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'In the Hands of God'

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.

Smith thought for a moment. "I've seen ideation and gestures, people who are thinking about it or make half-hearted attempts," he said. "Cries for help. But that's really not much different from back home."

The lieutenant nodded. Then he asked, "Do a lot of guys worry about their wives cheating on them? I'm engaged myself."

The other two soldiers chimed in; they all knew someone who'd cheated or been cheated on. For Smith, whose days sometimes seem filled with meetings and report-writing, this was what he joined the chaplain corps for. "You need a good foundation of trust to get through a deployment," he told them. As he talked about how to communicate and stay connected with a woman on the other side of the world, the soldiers gazed thoughtfully out at the night.

Now the Humvee rattles and creaks past flat-roofed houses, misty behind walls with closed gates. The convoy rounds the corner onto Mosul's Sugarbeet Road and the soldiers can finally see the walls of home: FOB Diamondback. The soldiers here provide security in the Mosul area and help train the new Iraqi army. Nearing Diamondback's gate, the Humvee weaves slowly through the barricades, past a flaming barrel hedged by U.S. soldiers and Peshmerga guards, all fat with warm layers of camouflage and body armor. From the turret, Razz calls out a hello.

Some of the soldiers who guard convoys night after night looked surprised when Smith first started riding along. Once, as they drove back in through the gate, a soldier turned to Smith and said, "When you're around, somehow I feel like I'm in the hands of God."

"The Weight of the Free World"

FOB Diamondback is home to four Army chaplains: Smith at the battalion, another at the chapel, and a third at the combat support hospital. The fourth is stationed in the special forces compound; no one sees him much. The other three chaplains and their assistants meet every week to coordinate their efforts. Of the U.S. Army's 1200 chaplains, around 300 are currently deployed to Iraq.

Chaplains have served in all the military's branches since the Revolutionary War. Yet if it weren't for M*A*S*H's Father Mulcahy, many Americans would have no idea that military chaplains even exist, much less what they do. This is because the chaplain's role is, by definition, a supporting one -- to "provide religious support," according the Army Chaplain Corps' mission statement, to ensure "the right to free exercise of religion," even in a combat zone where it can be hard to practice one's religion without help. So chaplains work mostly in the background -- behind closed doors where officers struggle with the ethics of command decisions, in quiet corners where soldiers wrestle with fear and anger, and worry about their families.

Chaplains can come from any faith group that has established a relationship with the Department of Defense. But statistics from the Defense Manpower Data Center indicate that while Christian fundamentalist and evangelical service members make up less than 20 percent of the military, more than a third of military chaplains come from such denominations. As a result, for every Southern Baptist chaplain, there are only 40 Southern Baptist service members. By comparison, Roman Catholics, who constitute the military's single biggest religious group, make do with one priest for every 800 Catholic service members.

Captain Edward Grimenstein, a Lutheran who has been an Army chaplain for only two years, explains the large number of evangelical chaplains in his class this way: "It's in their theological doctrine -- very pro-nation, pro-government, pro-country. You don't find that in a lot of mainline Protestant denominations."

Pentagon policy acknowledges that these days Americans practice a wider variety of religions than ever before. Prior to becoming an Army chaplain, a candidate must certify that he or she is "sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members, and civilians who work for the Army." Chaplains don't lead worship services outside their own faith group, but they do have to make sure that every other recognized faith group has the supplies and space they need to practice their religion. Officially, proselytizing is forbidden, but recent headlines indicate that commandment isn't always obeyed.

Chaplains don't do this work alone. Though they're military officers, the Geneva Conventions classify chaplains as noncombatants, which means they aren't allowed to carry weapons. So each chaplain is accompanied by an enlisted service member who acts as both assistant and bodyguard. That's why, in the sky above Mosul, on board a hulking C-130 plane inbound from Kuwait, Private First Class James Bailey is strapped into a jumpseat. He's wearing a camouflage ballistic vest and Kevlar helmet. He's carrying his M-16.

