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'You want to give them peace': A retired military chaplain explains how he ministered to the dying [Q&A]

As a retired military chaplain, the Rev. Grover DeVault has seen his share of death and dying. A lieutenant colonel, he served in Vietnam in 1968-69 and was wounded when an ammunition ship exploded.

He also was a chaplain for the Pennsylvania State police and was among the first people on the scene of the Nickel Mines shooting in 2006 in which five Amish girls were murdered by Charles Roberts before he took his own life.

DeVault, 90, lives at Calvary Homes in Manheim Township. His wife, Nancy, passed away in 2016. They had been married for 62 years.

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In a recent interview, he discussed how military chaplains handle death and dying.

How does a military chaplain prepare to deal with death and dying?

Clergy need to be well-trained for handling death and dying even before they deal with it. We get clinical pastoral education training, and that  training is a great help to assist what should be done, what shouldn’t be done, what can be done, what can’t be done.

I was only 14-15 years old when World War II was going on. There were not enough embalmers and undertakers in my town in New Jersey and so they got me to bring bodies in. Handling the bodies at a young age prepared me for dealing with death and dying.

In combat situations, is there a specific protocol you go through when someone is mortally wounded?

I have my own system, which is usually a religious, denominational or fellowship connection. Scripture is primary  — mostly from memory. I try to find out what kind of connection they may have had. Do they know “The Lord is my shepherd” or would they like to have some other type of prayer? Even with Jewish personnel or other personnel, if they want something that connects them with their group or past and they need it at that minute, I provide that. (In those cases) it’s Old Testament, the Psalms. You look for ... the commonalities.

There also is the physical aspect of touch, which is so very important. Almost all of them want some kind of touch — a hand touch, on the leg, the arm or something that will help to comfort or strengthen them.  And it depends upon the state of their mind — their ability to receive or accept what you’re trying to say. And  always prayer.

If someone is say, Eastern Orthodox, do you handle that differently?

Yes. They’re used to the liturgical system and they’re looking for some rubric that’s somewhat familiar to them.  And it’s OK to do that without doing last rites as such. (Last rites can only be performed by a Catholic minister.)  The sacrament of healing is what it’s called. The idea is really provide help and healing at the end, bringing comfort to the person that knows they’re  passing. Deal with the reality of that.  Not to frighten them. You want to give them peace and comfort and connections. Maybe they want to talk about their kids or their wife or their mom and dad. Moms are always the most popular but dads are, too, in last stages.

Are there any examples you can cite?

One stands out for me. In 1968, an African-American (soldier) had been hit with our napalm and he was given all the morphine he could to alleviate that pain. The nurse in the emergency room said ‘Chaplain, he’ll only have a couple minutes, you better talk to him now.’

I used Psalm 23 and then I prayed the Lord’s Prayer and he responded with his hand holding mine. There was a response — that quick grasp, like “I can identify with this.”

Were there any particularly  personal losses you experienced during your tour in Vietnam?  

My outfit in Da Nang ran the mortuary and I would visit that regularly. The soldiers who were working there and the 13 contract civilian morticians they had, I would minister to them because they were always handling death and dying.

My own worst personal experience was when the mortuary officer called me and said “We got an Army chaplain here who’s been killed.” I asked him, “What’s his name?” He said his name’s Don Bartley. I said “No, he was on his way to visit me.” He ran over a landmine. He was a good friend. I expected him to be the next two-star general.

Strangely enough, his son lives in Hanover (York County) and I’ve visited his son since then. And I’m still in contact with the men who worked with him. One of them said “I’ve been looking for you, chaplain, for a long time, because you ministered to me in Vietnam.”

Do you minister to people with PTSD?

Yes. I have post traumatic stress (disorder). I can understand them.  (Several) weeks ago, a fire alarm went off. It was so loud, I had to get out. One of the workers was guiding the people in walkers. I couldn’t wait in line. I said ‘I’m going,’ He said ‘No you can’t.’ Some wonderful secretary put her hand on my back and said ‘I’ll take him out.’ She really saved me. I sat out in the car for half an hour to pull myself  together. That’s the stress of post traumatic stress disorder.  It’s part of death and dying.

You also were at Nickel Mines in 2006 when Charles Roberts shot and killed five Amish girls. What role did you play?

There the (state) troopers were  having a lot of struggles as well as the kids. The boys that were left over and the teacher ... were feeling guilty because they felt they should have done more.

Immediately, the sergeant who was in charge said, “See this trooper and this trooper: they need you.”  I had to try to convince one of the troopers to let a girl go who was dead. He was holding her in his arms. She was dead and he didn’t want to let her go. Children really do affect them.