- Andy Duback
- Lt. Col. Charles Purinton, Vermont National Guard Chaplain
The death of any Vermont soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan hits close to home for Lieutenant Colonel Charles Purinton, but none was closer than that of Army PFC Adam Muller. When the 21-year-old was killed on November 5 by a roadside bomb in Tal Al-Dahab, Iraq, Purinton, as chaplain for the Vermont Army National Guard, was part of the casualty notification team that informed his family members of their loss.
It wasn’t Purinton’s first experience with breaking tragic news to the family of a soldier or Marine killed in action — he’s had to perform that duty dozens of times, he says, since the war began in March 2003. In fact, Purinton wrote the book on how it’s done — literally. He penned the Vermont National Guard’s SOP, or standard operating procedure, for casualty notifications, and he trains other officers to perform the ritual. Such notifications may require Purinton to travel hundreds of miles on very short notice.
This time, Purinton didn’t have far to go at all — Muller was from his hometown of Richmond. Just last year, Purinton’s wife, Barbara, who is a minister at the Richmond Congregational Church, officiated at Michelle and Adam Muller’s wedding. Last Thursday, she officiated at Adam’s funeral.
For some, being the messenger of untimely death would be a test of faith. Not so for Purinton, who served as chaplain for the Vermont National Guard’s Task Force Saber during its one-year deployment to Iraq in 2005. Purinton says his combat experience only reinforced his faith in God, and heightened his sensitivity to the “membrane between our mundane, earthly reality and the spiritual realm.”
Recently, Purinton — or “Charlie,” as his friends and family know him — got another reminder of how that “membrane” manifests itself. It was a Sunday, shortly after he’d notified the Muller family of Adam’s death, and one day after a community vigil was held at Camel’s Hump Middle School for Muller and other fallen veterans. Purinton was walking along the Winooski River with his granddaughter, gathering trash, as he often does on such outings, when he spotted a half-buried bottle lying undisturbed along the riverbank.
“I pulled it out of the leaves and there was a piece of paper rolled up inside,” Purinton recalls. “I could read it through the plastic. It said, ‘Congratulations! You found me!” The note was signed, “Adam.”
Make no mistake: Purinton is no mystic-minded clergyman. He’s as “standard G.I.” as they come, decked out in a starched, formal-dress uniform, with silver oak leaves on the shoulders, sharply creased trousers and black shoes polished to a high shine. His demeanor, too, is disciplined and professional. At 58, he’s older than most of his fellow guardsmen, though he stays as active and fit as they do. Only the silver cross on his chest and the lapel pin that reads, “Pro Deo et Patria” — “For God and Country” — reveal his unique mission in the Vermont National Guard.
Purinton didn’t plan to become a military man of the cloth when he went off to the seminary. A native of Waterbury, Connecticut, he moved to Vermont at 18 when his father got a job working at the Maple Valley Ski Area. Ordained in 1974 as a minister in the United Church of Christ, Purinton initially hoped to follow in the footsteps of his old boarding-school chaplain — a role model and mentor — but he couldn’t find a job at a Vermont school. After a six-month stint with the Norwich Congregational Church, Purinton spent the next two years as a mental-health worker at the Brattleboro Retreat. It prepared him for some of the psychological stresses soldiers endure.
Barbara and Charlie Purinton met in Vermont through a mutual friend and were married in 1978. For a time, the couple worked together as co-pastors in Jeffersonville, Danville and North Danville. Then, in 1982, Purinton joined the Vermont National Guard full-time. “It was definitely a ministry I felt called to,” he says. “We were coming out of the Vietnam War years.”
Only two people advised Purinton against becoming a chaplain, he recalls. Ironically, one was the officer who had first recruited him. He felt Purinton wasn’t up to the task. The other was Purinton’s mother. She lived through World War II and had seen almost every male she’d known go off to war, some of whom never returned. She didn’t want her son to meet a similar fate.
Nevertheless, Purinton was drawn to the rigors of military life, especially the soldier’s moral code and the ethical challenges that arise from it. “The laws of war are fairly simple if it’s kill or be killed,” Purinton explains. “But as war has changed, now it’s not that simple anymore.”
Operation Iraqi Freedom was Purinton’s first foray into a war zone. Until then, much of his time had been spent around civilians, working as the family program coordinator with the Vermont National Guard between 1988 and 2000, then later as the Guard’s educational services officer.
When Task Force Saber left Vermont in January 2005, Purinton joined them and was stationed in Ramadi for a year. Among the more than 900 soldiers in the 1-172 Armor Battalion, Purinton was one of the few unarmed noncombatants. His mission, like that of any military chaplain, was to advise his commander on all matters dealing with morals, religion and morale.
That’s no easy assignment in the hostile and unforgiving environment of Iraq. Every day, Purinton had a long list of souls to counsel. On a typical day, he’d be awake by 5 a.m. and often wouldn’t get to bed before 11 p.m. Purinton worked seven days per week, but, unlike the other soldiers, kept no fixed schedule and had to be ready at a moment’s notice for whatever duties came his way.
The chaplain had his hands full within the square mile that was Camp Ramadi, which occasionally sustained rocket fire. In addition to his regular duties, Purinton supported a medical company and its forward surgical team. He also volunteered to work in the camp’s morgue.
“If they knew they had someone dead coming in, they’d give me a call,” Purinton says matter-of-factly. When discussing such grisly affairs, Purinton exudes an almost clinical detachment from the subject. There’s none of the timid uncertainty or quivering voice of M*A*S*H’s Father Mulcahy. Whatever war stories Purington has accumulated, he keeps them close to his chest.
