A U.S. Army Chaplain, Deployed In His Own Country, Honors Pandemic Victims

Nov 14, 2020
Originally published on November 14, 2020 11:30 am

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."

Army (Chaplain) Maj. Ivan Arreguin and other soldiers escort the remains of a veteran who died from COVID-19 while being treated at the Javits New York Medical Station, in New York City, in April.
Photo by U.S. Air National Guard Maj. Patrick Cordova

"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, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative, which records and shares the stories of service members and their families.

Army Major Ivan Arreguin is a chaplain who's seen many overseas deployments during his military career. Back in April, he and several other medical units were deployed on U.S. soil. Using StoryCorps Connect, Chaplain Arreguin told his wife, Aileen, what it was like to be stationed in New York City during the height of COVID.

IVAN ARREGUIN: I remember nurses and doctors just began crying, saying, thank you for coming. They were working long hours, dealing with so much death. And so they would pull me aside as I would make my rounds, and I would listen to them and then pray for their strength.

And so I remember I was sitting at my desk, and the sergeant major came up. And he said, sir, we have to transfer a deceased individual, and we were informed that he was a veteran. We want to know if you can conduct a memorial ceremony. Now, mind you, none of us knew him, 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. And they said, Chaplain, whenever you're ready.

And I remember my soldiers pulling his body out of the refrigerator, draped in a black bag. And soldiers began walking out, all at attention. And as we passed each soldier, they begin granting final salute honors. And we stopped right in front of the hearse. I had a word of prayer. And nobody moved until the hearse was already out, moving away.

As a chaplain, I took an oath to respond to the deeds of my nation, to care for the wounded, nurture the living and honor the fallen - honor the dead.

And when COVID-19 is finally declared complete, I might go back to New York sometime. I just wonder what it's going to 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.

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SIMON: Army Chaplain Ivan Arreguin in Fort Hood, Texas. The recording's part of the StoryCorps archive at the U.S. Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.