January 10, 2005

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN - The chaplain ponders the death and destruction just a few kilometers (miles) away and wonders how to prepare Americans, some still in their self-centered teens, to encounter death and destruction on a Biblical scale when they've grown up with video games, malls and general ignorance of the world outside the United States.

"They're just kids who aren't even ready to see their own parents die, never mind mass casualties. American culture has not prepared them for this," says Lt. Norbert J. Karava. "We have no pedagogy of death."

A Catholic priest of the Capuchin order, Karava and 12 other chaplains and assistants counsel and comfort some of the 5,500 crew members aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln who are engaged in helping victims of one of the worst natural disasters the world has seen in decades.

Karava calls the ship a kind of womb encasing American innocents. Nearby lies the Sumatran coastline where more than 104,000 people died as giant, earthquake-powered waves turned communities into lumps of concrete.

Some 700 crew members, including helicopter crews and volunteers who assist injured, often traumatized survivors, are given mandatory one-hour briefings along with their anti-malaria pills before going ashore. The ship's Religious Ministries Department is charged with the talks.

"You may see and experience horrific things, such as dead bodies, dead animals, terrible poverty, total destruction and incredibly foul odors," an on-board briefer says.

The chaplains worry about the consequences.

"What I learned in New York is how very important it is to take care of those who respond to disaster," says Lt. Cmdr. Thomas J. Walcott, a Protestant chaplain who helped relief workers after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center. "These people are affected for a very long time, and that's why we are taking care of our sailors."

The Navy men and women also are told basic facts about Indonesia and Muslim beliefs, how to avoid medical problems ashore and warned that they may experience nightmares, feelings of guilt, anger, denial - or even suffer traumatic stress when they face the tragic reality on the ground.

Counseled that these are "normal reactions to abnormal situations," they are encouraged to "defuse" internal turmoil by seeking support of peers or solace from religion.

While Karava says only a small percentage of the crew could be called religious, there's a daily Roman Catholic Mass and Protestant Bible studies as well as a weekly Jewish service. The bow of the ship serves as a chapel, demarcated by two massive anchor chains. Each night, a chaplain's prayer, often relating to the tsunami disaster, is broadcast throughout the ship.

"One of the main questions I get is, `How can God allow something like this to happen?' " Walcott says. "My way of answering is to say that God never promised there would be no tragedy. But he promised that he would always be with us."

Walcott, of Muskegon, Michigan, said the fact that their vessel was not far away in Asian waters when the tsunami struck and had more helicopters - vital in the emergency operation - aboard than any other aircraft carrier in history was "a clear sign that God was preparing us to come out here to serve as agents of his mercy."

The increased self-worth that many crew members feel by being able to help people who are suffering has helped them cope, Walcott says.

"I've had lot of people tell me, `I'd pay money to do this,' " the chaplain said. "Some may be disappointed, but I haven't heard anybody complain about our deployment being extended."

When the young on board ask him about the calamity and how they should deal with it, Karava tells them: "You can use this as a wonderful opportunity for life to speak to you on its own terms, to learn that life is not just about what you need and want. It will be both frightening, painful and exciting."

And he urges them to step out of their own limited environments, where much of the world is blanked out, and into an impoverished one that nevertheless has much to offer.

"These people, a whole generation of them, are not going to have any opportunity for what we in America call a fulfilling future," Karava said. "They are left with nothing, yet they are not thinking of suicide like we in the First World might. They smile, they love life. What are you going to learn from that?'"

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