When a soldier was killed in the field, Purinton would meet the mortuary affairs officer and the other surviving soldiers, then gather all the details about what happened and start the wheels in motion for notifying the family back in the states. In the age of international cellphones, embedded reporters and laptop emails from the battlefield, time is of the essence, and the military moves quickly to ensure that family members receive the news in an appropriate, timely and confidential manner.
“I was praying from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep, and even in my dreams sometimes,” Purinton recalls of his year in Iraq. “I walked for miles every day on visits. In between that time, I’d pray over the next thing I had to do.”
In one respect, his work was less hazardous than that of his fellow soldiers. He made the decision early on not to go “outside the wire” of the camp’s boundaries, “because I figured they’d be wasting their energy protecting me, and the soldiers thanked me very much for that,” Purinton says. “I also knew I could not be easily replaced. There wasn’t another chaplain coming up behind me.”
While the camp’s medical teams patched up the wounded, Purinton’s job was to try to make their fellow soldiers psychologically and spiritually whole again. “The medical or soldier crews would save the people who were extremely upset for me to see, so that my presence and counsel at that time of crisis would get that soldier back in the game,” he says. “They wouldn’t want to go out again as a squad unless they were all a complete and emotionally strong unit again.”
How did Purinton take care of himself? “I knew I had the training and I had the skills,” he says of his spiritual preparation. “I was mainly concerned about my body holding out because of my age and the environment we were in.”
His prescription for physical endurance sounds more like advice you’d get from a trusted family physician: plenty of rest, a healthy diet and lots of exercise. Three days per week, Purinton trained with the camp’s medical company, whose commander was a 7-foot-2 Navy SEAL. Purinton rested whenever his workload allowed it.
Prior to his deployment, Purinton underwent critical-incident stress-management training, the kind that’s given to civilian police, fire and EMS workers to help them cope with the more horrific aspects of their jobs.
But handling spiritual dilem-mas required just as much mettle as handling the dead. The military’s rules of engagement clearly address what is legally right or wrong when an innocent civilian is injured or killed. But the fog of war can make the moral landscape much trickier to navigate.
“There are gray areas which evaporate in the face of self-defense,” Purinton explains. “But a lot of the time, there is no answer. So the challenge is helping the soldier deal with no answer.”
Even on more routine spiritual matters, the chaplain’s job of providing leadership and guidance in a war zone is further complicated by the demographics of today’s fighting forces. Despite the age-old adage that “There are no atheists in foxholes,” Purinton points out that the religious composition of the military is very different now than it was, say, 30 years ago. Today, about 50 percent of all soldiers do not belong to one specific faith or religious denomination.
In one respect, that can complicate matters, Purinton says, especially when counseling a soldier in crisis or offering solace to a grieving parent or widow. On the other hand, he says, more religious diversity amongst the troops allows him greater freedom and creativity and offers him more traditions to draw from — including poetry, art, literature and even popular music.
Anecdotally, Purinton found that those soldiers who arrived in Iraq with a strong spiritual or religious grounding tended to fare better than those who did not, regardless of their faith. “They needed it in order to do what they were doing,” he says. “They would see that somebody who had it was stronger than they were, and it wasn’t a matter of whether they were a better shot or not.
“I never found a soldier who did not have a fairly mature spirituality. And if they didn’t, with my assistance they acquired it,” he says, with a laugh.
Purinton discovered that most “spiritual ferment” didn’t occur within “Saber Chapel” — a makeshift house of worship surrounded by concrete blast walls that looked more like a bomb shelter than a traditional church. Instead, he says, many debates about faith occurred in the barracks or while soldiers were out on patrol.
“They had 12 hours at a time to talk, night after night, day after day, with the same people,” Purinton explains. “And they would talk about something until they’d exhausted all the possibilities of the conversation, and then they go on to something else.”
For his own part, Purinton says that while his work was demanding and often stress-inducing, he never experienced a crisis in his own faith. “I expected it to be bad, and it was,” he says. “Some chaplains expected it to be good, and it wasn’t, and they had a lot of trouble dealing with that.”
Meanwhile, back in Vermont, Barbara Purinton had a double deployment to deal with. While her husband was in Iraq, their daughter, Caitlin — a sergeant in the Army National Guard — was stationed in Kuwait. On a trip out to the compost pile one morning, Barbara recalls, it suddenly dawned on her that she was experiencing “anticipatory grief” — that is, the expectation that someone like Charlie was going to show up at her front door in full dress uniform to convey tragic news.
Eventually, she says, that feeling subsided somewhat, though occasionally she’d visit Camp Johnson in Colchester just to be around people who understood what she was going through.
After Charlie came back from Iraq, Barbara says she could see how the experience had affected him. The Christmas after his return, some neighbors were blowing up fireworks, and the lights were reflecting off the woods behind their house. “Charlie was not happy with that,” she recalls.
But Barbara Purinton believes her husband’s time in Iraq expanded his capacity for offering solace and spiritual guidance to other people. Recently, she got a phone call from a local business that had an employee who was feeling suicidal. Barbara discovered the employee was a combat veteran.
“I called Charlie and he took care of it, because he’s been through war,” she says. “Now, he can reach out to people in a whole different way.”
Purinton agrees. These days, he spends more time with vets than he ever did, in part because he can relate better to them since his own experiences in the war zone. And while the job of notifying a family of a loss never gets any easier, Purinton says his time in Iraq also gave him a much greater appreciation for the relationships that are forged during life-or-death situations.
“Anybody who routinely exposes themselves to life-threatening danger and does it with a group of people develops a special camaraderie in that group. You can’t duplicate it anywhere else,” he says. “I don’t go after it and I don’t necessarily suggest people do this.” If he’s called up again, though, Purinton says he’ll serve.