PFC Bailey has been preparing for this ever since he finished training four months ago and arrived at the 1st Battalion of the 321 Field Artillery Regiment on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Bailey dropped out of college to enlist, hoping to make a difference. He spent eight weeks learning how to be a soldier and seven weeks learning how to be a chaplain assistant, his chosen specialty -- how to arrange religious activities, keep confidential information confidential, and, in a combat zone, keep an unarmed chaplain alive.

In training, Bailey qualified as an expert marksman. He trusts in his training. He also trusts in God, though that's not a requirement for the job. In chaplain assistant school, Bailey, a Pentecostal, trained alongside a Catholic, a Buddhist, and an atheist. What's required of chaplain assistants is a respect for all religions. That, and a keen interest in office work.

Bailey's chaplain, Jamie Deason, is strapped in next to him. Chaplain Deason is a captain, not quite old enough to be Bailey's father, but with more power over him than most fathers of twenty-one-year-olds like Bailey. In the past week Deason has lectured Bailey about making sure his ammunition is secure at all times, monitored his jetlag, and told him when to sleep. Deason has joked with him, sung with him, planned religious services with him. Still, some of Bailey's fellow young enlisted soldiers are too intimidated by officers to go to a chaplain if they need help; they're more likely to open up to an assistant like Bailey, who can then get them to Deason.

The C-130 touches down on FOB Diamondback. In the darkness of the fuselage, Bailey hoists his rucksack, picks up his M-16, and files down the C-130's ramp with the other passengers -- soldiers and Department of Defense civilians. Beyond the tail of the plane, the tarmac stretches bright and exposed all the way to the terminal buildings. Bailey checks over his shoulder for Chaplain Deason. Right behind him. Bailey steps off the ramp into the warm, jet-fueled breeze of the C-130's engines, expecting to hustle his chaplain to safety. Instead, a civilian member of the groundcrew leads the passengers across the tarmac at a leisurely stroll.

That's the first surprise. Then a first sergeant shows Deason to his quarters, a small metal shipping container. It's one of a whole neighborhood of containers jammed side by side into long rows. The first sergeant leads Bailey away through the rows. To keep down the dust and mud, the ground is smothered beneath smooth landscaping pebbles. This forces them both to walk slowly and awkwardly; their steps sound like they're kicking bags of marbles.

Bailey slogs behind the first sergeant to the far corner of the housing area. He notices a concrete bunker along the way. He knows this FOB gets mortared from time to time. He doesn't see how he can protect his chaplain from so far away. "Uh, first sergeant? I thought I'd be in the same room with the chaplain."

The first sergeant rounds on him with a glare. "You don't stay in the same room as an officer!"

The next morning, Bailey makes sure he's waiting outside when Chaplain Deason opens his door. Together, they head over to the FOB's low-slung, dusty headquarters -- in a combat zone the chaplain assistant goes everywhere the chaplain goes. When Deason disappears into a closed-door meeting, Bailey waits in the hallway.

The sergeant major comes down the hall. With a pistol strapped under his arm, the battalion's senior enlisted man looks like a kindly uncle who can also kick your ass. He gestures at Bailey's M-16. Since Bailey is required to carry it everywhere, he's carrying it in the most comfortable way he can find -- slung to the front, muzzle down: the low ready position, as in, low but ready to bring up and fire.

The sergeant major shakes his head. "The low ready is a threatening stance." He shifts the weapon around to Bailey's back. "We didn't come to scare the Iraqi civilians around here."

When Deason emerges again, Bailey tramps behind him, his long M-16 banging uncomfortably against his back.

A week later, just before Bailey's first chapel service in Iraq, he picks up his M-16 and hustles for the door. In chaplain assistant school, he learned that whenever the chaplain holds a service in a hostile environment, the chaplain assistant stands guard. On the way out, he tells Deason, "I'm going outside to provide security."

Another chaplain assistant watches him go. The assistant, a kid in a man's uniform, snorts derisively, like someone only too glad to find a greener rube than himself. "Did he say 'provide security'? Give me a break."

