Navy Chaplain's Response Efforts to Runners, Families in Boston

Story Number: NNS130426-13Release Date: 4/26/2013 10:00:00 AM
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By Christianne M. Witten, Chief of Navy Chaplains Public Affairs

WASHINGTON (NNS) -- "April 15 was a beautiful day for a ballgame! About 20 service members from my Coast Guard unit were headed into Boston to say farewell to a shipmate by celebrating at a Red Sox's game," said Lt. Cmdr. Jen Bowden, a Navy chaplain currently serving within the U.S. Coast Guard as the command chaplain for Sector Southeastern New England.

"At the same time, there were quite a few Coasties running in the Boston Marathon. Since Fenway Park is along the marathon route, it was a great way to be a part of both events. The group of four people I was travelling with decided to take the "T" (MBTA) into Boston in order to avoid downtown driving, so we made great time.

"It was an awesome game, and as we departed during the 8th inning, we were able to stop and watch the runners approaching the finish line. When the race clock read 3:38, we were at the "1 Mile to Finish" marker and went from there to the "T."

What Bowden and her co-workers didn't know, what most of America didn't know, was that terror was about to rock the finish line.

"We were probably one of the last trains to get out of Boston before the explosions rocked the finish line as the race clock read 4:09," said Bowden. "We were back to the outer edge of Boston and had just reached my car when the news flashed on our phones regarding the bombs.

"The roughest part of that period of time was not being able to connect with the rest of our group. While we had departed a few minutes early, it was distinctly possible that everyone else had made their way to the finish line to cheer on the runners. It was about an hour later when we confirmed the safety of all of our unit personnel and later into the evening when we reached one runner who had not yet made contact with his command."

In the hours and days that followed, it was evident to Bowden that there was residual traumatic impact among the personnel who were in Boston, both observing and running in the race, and the families and unit members back on the Cape.

Bowden was mobilized along with two Crisis Intervention Stress Management (CISM) Coast Guard personnel, to provide a CISM debrief for personnel and dependents affected by the bombing. It turns out there were many other units who used the ball game and marathon as morale events.

Chaplains play a critical role as coordinators and facilitators of care to alleviate human suffering in times of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. In some cases, chaplains have been among the initial boots on the ground, supporting needs assessments and partnering across services and agencies to influence logistical support and response efforts.

Such operations allow chaplains to collaborate across service lines and faiths to provide pastoral care and a ministry of presence during times of acute human need; to offer an invaluable message of hope.

"Several of (the people we counseled) were at or near the finish line and found themselves frustrated because they couldn't act as first responders, despite their exemplary Coast Guard training," said Bowden.

"In the days that followed, I worked alongside other chaplains, medical professionals and Coast Guard family support (Work Life) personnel responding to individual and group requests for counseling and pastoral support. Due to my location on Cape Cod, I work with Air and Army National Guard units and chaplains who were activated in Boston for various tasks.

"The chaplains' stories of their on-site efforts, supporting the victims of the bombing and first-responders on-scene, were amazing. I was in a unique position to provide pastoral care to family members of these chaplains here on the Cape who were frustrated and understandably scared from the events and news coverage."

Bowden said that in the aftermath of such an attack, it was moving to see the dedication and teamwork demonstrated both within the Coast Guard and across the DOD, local fire and police, and other federal agencies.

"The communication efforts were exemplary, as stories were continually shared by chaplains through e-mail about the ministry going on, both in Boston and in affected units," said Bowden. "While I pray such an attack never happens again, I am thankful to know that there is room for effective ministry and care in the face of tragedy and pain, and I appreciate the opportunity to serve in this manner."

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