks. I went through all the paperwork, medical tests, interviews and orientation to become an official 'volunteer'.
The VA Hospital has a strict 'no religious conversations' policy that I discovered during orientation. I thought, "Great! I've went through all of this and I won't be able to "legally" share the Gospel." I was definitely disappointed, but decided to continue forward.
Today was my first day...
I arrived at the hospital and circled the parking lot for what seemed like thirty minutes looking for a parking space. I finally found one...ironically, in the Volunteer parking lot! I went in and met with my coordinator, Rhonda. She gave me some last minute instructions and I was off. I stopped by the Volunteer sign-in room and then headed to my first destination.
I checked in with the nurse's station and explained that I just wanted to talk to some of the veterans, thank them for their service to our country and listen to them. I asked if there were any patients that would like a visitor. I got the strangest looks! They were like, "Um, yeah, okay. Hold on..." Soon, the head nurse came over and explained that the hospital already had chaplains. Mind you, I was dressed in jeans, a non-collared shirt and a wind-breaker jacket with no Bible in hand. I did not have a Bible and had never mentioned anything about praying for anyone or talking about God (this, of course, was against the policy).
I looked at her with the RCA dog look (huh?) and explained that I was simply there to visit with the patients and pointed to my volunteer badge. She then got a nurse to escort me to my first room.
Nervous, I gingerly stepped into the room. Martin greeted me with a smile. He had long hair and was missing one leg. He looked like the stereo-typical Vietnam veteran. I learned that he did a few tours in Vietnam and that the effects of Agent Orange caused him to lose his leg from the knee down. He was in the hospital waiting to have his other leg removed. I almost started crying right then and had to quickly gain my composure. Every thought of me not getting my way...my selfishness...my taking for granted just how much I have to be thankful for came flooding in. "God help my selfishness and self-centeredness.", I muttered under my breath. I talked with Martin a little while longer, thanked him for his service and proceeded back to the nurses' station. I left the room overwhelmed.
After washing my hands with the 'foam', I stopped in to speak with David. His wife was sitting next to his bed. He was also a Vietnam veteran that was getting treatment for a non-related illness. I soon found out that I was the one who was going to get the treat when I visited David. According to his wife, David is the most decorated soldier in the state of Kentucky. David began to tell me about how he earned one of his awards...a Purple Heart. He said that he was in Hue City and they were pinned down in a building by one enemy, but were out of regular fragmentation grenades. He said that he handed his friend what they had left, a white phosphorous ("Willy Pete" WP) grenade. His friend pulled the pin, let the spoon fly, stood up to throw it out the window...and was struck in the head with a bullet. The WP hit the floor and Dave jumped on it. Needless to say, he was severely wounded. He suffered burns over 40% of his body. He showed me some of the scars. I sat speechless as he continued to share this intimate and personal story with me. After a while, I thanked him and his wife, and as I did with Martin, I thanked him for his service and proceeded back to the nurses' station.
I stopped off at the bathroom to wash my hands and headed to the next floor. I stopped at the nurses' station as I had on the previous floor. They told me to simply choose any room and see if they wanted company. I knocked on Doug's door and he told me to enter. Doug was a mountain of a man that consumed the entire bed. He had the adjustable arm of the television stretched over with the screen right in front of him. I reached out, shook his hand and introduced myself. I explained why I was there and Doug proceeded to tell me that he had completed four tours in Vietnam. We chit-chatted a bit more as I listened to him. Out of the blue he asked me, "Are you a preacher man?" Again, I was taken aback, because I had never mentioned anything about God and wasn't looking too "stereo-typically preacherly" today. I told him that I wasn't "officially" a pastor, but was currently training to be. He replied, "I knew you were. I've been around lots of pastors and I can just tell." I said, "Is that a good thing?" He said, "Oh, yeah, it's a good thing." Dumbfounded, I continued to listen. After a while I thanked him for his service and proceeded to wander into another room.