Bailey and his chaplain are beginning to realize that, on FOB Diamondback at least, Iraq is not the combat zone they were expecting. In the days that follow, Bailey assists with his chaplain's services, projecting hymn lyrics on the wall beside the altar. In the front office, he schedules all the services, Bible studies, briefings, and choir rehearsals. He listens as a lanky soldier sprawled in the chair next to his desk talks about feeling depressed; Bailey arranges for the soldier to see the chaplain. He inventories supplies. He sweeps the chapel into a cloud of dust.

The chaplain assistant whom Bailey is replacing is a 31-year-old reservist from Tucson. Staff Sergeant Joel Larson spent his year here working mostly alone inside this chapel. He went outside the wire with his chaplain only a few times, twice to check on a military police unit that was training Iraqi police at a primitive compound in the city. The MPs had expected to be there only three or four days; they wound up stuck there for a month. Larson and his chaplain handed out hygiene products and mostly just listened. The frustrated MPs gave them an earful.

Larson remembers telling another soldier who assumed chaplain assistants have it easy: "Not only do I have to deal with my problems and my wife's problems, but I have to deal with your problems, and his problems . . . " He gazes into the distance. "These kids are carrying the weight of the free world on their shoulders."

For the past year Larson has listened to the troubles of soldiers who came in looking for a chaplain. He hunkered down during mortar attacks. He handed out toys and shoes to Iraqi children. He missed the first six months of his own child's life.

Before Larson goes home a few days after Bailey's arrival, Bailey watches as Larson prints a new sign for the office door. It names Bailey as the person in charge of the chapel. Larson takes down the old sign with his own name on it. He lays it on the front stoop. He sets it on fire. Then he stomps on it.

"Dude!" Bailey says, laughing. "That's my chapel! I have to clean that up!"

Larson just smiles.

PFC Bailey's tour of duty has just begun.

Lying near the ruins of the Biblical city of Nineveh, Mosul has a long history of testing the faith of outsiders. In the Bible, God told Jonah to go warn the people of Nineveh to either repent or face God's wrath. Jonah ran away instead and wound up in the belly of a whale. When he finally did as God said and went to Nineveh, the city repented and God was merciful.

Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq, home to half a million Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans. Just off Mosul's Sugarbeet Road, the second-story windows of a dust-colored neighborhood peek over a rough new concrete blast wall topped with razor wire. Inside the walls are what used to be Mosul's international airport and a Republican Guard base. It's now FOB Diamondback. An Iraqi army compound nestles between the road and Diamondback, alongside a public swimming pool and a soccer field. In the summer, soldiers inside Diamondback's walls can hear the splashes and laughter of children.

The streets on the FOB are sprayed down at night, trading dust for mud. They churn with small pickups, delivery trucks, Humvees, and big armored Strykers. Warrens of old flat-topped buildings huddle beneath tall eucaplyptus trees, housing offices, barracks, and shops. Inside, Turks and local Iraqis sell leather jackets, phone cards, rugs, and pirated CDs and videos. Nearby, new rows of containers make instant living quarters, shower rooms, and more shops. Concrete blast walls that look like extra tall jersey walls are going up around all these buildings, gradually sealing them off from the streets on base. The ugly concrete and constant mud give the FOB the makeshift feeling of a construction site.

Directly across Sugarbeet Road, which is a public highway, lies FOB Marez. To get to Marez from Diamondback, everyone puts on Kevlar helmets and rides in vehicles for the one-minute trip. The Black Hawk helicopters and C-130s that take off and land on Diamondback's air field fly low and fast to reduce their exposure to potential groundfire. Last year, snipers were a problem. From time to time, mortar rounds fall out of the sky and randomly explode. Just before Christmas in 2004, a suicide bomber walked into the chow hall on FOB Marez and blew himself up, killing twenty-two. As Bailey and Chaplain Deason arrived in the run-up to the December elections, however, Mosul was quiet.

On the base, it's easy to forget you're in a war zone when it's quiet, and many soldiers never leave the base at all. The quiet wraps a cocoon of normalcy around this alien place, where coalition soldiers from America, Albania, and Australia, wearing a grab-bag of different camouflages, line up in the vast, bright chow halls and Phillipinos and Pakistanis pile their trays with food. Kurdish interpreters shuffle through the cafeteria lines too, and Nepalese barbers, and black-shirted private security guards, and American contractors in blue jeans, here to fix toilets or drive trucks, risking a year in Iraq for the money. As in Jonah's day, a year in this place can test the faith of just about anyone, including men of God.

