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Chaplain David Sparks has provided comfort at Dover Air Force Base for 40 years

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

David Sparks says his heart has been torn out so many times he can hardly count. And yet, for decades, families of fallen service members could count on David Sparks. Before he retired this year, he was chaplain at Dover Air Force Base for more than 40 years, first in uniform, then in civilian clothes, all the while bearing witness to the arrival of remains and flag-draped transfer cases and the pain of those who grieve.

We spoke with the chaplain when his work was winding down. It was early September. The Church of the Nazarene pastor had just met with the families of 13 service members killed by a terrorist blast outside the Kabul Airport, and he told us it had been a busy and intense week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID SPARKS: When the 13 came to us this past week, there was lots of memories of multiple mass casualties over the last years. That was pretty emotional and also heartwarming.

SIMON: Help us understand both sides of it, if you could. How is it heartwarming?

SPARKS: It is such a privilege to be with and to try to support families on what is ostensibly the worst day of their lives. You take on - or I take on lots of their emotion. The flip side of that is the privilege to be with heroes, meaning, in this case, families whose loss will go on forever and knowing that at least for a little while, the caregivers here at Dover had an opportunity to touch their lives and to bring some sanity into the moments of insanity.

SIMON: Chaplain, what can you possibly say to a family?

SPARKS: First of all is to recognize that there isn't anything you can say that's going to be much - of much help. What we've discovered is that when we address families, the best interaction with them is to ask them questions, to give them the privilege of telling their story. When a wife tells me that she's lost her husband, I'll be asking, you know, how long were you together? How did you meet? What was it about him that drew you to him? And all of that triggers them to respond with one of the needs of mourning, which is to tell the story, which is to remember the one who is gone.

SIMON: I hope you don't mind if I ask if over the years somebody has said something to you or somebody has asked a question of you which just stopped you cold.

SPARKS: No. When somebody asks me a question, and sometimes they are very hard questions, I am not trying to process the question and how am I going to answer that. I am looking for the right, sometimes creative, even sidereal question to ask in response.

So a story of a woman who asked me - she wanted to know if her husband was in heaven. I asked her, for instance, your question sounds like you have a faith background. What does your faith tell you? For that person, that was enough to trigger all of her thoughts and all of her background. And she answered her - finally answered her own question about what she thought about where he was.

SIMON: Yeah. I gather you retired from the military at some point, but you're planning to retire again on December 9.

SPARKS: Yes. December 9, there will be a ceremony that - and then the retirement will be effective on December 31.

SIMON: How do you feel about that?

SPARKS: It's time. More physically than anything else, I'm just tired. However, I am going to miss the opportunities to sit with grieving family members.

SIMON: May I ask, do you see the hand of God at work in what you've been doing?

SPARKS: Absolutely, both in the lives of those that I have touched over these years and in my own.

SIMON: Well, how would you describe that to us?

SPARKS: I think that I am a better man and a better minister. My faith is much easier for me these days. I grew up in a kind of closed system where everything had its right answer, whether you understood it or believed it or not. I have come to a much easier and a much more open relationship certainly with religion and people and with my God. My God smiles at me a lot, sometimes laughs right at me, and that's OK. In the old days, if I did something really stupid, I was pretty sure God was going to flick me off the face of the Earth. That's not true anymore. We have a loving God who accepts us the way we are, even with our failures and our foibles.

SIMON: Chaplain David Sparks at Dover Air Force Base. Thanks so much for being with us, Chaplain.

SPARKS: A pleasure to talk with you.

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

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.