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Chaplain stepping down after 20 years of service

For 20 years, death called and Pastor Melvin Byrd answered.

As a chaplain for South Kitsap Fire and Rescue, Byrd spent at least one week a month of the past two decades waiting for the phone to ring, knowing that at any moment he could have another date with tragedy.

A car accident. A heart attack. A fire. A baby dead in its crib. They were all different, but all the same.

Death.

“It wears you down,” said the 65-year-old Port Orchard resident of seeing so much shock and grief firsthand for so many years.

And when he started to dread his weeks on call, which began at 10 a.m. Monday and continued until 10 a.m. the following Monday, Byrd knew it was time to step down.

Not only because he knew, as he climbed into bed at night, that he might have to get up again soon if something happened. But also because he knew what he might have to see.

“I couldn’t take any more dead babies,” he said, visibly emotional as he described one distraught father who lost his baby and could only walk outside to “just scream and scream. That’s what he needed to do. And I let him.”

Because that is what a chaplain is on scene for, Byrd said. To give each person what they need. And more often than not, it is just to have someone there.

“We call it a ‘ministry of presence,’” he said. “Sometimes you just need to be there, to be available.”

That could mean comforting a wife as her husband is taken to the hospital, or maybe just explaining to survivors what is going to happen next, such as who is going to call them and what information they need to have ready.

That help isn’t only needed in the first few hours, either. The grief gets stronger as the shock wears off, he said, adding that he made sure to call friends or family members to come stay with victims for the difficult days to come.

And if there simply was no one else to call? Byrd said he called home.

“Well, there have been times when I called up my wife and said, ‘Can I bring this person home? They need someone to be with them,” he said, remembering one woman who lost her mother and had no one else nearby. “She stayed with us until her family could come from back East.”

Of course, there were times even Byrd did not know quite what to do.

“Those times I just try and let the spirit of God help,” he said, explaining that “everyone is different and people react differently. I try not to come out with all the answers, and just be with them.”

As difficult as those moments were, Byrd said they are what he will miss the most about his years as a chaplain.

“It has been the greatest thing I’ve done in my ministry — it has been phenomenal,” he said. “You meet so many people in some of the worst moments of their lives. But it has been very rewarding, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.”

At today’s retirement party, Byrd said he was looking forward to seeing many of those people he’s met as chaplain, including all the firefighters and paramedics he worked with.

One of those, Battalion Chief Ed Boucher, is also retiring after 30 years of service and will be honored at the same gathering this afternoon.

“I think it is amazing what (people like Boucher) do,” he said. “I had a life away from all that. I have a day job (as pastor of Port Orchard Church of Christ). But that was their life — that is what they do 24-hours a day.”

So Byrd was glad for the small ways he could help them, either by talking to family members so emergency personnel could work to save their loved ones, or being able to update first-responders on what happened after the initial crisis.

“For their job, they need to leave and move on, and often they never find out what happened to patients afterward,” he said. “So if I saw them later on at the station, I could give them an update.”

As for his current day job, Byrd said he is not sure yet when he’ll retire from that. But his chaplain duties he is ready to leave behind.

“I don’t fell like I’m able to give it my all anymore,” he said, adding that he hoped at least one person, but preferably more, would step forward to serve as chaplain along with the three others remaining at SKFR.

“We need some more,” he said, explaining that not everyone has the special mix of “compassion, patience and understanding” that makes for a good chaplain. “I’ve asked God to bring us some more.”

If You Go

What: Retirement party for Melvin Byrd, Ed Boucher

When: March 12, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Where: Station 8, 1974 Fircrest Drive

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