"In America, We Play Nicely"

It's Chaplain Jamie Deason's first night on FOB Diamondback. Alone at last in his seven-by-twenty-foot shipping container, Deason, a Southern Baptist, is unpacking his rucksack and praying about a mosque.

Earlier over dinner in the chow hall, Deason met the outgoing chaplain he'll be replacing at the chapel. Major Michael Morehouse was charging through the long list of responsibilities he'll be handing off to Deason -- advising the FOB command on morale, caring for soldiers in units without a chaplain, humanitarian missions, Sunday services, meetings, reports, R&R briefs, and critical incident debriefs. During one of those debriefs, after a military police unit had been ambused and one of them wounded, Chaplain Morehouse sat with the 50 MPs in a big circle while they tried to come to grips with the fact that they could die here.

As Morehouse ran through this list of responsibilities with Deason, he said, "There's a mosque on the FOB, and I've been trying to get some work done on it," as if to say this mosque, which was here long before the Americans, would soon be Deason's responsibility, too.

That took Deason by surprise.

"The Muslims on the FOB are all coming to clean up the yard day after tomorrow," said Morehouse. "They say, 'We can't believe a Christian minister is helping us clean up our mosque!' And I say, 'In America, we play nicely.'"

"Mm hm," Deason murmured, as if he was still listening. But his eyes were already far away.

Now he's praying for guidance. He's all for cooperation, he says. But helping a religion that is not Christian, if it's not a military activity, is a compromise he doesn't think he can let himself make. It's a long way from the west Tennessee hills where he grew up. You've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything. He heard that line about the same time he found Jesus, and he never forgot it, a line from a song by country musician Aaron Tippin. Outside, the nightly song that calls Mosul to prayer rises and falls in a minor key.

Two mornings later, Deason leaves Bailey behind at the chapel and stumps alongside one of the FOB's muddy roads. Stocky, short-legged, and fired with purpose, Deason's whole body leans toward his destination: a minaret, rising above a thick cluster of trees and hedges. Chaplain Morehouse has suggested he stop by.

Deason crosses the street and pushes his way through a walkway overgrown with branches. Inside the hedges he finds the mosque, a small octagon with a blue dome shaped like a toadstool. Forty Muslim Albanian soldiers are supposed to be here. No one's around, but the yard is freshly weeded. The door to the mosque stands open. Deason takes a step inside.

"Don't go in there!"

The voice comes from out of nowhere. Deason jumps back, leaving a dusty bootprint on the brown wall-to-wall carpeting.

Morehouse hurries over, brushing dirt off his work gloves. "No one goes inside with shoes on," he says, explaining Muslim religious practice. "You can look inside from the doorway, though. Go ahead, it's beautiful."

Deason gives the interior a dutiful glance through the open door. When Morehouse walks off to rinse his tools at a spigot, Deason quickly follows.

Chaplain Morehouse is a reservist. But before he went to seminary and became a civilian Lutheran pastor in Tucson, he was an Army aviator. He exudes the bluff confidence of pilots, who know they can overcome gravity at will. "Because this mosque is on the FOB it's the military's responsibility," he says as he rinses. "Even just community-wise it's an eyesore as it is."

He fills Deason in on the details: An American Army major has volunteered to organize the care of the grounds. A civilian contractor is giving his time to check out the wiring. A generator has been donated to power the building. The combat support hospital's garden club wants to plant flowers. KBR is loaning its hedge trimmers.

"You have the contacts to make all that happen, the Muslims don't have the contacts," Morehouse says, turning off the spigot. "It's created a tremendous amount of good will among the locals."

Morehouse outranks Deason, and Deason nods and listens. A few minutes later, as they part company, he salutes.

"Don't do that to me," Morehouse snaps. He points at the nearby perimeter wall and the second-story windows visible beyond it. "The wall's right over there, and there are people who shoot."

