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Chaplain Sees No Distress Yet From Disaster Relief Work

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD, Jan. 18, 2005 – The USS Bonhomme Richard arrived in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, in early January, just days after an earthquake and resulting tsunamis devastated the region.

The roughly 3,000 sailors and Marines aboard the Navy amphibious assault ship had heard stories about how bad things were on shore, but were astounded when they saw those things first-hand. The absolute destruction of whole villages and the dead bodies laying literally everywhere is something unseen in recent history.

Some onboard described the scene as looking as if a nuclear blast had leveled everything from the coast up to about two miles inland.

Though Navy Lt. (Chaplain) Eric Hoog is available to lend an ear to those who might want to discuss what they experienced, he said there has been no increase in requests for counseling, as one might have expected.

"Actually, I think it's just the opposite," the chaplain said. "The general spirit has been one of enthusiasm and one of, 'What can I do to help? What area can I help in? How can I contribute?'"

Hoog, a Roman Catholic priest assigned to the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said he sees a spirit of enthusiasm and a willingness to personally contribute to the effort. And while he and the ship's other two chaplains, another Catholic priest and a Lutheran minister, are available to and watch out for their crewmembers, they never forget those directly affected by the disaster.

"We pray every day for the victims of the tsunami disaster and for the survivors and their grieving," he said. "It's included as part of the regular schedule of Roman Catholic Mass."

Hoog said he doesn't find it odd that he hasn't seen anyone wanting to talk about their experience working in the field on disaster relief. It seems that all involved in support of Operation Unified Assistance are riding a wave of adrenaline, he said. In theory, that would mean he could expect to be busy when the crew's role in the relief effort is over. But Hoog said that isn't always the case. Everyone copes differently, he said.

"You just have to be alert to signs of stress in individuals," he said. They may occur within 48 to 72 hours after an experience, or the individual may keep the stress at bay until the experience is over. After that final mission is run, what was seen and smelled and experienced may finally sink in, the chaplain explained.

Hoog will be ready. He has experience with this on a smaller scale.

He was assigned to a parish in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, just 10 months after Hurricane Hugo wreaked havoc in September 1989. His church was used as a distribution point for relief supplies. And just as the military people participating in Operation Unified Assistance, they were upbeat, banded together and worked hard, Hoog said. "And then when it was done (it was) 'I need to talk to you about something,'" he said. "It was that after-effect."

The most important thing Hoog said he can do for people who come to see him is to let them talk while he just listens and watches for behaviors that clue him into what stress they are going through.

Hoog said a first step in getting past the distress from the experience is to allow oneself to think about it. Trying to block the experience out is like trying not to think of a favorite food -- the more you try, the harder it becomes, he said. Facing and talking about the memories and images, he explained, is when things start to get better.

"It's not normal to face the destruction that you've seen," Hoog said. "It's not normal to face all the dead bodies that you've seen. That goes, he noted, whether you're a Marine, a sailor or any other person.

"They're seeing something abnormal and unusual and traumatic," he continued. "And it's going to stay with them."

He said that even the Marines with their "tough-guy" reputations will talk to him if they feel the need. He said he tries to make that easier for them by building a bond of trust with them long before the need for counseling arises.

If he feels it's needed, the chaplain said, he'll refer someone to a member of the medical team. Generally Hoog's reasoning for doing this is to rule out a physical ailment that might be mimicking some symptoms associated with distress, such as loss of appetite, sleep problems or a lack of concentration.

Hoog said a psychologist is on the ship also, should someone need that level of assistance.

When and if the line of crewmembers at his door wanting to talk about their experiences in Indonesia grows, Hoog will be ready. But who can the chaplain can turn to? Fortunately, Hoog said, the chaplains aboard the ship can turn to one another.

"We make sure we make friends with one another -- indispensable," Hoog said. "We talk informally and we support ourselves so that we don't become burnt out ourselves and overstressed."

When it comes down to it, Hoog, in his 50s, loves his job and his crew, who sometimes view him as a father or grandfather figure. "On a personal note, they give me more than I give them," Hoog said.

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Related Sites:
DoD Special Report on Tsunami Relief Efforts
USS Bonhomme Richard

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