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Photo: Courtesy of Sgt. Ryan Kraeger

Boots on the Ground

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By Chris Sparks (Jan 2, 2014)
Medical Staff Sergeant Ryan Kraeger, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, was deployed to the Philippines in 2013, working as part of the United States military assistance program to the Philippine government in responding to an Islamic insurgency. Then Typhoon Haiyan hit in November. It was one of the most powerful storms on record. Sergeant Kraeger was directed to provide any necessary medical care to a small group of U.S. personnel tasked with getting the airport at Tacloban up and running again. In the process, he got heavily involved in organizing refugee evacuation to the capital city of Manila, which had been largely untouched by the disaster. Here, he shares about the Filipino response to tragedy, the role of his Catholic faith in his work, and closes with a classic quote from a great writer.

Could you see the faith of the Philippine people in their response to the disaster?
The Filipino people are remarkably cheerful and resilient. When we first arrived there was a stunned, shocked feeling to the people, but for whatever reason it did not manifest itself in serious violence. There was some looting and violence in the city, but it was quickly brought under control. The rumor on the street was that the worst violence was being done by the Communist National People's Army in an effort to discredit the Filipino government. Even the crowds at the airport were mostly friendly, and controllable simply by providing clear instructions over a megaphone.

Within a day or two there was a noticeable change. The first few trucks of relief goods started to get out into the city, not nearly enough to reach everyone, but enough to help people shake off the dirt and pick themselves up. Or perhaps they were already recovering psychologically, but activity started to pick up. By day four after the typhoon, all the major roads for 30 miles south of Tacloban had been cleared by the locals who lived along them. Bodies were being collected, shelters were being built, building materials were being salvaged, electricity and cell phone coverage were being restored.

This from a people who had seen a typhoon literally tear their lives apart. The number of dead was astounding. Most of the people had lost someone, or had a neighbor who had lost someone, and yet they continued to push on, shrug it off, and get on with picking up their lives.

What gives them this resilience? Perhaps it is easier to pick up your life when you never had that much to begin with. Perhaps they know right from the start that they are on their own, and any government input is just a welcome bonus.

It might also be their faith. Something like 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, and in Tacloban, when I drove through the city, there is a Catholic church on literally every other block. Even after the disaster, Sunday Mass was full to overflowing. I did not see any visible displays of faith among the refugees I evacuated, but it may well have been there. At any rate, they are without a doubt the friendliest, most cheerful people I have ever had the opportunity to work with.

Was the Church present and part of any of the relief efforts?
I did not see any major Catholic relief efforts until I returned from the disaster area. The Filipino military chaplain on the post I am staying at had been in touch with the bishops of the two dioceses most affected. He, along with the American Catholic chaplain for the Philippines, were coordinating donations to go to the diocese that manages the rural areas outside of Tacloban, as Tacloban was already being well taken care of.

How did your faith combine with your professional training to guide your relief work?
Faith provided the drive. It is one thing to know how to organize relief efforts. It is quite another thing to want to do it. Faith also keeps me from attempting too much, or investing too much in success.

This is more important than you might think. A lot of people who undertake relief efforts, with the best motives in the world, enter so deeply into the human suffering that they lose sight of human enjoyment. They try to take the weight of the world upon their shoulders, and when it crushes them, as it must, they suffer from frustration, guilt, the never-ending question, "Should I have done more?"

Faith, however, is a living relationship with God. It involves trust. First and foremost, the bedrock certainty of anyone who wants to undertake any type of ministry needs to be that God was there first and will be there last. What does this mean? It means that when I seek to do something good for some person, some act of love, and I ask God to grant me success at it, I must do my best to rid myself of that subtly intrusive notion that I am asking Him to love this person as much as I do. Instead, the truth is that He loves that person more than I ever will, or ever could. He loved that person into existence and will love them to heaven if they allow Him. He is allowing me to join Him in loving this person. My desire for their minor, temporal healing is a mere shadow of His eternal desire for their eternal wellbeing. When I have moved on, He will not. He will remain with them until the end of the age.

This removes from me (when I allow it to) the burden of feeling that I personally must bear the weight of all the suffering of all the people in the world. He has already done that. If He calls me to help Him carry that cross, He does so because I need it, not because He needs it. The piece that He allows me to carry is never more than I can bear. This helps me to be content with the little that I can do. I am just an instrument in His hand; He puts me where He needs me, when He needs me, for as long as He needs me. He uses me how He will, and I should rightly take pleasure in being used for His ends, but the ends are His, not mine. When I am no longer His instrument, He has others. If I can do nothing, that is His will also. If it is His will that I see suffering, but can only pray, then that is how He wishes me to help: simply to suffer the frustration of inactivity and offer that frustration to Him, to pray, and to trust.

The frequency with which He does assign me only to prayer leads me to believe that it is more useful and necessary than we might imagine.

As Mother Teresa said, "God calls us to be faithful, not successful."

Will you be going back? If so, when?
Unfortunately, I will not be going back. Special Forces was pulled off that mission and sent back to our regular mission. The Marines will be building upon the foundation that we laid.

Do you have any information about the progress of the cleanup and recovery? Is the situation on the ground still dire?
Since I have left the area I know no more about it than anyone else. However, I rather think if anyone can handle it, it is the Filipino people.

Anything further?
In the end, to paraphrase Leon Bloy, life admits of only one possible tragedy: not to have become a saint.

To help with relief efforts in the Philippines, see here.

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