Back at the chapel, Deason folds into a beach chair in the chaplain's office. Morehouse reclines in the chair behind the desk. "Cultural sensitivity is paramount," he reads aloud from Army Regulation 12-4, Utilization of Mosques on Coalition Camps. "Non-Islamic Coalition members should not enter mosques. Mosques are reserved for the religious use of Muslims alone. Violations of this prohibition could cause unnecessary friction and problems with members of the Islamic faith . . ."

Morehouse tosses the regulation on the desk. Deason hasn't said much about what's bothering him, but Morehouse has figured it out. "Don't look at it as endorsing their religion," he tells Deason. "Look at it as building bridges."

"I totally support their democratic freedom," says Deason. But for him, fixing up what he sees as a civilian mosque strikes him as crossing the line from facilitating another religion to promoting it, something he can't do as a Southern Baptist. "What got me antsy was thinking I was the renovator."

Morehouse shrugs. "You don't have to pitch in over there. I did it to show we get along. There are things bigger than us, and one of those things is teaching people who have been blowing each other up that it's okay to work together."

Deason doesn't argue. But he's still uneasy. He's walking a fine line between military regulations and the doctrinal rules of his Southern Baptist faith. If he breaks faith with either the military or the church, either one can send him home. "I am a Baptist, nothing more, nothing less, and I'm not comfortable with going outside my religion," he will say later. "If it was up to me, I'd have shut it down."

That evening, Deason walks out of the chapel into darkness. The FOB has no street lights. Helicopters thump overhead. In the distance, gunfire crackles. Deason turns to a pair of Army aviators standing by the light of a shop window, their cigarettes glowing. "Do you hear gunfire?"

"Yes, sir," says one of the aviators.

"When you hear gunfire, what do you do other than go about your business?"

"Nothing, sir, unless we hear the sirens." The aviator smiles.

"Thanks." Deason smiles back. "I'm new here."

"Welcome, sir."

Deason has been an active duty chaplain since the summer before 9/11, but this is his first wartime deployment. Before he left Fort Bragg, he saw off planeloads of soldiers headed for Iraq, handing out little New Testaments with desert camouflage covers. As they filed slowly up onto the plane, loaded down with their packs, he shook each soldier's hand. "Hang in there," he'd say, "we'll be praying for you." Sometimes a soldier stopped and hugged him hard.

After one plane took off, Deason recalls that a teenaged boy sat on the curb outside the terminal, trying not to cry. "I need my brother," the boy said fiercely. He'd just been released from juvenile detention; his brother, a soldier, had been helping him get his life back on track. "I can't do it without him, I'm going to do something bad, I know it."

Deason sat down beside him. "Would you believe I used to be a jailbird?"

The boy stared. He didn't believe him. "No way," he said. "You're a chaplain."

"It's true. I was in jail twice back in the eighties. I was about your age."

Growing up, Deason always wanted to be a soldier, traveling far away from the ramshackle house where he remembers regular whippings. He ran away and slept under porches. He slashed his wrists. Twice the state took him away and put him in juvenile facilities, what he calls jail. As a kid, he used to go blank for minutes at a time, eyes open, left arm and leg drawing up. He says sometimes it happened once every few weeks, sometimes three or four times a day. Afterward, he would be dazed and sleepy. Only later did he learn he had epilepsy.

He was a teenager messing around in the kitchen of the Baptist church one Sunday when he broke the coffee maker's glass carafe. As he was picking up the pieces, in walked the preacher, Brother Mayo. Deason hurried to apologize. He didn't know where he could get the money to pay for it. He figured Brother Mayo would never want him to darken the doors of his church again.

"Boy," he recalls Brother Mayo saying, "I can go down to Wal-Mart and buy a new coffee pitcher. I can't buy a new you."

It was the first time Deason could remember hearing someone tell him he was worth something. He says he found salvation in the middle of one of Brother Mayo's sermons, the part about how sin is real, and the wages of sin is death, and you'll burn in hell forever unless something is done about it. So he asked Jesus to forgive his sins, come into his heart, and make him a new person. A year later, when he was seventeen, brain surgery put an end to his seizures. The scars still show, exposed by his military haircut.

