Honor the dead, comfort the living

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 28, 2001

The Rev.

Friday, September 28, 2001

The Rev. Paul Baker is doing what a lot of Americans wish they had the opportunity to do – he’s helping out on the front lines of the recovery effort from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

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Baker, senior pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wells, is an U.S. Army reservist and a member of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps. He was called up last week and sent to the Pentagon to help with Operation Noble Eagle, the crisis response and recovery from the airliner crash into the Pentagon building.

Baker is working with 21 National Guard chaplains from around the country, coordinating funerals, preparing memorial and worship services and offering grief counseling to the families and friends of the victims. Baker said the Pentagon is awash in sadness.

&uot;The grief is pronounced, it really is. You feel it immediately,&uot; Baker said. &uot;But everyone here is filled with a sense of determination. People in offices throughout the Pentagon and the surrounding Department of Defense buildings are putting in the maximum effort – 12 hours a day, 7 days a week – to recover and prepare for what the President and our country needs from us.&uot;

Baker said the main job of a chaplain, particularly during times of great crisis or war, is to the honor the dead and comfort the living.

&uot;I’m talking about giving a blessing at the very moment remains are recovered from the crash site, working with the mortuary teams and giving the process a certain reverence,&uot; Baker said. &uot;Many of these people died in the service of our country. We have to remember that, and we do every day along with the rest of the country.&uot;

Chaplains who were working at the crash site during the search for bodies were distinguishable from the other workers only by a cross drawn on their hardhats with a magic marker. Otherwise, they pitch in to do the hard work of debris removal, Baker said.

&uot;Chaplains have to be prepared for a lot of different sorts of tasks. In this case, it was sifting through the rubble from a very violent act,&uot; he said.

Assisting with notifying families of the death of a loved one is another part of a chaplain’s job, Baker said. A chaplain must always accompany a casualty notification officer to offer some immediate comfort.

Chaplains at the Pentagon are collaborating with counselors, psychologists, doctors and other professionals at a family assistance center where relatives of the victims can get help.

&uot;We had chaplains respond within seconds of the impact to help with rescue and recovery, and they continue to work through the aftermath. It’s what we’re trained to do and what we took an oath to do,&uot; Baker said.

Worship services during the week and on Sundays have been extremely well-attended since the attack. Baker said he thinks it has something to do with the power of prayer.

&uot;I think one of the greatest sources of strength is from prayer. My message to people back home in Minnesota is to keep all victims, families and constantly in your prayers,&uot; he said. &uot;Nobody is exempt from this tragedy.&uot;

Baker is unsure how long he will be on active duty. He hopes to return by Christmas, but the Presidential call-up could extend up to two years.

&uot;A big chunk of my heart and mind are back there in Minnesota and Wells in particular. I have a congregation that is so supportive and wonderful. They’ve given me such support in this,&uot; he said.

An old saying in the Army Chaplain Corps is &uot;Bring God to the soldiers and the soldiers to God.&uot; Baker thinks the saying has been particularly true in the last two and a half weeks.

&uot;I love being a pastor, but I also love being an Army chaplain. We go where the soldiers go to uphold them and support them,&uot; he said. &uot;But to see this devastation and grief right in our nation’s capitol is something I’ll never forget.&uot;