A U.S. Army Chaplain, Deployed In His Own Country, Honors Pandemic Victims
StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.
As an Army chaplain, Maj. Ivan Arreguin has seen many overseas deployments during his military career. But earlier this year, his medical unit, along with others, were deployed to New York City during the height of the area's coronavirus pandemic.
Using StoryCorps Connect last week, Ivan told his wife Aileen about what it was like to be stationed in New York City from April to June.
"I remember nurses, doctors just began crying, saying 'Thank you for coming,' " he recalled. "They were working long hours, dealing with so much death. They would pull me aside as I would make my rounds and I would listen to them and then pray for their strength."
Ivan was stationed at the Javits Center in Manhattan but also visited other hospital sites in the area and in the Bronx, where he provided medical and pastoral care.
In his role as brigade chaplain Ivan supervised three other chaplains and religious support teams in the city.
When his superior, the sergeant major, told Ivan that a veteran had died of COVID-19, he asked Ivan, as a fellow veteran and chaplain, if he could preside over the memorial ceremony.
"Now mind you, none of us knew him," Ivan said. "Never saw a picture of this individual. And yet, we understood that there was a bond between him and us."
"And I said 'Sergeant major, I will lead you,' " he said.
Ivan remembered the scene that followed: Soldiers pulled the man's body out of a refrigerated trailer — a makeshift morgue — near the Javits Center. The body was in a black bag. Soldiers stood at attention as Ivan led the military escort to a nearby hearse.
"I had a word of prayer, and nobody moved until the hearse was already out, moving away," he said.
One day, when the coronavirus is no longer a serious threat, Ivan hopes to return to New York.
"As a chaplain, I took an oath to respond to the needs of my nation: to care for the wounded, nurture the living and honor the fallen — honor the dead," he said. "I just wonder what it's gonna feel like to walk down those streets and say, 'Man, I was here when this happened.' And I'm thankful that I was given that opportunity to serve my nation that way."
Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Sylvie Lubow. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, atStoryCorps.org.
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