After he left home for good and was living in his car, a wealthy, elderly Baptist woman took him in. She sent him to college, then seminary. He still wanted to be a soldier. "But killing," he says now, "that's out of my lane." While serving as the preacher of a small church, he began the process of becoming a military chaplain.

Now, every Sunday, the chapel he runs on FOB Diamondback hosts four different Protestant worship services, a Catholic Mass, and a service for Latter Day Saints. Fridays, the space is used for Islamic and Jewish prayer services. Throughout the week, soldiers and civilian contractors troop in for everything from AA meetings to a Wicca 101 class, which is taught by one of the soldiers. It is Chaplain Deason's job to facilitate them all -- not to preside over them, just to make sure they have what they need.

"But every time I think I've mastered the pluralism issue," Deason says, "I run into something new, like this mosque issue."

Early in the morning inside the FOB's Korean-owned barbershop, a barber hired out of India trims Deason's hair. When he finishes, Deason pays the $3 charge to the Phillipina woman at the cash register. Then he says to her, "You've been so nice here this morning, I want you to have this," and hands her what looks like a folded $10 bill.

Her eyes light up. "Oh look, look!" she cries.

Deason grins. The woman unfolds it, revealing it's half the size of a real bill. On the backside it reads:

DISAPPOINTED

You won't be if you will let Jesus

Christ become the Lord of your life.

For a split second, a shadow crosses her face. But she quickly puts the smile back in place as she reads through the religious message. Deason looks away and buttons his camouflage blouse back over his t-shirt.

The woman finishes reading. "Jesus the one!" she exclaims.

Deason's face lights up. "You know Jesus, then?"

"Oh yes!"

She isn't just telling Deason what he wants to hear. Before work, this tiny woman wrestled open the FOB chapel's big front door. "Good morning!" she called out.

"Good morning, ma'am!" answered Bailey from the front office.

As she does every morning, she slipped into the prayer room across the way, placed one of the small, green camouflage cushions before the tiny altar, got down on her knees, and prayed.

Back in the chaplain's office, Deason and Morehouse sit side by side at the desk, writing up the weekly report together. Under "Services," the last item is "Diamondback mosque grounds clean up, 2 days, 50 participants."

"I have thought long and hard on it," Deason says. "I've read the regulations on it. Cooperation without compromise." Deason frowns. "How in the world do I cooperate with this without compromising my faith? I, as a Christian, do not support the enhancement of any religion outside of Christianity. But I also believe in the Christian belief of 'do unto others,' the Golden Rule. They have rights given to them by the commanding officer."

"And the Constitution of the United States," Morehouse says gently.

Deason thinks it through. "So I'll stand to the side. I don't approve of it. But people have rights."

"You have to support it, too," Morehouse says. "You're responsible for the maintenance of the building because it's on the FOB, it's a religious facility, and you're the FOB chaplain."

Deason nods. "Speaking as a Baptist, this would never happen if it's up to me to do it," he says. "Anyone who wants to take part, I give them a big thumbs up. But for myself, I'm too busy telling people about Jesus."

Nodding, Morehouse leans back in his chair. "You've wrestled with it a lot, maybe because you're junior in your understanding of our role."

"Facilitating, providing for their opportunity to use a building, no problems there." Deason says it firmly, as if to prove Morehouse wrong. "Pluralism is respecting all faiths and is the American way."

At the airfield, Deason is talking with a sergeant when one of the sergeant's young soldiers walks by. "Hey there, youngster," Deason calls out. "How we doing?"

"I'm all right," the soldier mumbles. He adds, half embarassed, "Actually, I kind of like it here."

The sergeant watches him go, then turns to Deason. "When you get a chance, maybe you could you talk to him. He's worried that he likes it over here too much. He thinks that means there's something wrong with him." The sergeant laughs. "He's my driver. I don't need him distracted!"

