A different point of view
By Capt Randy Saldivar, 149th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 18, 2008
KAHUKU, Hawaii -- There in a plastic chair in the back of the room, a young man of no more than seventeen sits. He is intensely watching the man before him speak. The speaker is dressed in the new airman's battle uniform talking about drugs and physical health. A spectator surveying the scene would ponder if the young man is locked into the message the uniformed man is relaying or if he is simply wondering who the man before him is and why would he care to come speak to him out of all the people in the world. Why would he care about me?
The man in uniform is Paul Ferguson Jr., chaplain in the Texas Air National Guard. The young man in the chair is one of the patients at the Bobby Benson Center, a residential drug treatment center on Hawaii's North Shore. The message is the importance of staying off drugs and leading a "clean life." For Chaplain Ferguson working with troubled kids and adults is not unfamiliar territory. The traditional guardsman is pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Rockwall, Texas.
Outside the center, the pastor speaks in generality of some of the experiences and troubles he sees day to day in his "normal" job. Troubled marriages, challenges in raising children and tests of faith are topics the pastor faces everyday. "People are people regardless of geography," said Ferguson. "Most of us need help in some way. Every one of us has a story; every one of us needs to be heard."
Ferguson is part of a 51-person medical team from the 149th Fighter Wing in San Antonio here in support of the E Malama Kakou (to care for all) medical readiness mission. The Medical Innovative Readiness Training program is a collaborative effort between the ANG and the state Health Department aimed at providing basic health screening to the medically underserved children populations in and around the area. Ferguson was asked by the center's staff to speak to those in treatment.
The patients at the center are recovering addicts from an array of drugs. Most arrive at the center not willingly, but under court order from the State of Hawaii. Like the Amber Alert signs many of us see driving down the highway notifying the public of a missing child or person, the Bobby Benson Center gets its roots from a families tragedy refocused on preventing it from repeating itself. The 13 acre facility gets its namesake from a 15-year old native islander who's dance with drugs and the law cut the young boy's life short. His father, a Honolulu policeman, determined to equip others with the tools he and his son did not have, created the center and named it in his honor.
During the hour-long discussion, the patients test the pastor's credentials, "Have you ever done drugs?" said one kid. "Have you ever stolen money from your mother's purse to buy drugs," said another. The questions continued to fly at the pastor and the repeated answer was "no."
At times like these, many of us would be on our heels, unable to recover from the barrage of questions; the patients seemingly turning the tables on the speaker and taking control of the conversation. Like the captain of a ship the Chaplain carefully but seamlessly navigates his response to the crowd.
He acknowledged he had no idea what it was like to do any of the things they had just mentioned, but that you didn't actually have to take drugs to understand their affects on people. He went on to say that the men and women of the military must act as a team. "If the mechanic turning a wrench on an airplane engine is on drugs and it causes him to miss a systems check or forget a part, the engine could malfunction or blow up on the ground or in the air. People could get hurt or even die as a result of that person's drug use," said Ferguson.
He went on talking about how a person's family is like the military unit he'd just mentioned, and that a drug user's family is affected just as much if not more than the drug user him or herself.
As the time together passed, the patients warmed up to the Chaplain. The conversation turned from drugs and their effects to military life. Together, he and LtCol Craig Manifold, a flight surgeon from San Antonio accompanying the Chaplain to the center taught the patients some basic military customs and courtesies. The moods turned to laughter as the patients attempted their salutes.
Ferguson said the experience was eye opening for him. At the end of their time together the patients paid the two Air National Guard officers a tremendous honor and respect. "They formed a little flight just before we left and all rendered a salute to us," said Manifold. "I was really honored by the gesture and that's a memory I'll never forget."
"When you're helping people, most often you don't see immediate results of your work if any, good or bad," said Ferguson. "I don't know if I helped these folks; I won't see the results. When I spoke to a staff member later, she mentioned what I'd come to know. We can only continue to work with them and pray that what we are saying and doing for them equips them to recover," noted Ferguson of the conversation.
Ferguson added, "She said you will not know right away what they are thinking or if it is sinking in, but late at night when they are hanging out together, or alone in their bed, they might think to themselves, "that was pretty cool," and that just may make the difference for them."