I happened upon Charles and Eugene as I entered the next room. It seemed like a scene out of "Grumpy Old Men". They both invited me in, but looked at me like, "Who are you?" I explained myself and Charles motioned for me to come help him get up out of his bed. He led me over to a chair and he sat down. I began to have small talk with Charles and found out that he served during the 1950's, possibly the tail-end of Korea. I happened to ask him when he was going to get out of the hospital. He explained that he would be out soon, but it wasn't good. I told him that I didn't understand. He looked at me and tears welled up in his eyes. He put his finger to his throat and made a left-to-right slicing motion. He was letting me know that he had some sort of terminal disease and was going to leave the hospital...by death.
After a few minutes, I helped Charles to the bathroom. While standing at the bathroom door, he whispered, "I ain't gonna make it. That's what I was trying to tell you over there. I don't want him to know it." He went in the bathroom and closed the door. I went back over and sat down in the chair and tried to talk to Eugene. He could not speak well and I just nodded at most everything he said.
The door to the bathroom cracked open and Charles poked his head out. He asked me to get some underwear for him out of a bag behind his night stand. I walked over and noticed a partially torn paper bag that had clothing items in it. I grabbed the bag and put it on the bed. I sorted through the clothes, found a pair of underwear and handed it to him. He said, "I want the ones with the black band." I sifted through and found the ones he wanted. Charles took the underwear and slowly closed the bathroom door.
While I waited, I figured I would do some 'house cleaning'. I folded his clothes that were in the paper bag and put them in the top drawer of his night stand. I picked up paper off of the floor and made his bed. I noticed that he had a fresh hospital top and bottom in his closet. I grabbed the bottoms, knocked on the bathroom door and handed them to Charles. He was pleasantly surprised considering that he had soiled in the pair he had on. When he came out of the bathroom I helped him put the fresh top on after helping him over to his chair.
Charles' food had arrived while he was in the bathroom and he was ready to eat. I wheeled his table around served him by opening up his utensils, food and drink. It was funny...Eugene kept pointing to Charles and then point to Charles' bed. I told Charles, "I think he wants you to get back into bed." Charles said, "Yeah, I know." Eugene kept it up until Charles finally told him that he didn't want to lay down anymore. Eugene flipped him "the bird". I chuckled and then Charles softly, but sternly said, "You go to hell." I have to admit that I laughed...but when I stopped to think about the reality of the possible fate of hell for these two men, was it really funny?
I stayed, prayed silently for these men and visited a little while longer and decided to be on my way. I thanked both Eugene and Charles for letting me spend some time with them and that I appreciated their sacrifice of service to our country. I washed my hands in their bathroom sink and headed down the hallway.
My last stop of the day would be with Billy. Like me, Billy had served in the Army for nine years from 1948-1954. He was very talkative and seemed to enjoy my company. I don't think I said two words in the twenty minutes or so that I was there! It was a blessing just to simply listen to his story. During our conversation, two nurses came in to transport him to another location. I shook his hand, thanked him for the conversation and his service to our country. I walked back to the nurse's station to let them know I was leaving. I had about all I could handle for the day...I was emotionally drained.
I headed back to the Volunteer room in the basement. There were about three or four older men, also volunteers and presumably veterans, waiting to be called upon if needed. They haven't quite figured me out yet. I sat in the room for a few minutes, just collecting myself. I finally decided to leave. I told the guys bye (and thanked them for their service!) and I began the long walk back to my vehicle.
During the ride home, I felt such a strain...a battle waging. I thought to myself, "Those men really needed to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There must be some way that I can "legally" share the Gospel. I can come in and tend to their physical and emotional needs all day long, but if they die without Christ..." I prayed for those that I visited with almost all the way home.
I think my next step will be to set up an appointment with the hospital's chaplain. Will he allow me to speak to the patients about Christ? Will he say that I don't "rate" to share the Gospel because I'm not officially a chaplain? I don't know, but I guess I'm about to find out.
Now I know that some of you "hard-chargers" might be thinking, "John, there's nothing that can stop you from sharing the Gospel! Just do it!!" I just can't do it, not in good conscience. I've signed paperwork and made a commitment to abide by all of the hospital's policies and I intend to keep my word.
I'm continuing to pray and see what happens next...