Deason will catch up with the soldier later, give him a chance to talk in private. Federal law protects such confidential conversations with a spiritual counselor, like a chaplain, more thoroughly than even consultations with doctors and lawyers. "Society recognizes that there needs to be a safe place where people can come unburden their conscience," says Fort Bragg's Lieutenant Colonel Steve Kelley, an Army chaplain for 21 years. In the military, anything soldiers confess to social workers, psychologists or doctors becomes part of their service records and can be accessed by their military superiors.

According to Kelley, the military endorses chaplain confidentiality for practical reasons. "A personal problem a soldier is having can be a challenge to that soldier performing in the field. Anything we can do as chaplains to help that soldier unburden his or her soul helps improve military readiness."

Chaplains also help their commanding officers gauge morale. "Soldiers want to show a stiff upper lip to their commander," says Chaplain Smith's commander, Lt. Col. Ron Green. "My chaplain does counseling morning, noon and night, way late at night, and he gets a real sampling of the truth. Then he can come to me and say, 'I can't tell you who said this, but here's the feel.' The chaplain will give you the pulse of the unit."

Like the time Chaplain Smith came to Green worried that the day-to-day grind was wearing down his soldiers. Green made it possible for Smith to create a quiet retreat in one of the crumbling retail strips on the FOB, equipped with couches, Internet access, a prayer room, movies, board games and craft supplies. Plugged into the soldiers' needs, chaplains and chaplain assistants have a front-row seat on the human side of war.

"That's How I Want to Go Out"

Spec. Tim Dunkin can't sleep.

He's lying on his bed in the shipping container he shares with another soldier. Dunkin is with Alpha Company, 47th Combat Support Hospital, or CSH -- pronounced "cash." Like Pfc. Bailey, he's a chaplain assistant. During the day sometimes, when he gets fed up filling the empty hours between the chaos of incoming casualties and needs to get away, he slips over to the chapel. He perches on a stool among the jumble of instruments off to the side of the altar and strums one of the guitars. It's harder to escape at night. More and more, Dunkin has nights like this when he just can't sleep.

By the next afternoon, he's bleary and stumbling around.

"Go take a nap," his chaplain tells him.

Dunkin stumbles back to his shipping container. After a while he hears the soldier in the container next door come in from his shift at the CSH. Dunkin can always tell when the guy's done for the day because he turns on loud rap music and 10 minutes later turns it off.

One evening after Bailey arrives, Dunkin and Bailey are in the chow hall when Dunkin's CSH pager goes off. He peers at the screen: "Two patients inbound from Tall Afar." He glances at Bailey. "Want to see how this works?"

The two chaplain assistants scrape back their chairs, dump their half-eaten trays and burst through the exit door.

Outside it's already dark, no streetlights, no moon. They break into a run, their M-16s thunking against their backs. Closer to the CSH, they're joined by other running shadows. The helicopters are coming in. You can't see them -- they fly without lights -- but you can hear them, a growing, pulsing roar.

Inside the CSH, Dunkin and Bailey snap on rubber gloves. Though the CSH gets plenty of American patients, word is, the inbound patients are Iraqi, both unconscious. One is an insurgent, not badly injured, but as he was being loaded into the helicopter he tried to fight free of the stretcher, so the medics sedated him. The other Iraqi -- civilian or soldier, no one knows -- has an abdominal wound.

Dunkin hurries Bailey back outside. The unseen helicopters, on the ground now, thunder on the other side of the blast wall between the airfield and the CSH.

"Wait here!" Dunkin shouts to Bailey, and slips into the darkness beyond the break in the blast wall. Two months ago, Dunkin was a college student in Seattle, jamming in Christian rock bands. Now he's an activated reservist, helping medics offload stretchers from helicopters, locking the stretchers into the frames of two-wheeled rickshaws. If the patients on those stretchers are soldiers, he frisks them to make sure they're not still

carrying their grenades.

Outside the CSH, Bailey waits beneath a lighted sign that glows with a red crescent, a red cross and the words "TRAUMA ENTRANCE." He watches the break

in the wall where Dunkin disappeared. A two-wheeled stretcher is rolling through, soldiers at the head and foot and a medic in a tan flight suit hurrying alongside holding up the IV bag. The medic waves in Bailey's direction.

