During the April Executive Council meeting, held at a conference center near Baltimore, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold took a few hours to visit U.S. Army private first class Donald R. Schafer at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in northern Washington, D.C.
The 23-year-old Schafer, an active Episcopalian and a member of St. Matthias' in Baltimore, is a tank operator. He arrived in Kuwait for six months of desert training in September of last year with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) and was to have returned to the U.S. on March 23. But war intervened on March 21.
Schafer was wounded during combat with Iraqi forces outside Baghdad April 5, while protecting an embedded reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ron Martz, who described the incident in a report entitled "Sgt. Diaz's war: One American's march to Baghdad" and a more personal account entitled "I owe these heroes my life." Martz's reporting was how Schafer's family discovered he had been wounded, according to Schafer's rector, the Rev. Louanne Mabry-Loch.
"He was in a tank and the tank in front of theirs was hit," she said. "It caught on fire and Donald jumped out with a fire extinguisher and started putting out the fire. But they couldn't put it out, so they started snatching out the ammo and maps and papers."
Schafer was going to get back on his tank, Mabry-Loch said, but it was loaded with men from the crippled tank, so he jumped into an armored personnel carrier. That's where he and Private Christopher Shipley, the driver of the crippled tank, were when they were shot and wounded -- Shipley in the head and Schafer in the arm and chest -- while protecting Martz, who was also riding in the vehicle. A medic tended to Schafer's chest wound and he was evacuated to a hospital in Kuwait, then to Germany.
But the Atlanta reporter's dispatch reached Schafer's parents before the Red Cross called with the news. Distraught, his parents called Schafer's commanding officer and found out that he was in critical condition, but had no more details. After four days of frantic phone calls by the family, Mabry-Loch contacted Bishop Suffragan George Packard in the chaplaincies office at the Episcopal Church Center.
"He contacted a priest in Kuwait who told us Donald had been shipped to a military hospital in Rota, Spain," she said. St. Matthias' parishioners had just finished a prayer service for Schafer, who was a member of the youth group and an acolyte before joining the Army in 1999, when his stepsister received a call from his stepmother saying that the wounded soldier was going to call home.
His main concern, Mabry-Loch said, was what had happened to tank driver Shipley. Later, he and Shipley were reunited at the Rota hospital.
A real hero
A few days later, Schafer was shipped to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for three weeks of recuperation. That's where Griswold met him on April 30, accompanied by Walter Reed's chief chaplain, Colonel Malcolm Roberts; Mabry-Loch; and the Rev. Gerald Blackburn, director of military ministries.
"He has this pin in his arm that kinda sticks out -- he almost lost his forearm," Mabry-Loch said. "He got shot in the side, in the back, and in his arm. So he took some pretty heavy hits."
Griswold said later he was "very close to tears" during the visit and impressed by Schafer's open, self-effacing attitude. "When you visit people in the hospital their energy is often very modest, but he's obviously an extrovert and the more people around, the more energetic he became," he said. "When I said, ‘You're a real hero,' he said, ‘Everyone's a hero in some way.'" Schafer received a Purple Heart for his actions in Iraq.
Griswold added a lapel pin bearing the Presiding Bishop's seal to Schafer's collection of military "challenge coins" from visiting officers and officials.
"I felt it was important to visit because, even though I have been very much opposed to the war in Iraq, that does not mean for a moment that I don't have incredible respect for those who serve in the military," Griswold said. "They're doing what they've committed themselves to do, being faithful in the carrying out of their duties, and I'm immensely proud of them."
Schafer was released from Walter Reed on May 1, the same day President Bush announced that major combat operations in Iraq had ended. He will continue to recuperate at his mother's home in Essex, Maryland.
"He's doing well," Mabry-Loch reported. "But we're still lighting a candle for him at the church until he walks in our door."
--The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of Episcopal News Service.