'In the Hands of God'

Chaplain John Smith in his office at the headquarters of the 142nd Combat Support Battalion on FOB Diamondback near Mosul, Iraq.
Chaplain John Smith in his office at the headquarters of the 142nd Combat Support Battalion on FOB Diamondback near Mosul, Iraq. (Kristin Henderson)
By Kristin Henderson
Sunday, April 30, 2006

For chaplains in Iraq, the constant battle is the fear, loneliness and tedium that can test a soldier's faith

Just before sunrise on a foggy road outside Mosul, Iraq, a convoy of supply trucks lumbers from one forward operating base to another. On this December morning, the convoy is escorted by a dozen armored U.S. Army vehicles, including a Humvee with a three-man crew -- artillerymen farmed out to the 142nd Combat Support Battalion and retrained for convoy security. This is some of the most dangerous duty a soldier can pull in Iraq because insurgents target convoys with their weapon of choice: improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Among service members, IEDs are the single greatest cause of death. Blast wounds account for 90 percent of the injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

In the passenger seat, the first lieutenant speaks into the headset built into his helmet. "Right before the underpass up here there's an IED hole." Sometimes the insurgents hide new IEDs in old craters. "So let's scoot off to the left." The underpass looms in the gray, pre-dawn light. He tells the turret gunner, "Get down, Razz."

The soldier nicknamed Razz is standing on the platform between the two back seats, half in, half out of a hole in the roof, manning the .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the turret. He scrunches down as the overpass closes in. His butt settles into a sling hanging next to the head of a fourth soldier in the backseat, a man who's not part of the crew, who seems to be doing nothing. He's Chaplain John Smith.

Smith, 32, has been preaching since he was 16, has a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in divinity. But he looks like a kid, walks like a kid, high-speed and bouncy-toed. He first arrived in Iraq four months ago, a brand new captain fresh out of an Assemblies of God seminary and Army chaplains school. Back on the forward operating base, or FOB, Smith leads two different services every Sunday, one an intellectual hymn to traditional protestantism, the other a two-hour, standing-room-only Pentecostal throw-down. Together, the two services reflect Smith himself, brainy and charismatic. Six to seven soldiers a day come into Smiths' office for counseling; more pull him aside as he passes through their workspaces on his daily visitation rounds.

This Humvee is one of his soldiers' workspaces.

On the far side of the overpass, Razz pops his head back up through the hole in the roof. He's surrounded on three sides by a head-high wall of armor and as he turns the turret to look around, it ticks like a roulette wheel. The young men in the Humvee already drove this chilly road once tonight, after curfew when they had the empty roads to themselves. This is the return trip and curfew broke an hour ago. Now other cars and trucks are out on the roads. Any one could be packed with explosives. That knowledge prickles the air in the Humvee, sharpens the soldiers' motions.

"Vehicle on the right," the lieutenant says. The hazy outline of a truck moves along a frontage road parallel to the highway. Overhead, Razz's turret ticks urgently around. "If he starts to move in, start escalation of force." Razz prepares to fire off a warning flare, but at the last minute the truck stops.

Black speckled outlines of trees emerge from the fog, and haloed streetlights, and potential threats, each one called out by the lieutenant and underscored by the turret's watchful, ratcheting tick-tick-tick.

"Jeez," grumbles the driver, "I can't see a thing."

Through it all, Chaplain Smith sits quietly, doing the same job he's been doing on nearly two dozen convoys so far--trying to earn his soldiers' trust. He is not required to go on most of these convoys, but there's no predicting when a soldier might need to talk. Earlier tonight, after they'd driven the first leg of the convoy, the Humvee's crew waited inside the vehicle while the trucks they were escorting were unloaded.

Squeezed into their seats in the dark, listening to each other breathe, the lieutenant's voice broke the quiet. "Chaplain? Do you get a lot more suicides in-theater?" he asked, referring to Iraq.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company