Bailey looks around. "Me?" He suddenly realizes his rubber gloves have made him look like someone who knows what he's doing. The flight medic is still waving him over. Bailey runs to the stretcher, but, before he can say anything, the medic shoves the IV bag into his hands and rushes back toward the blast wall. Bailey isn't sure what to do with an IV bag. "Come here," shouts the soldier holding up the foot of the stretcher, and they swap places.

As Bailey helps maneuver the stretcher through the trauma entrance, Dunkin emerges through the blast wall at the front of the second stretcher. Other times, Dunkin has been the one running alongside, holding the IV bag, shouting over the noise and the downdraft: "Hey, brother, I'm with the chaplaincy. We're here for you, we'll be inside."

But others are better at that kind of happy talk. All Dunkin wants are the facts: where the patient will be taken in the hospital, the severity of injuries, data he can report to his chaplain.

Inside, a waiting medical crowd in camouflage and scrubs swarms around the patients as they roll into the trauma treatment area, which is one big open room. Dunkin leads Bailey out of the way to the room's far side. "From here I can keep an eye on how the staff's reacting," Dunkin explains. If any staff members take it hard, especially when they lose a patient, he'll talk to them after, give his chaplain a heads-up. But sometimes Dunkin backs away because, he says, he just doesn't want to see any more people with their guts hanging out or their faces half gone.

This time, the patients are quickly stabilized, and the staff moves them on. Dunkin and Bailey strip off their gloves and head out into the night.

When a patient dies, Dunkin volunteers to help bag the body. A body often has valuable personal effects on it, and he wants to make sure those effects stay with the body. "You never know who might walk by until that body is bagged and tucked away in a locked room," he says. But it's more than that. The soldiers whose job it is to bag bodies are his friends. He worries about them. Bagging bodies is disturbing work, especially when the dead body belongs to a child.

When the patients are kids, blown up or shot, that's when Dunkin has the most trouble sleeping. He says he just lies there in his container. Or he gets up and goes to the chaplain's office in the CSH, surfs the Internet, writes e-mails. "Had a guy die on me . . . this one was about 17-19," he types late one night, a couple days after the CSH was inundated with civilian victims of a suicide bombing. "There really was no way he could survive, due to uncontrollable blood loss. It was sad, though. Oh well, he went out in style -- he was wearing a sweet snowboarding cap. That's how I want to go out -- in style, that is."

After nights like that, Dunkin can't keep his eyes open. By afternoon, he stumbles back to his shipping container, stretches out on his bed. On the other side of the wall, he hears the door open and close, hears the rap music blast for 10 minutes. Then the quiet.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, it's more of the same. Dunkin stares at the ceiling. He's been here two months. Bailey has been here two weeks. The difference can seem like a lifetime. When Dunkin enlisted as a reservist, he chose the military occupational specialty of chaplain assistant because, at the time, he thought he wanted to study to become a counselor. But being a chaplain assistant has cured him. He's had too many conversations that he describes like this:

Soldier: "Why is my wife leaving me?"

Dunkin: "You have a girlfriend."

Soldier: "Yeah, but why is my wife

leaving me?"

"I've realized," Dunkin says, "that I prefer to deal with problems I can fix." He's decided to become an ER nurse instead.

After a while he hears the soldier in the container next door come in from his shift. The usual 10 minutes of rap blast through the thin metal wall. Then Dunkin hears something new: Christmas carols. He's never heard Christmas carols come through that wall before.

"A Larger Truth"

A choir of soldiers is trying to figure out where to stand. The beds are arranged around the CSH's

intermediate care ward on three sides, and on the fourth is the nurses station. No matter what the soldiers do they have their backs to someone.

A wounded soldier murmurs, "I don't care where you stand. I'll just listen . . ." his voice fading away as his eyes close.

The members of the choir cluster near the foot of his bed and start singing Christmas carols. Behind them, a barrel-chested Iraqi man lies in a bed, the stump of his right arm swathed in bandages. He grins and pats his thigh with his left hand to keep time. Between songs, he calls out in a weak voice, "Thank you."

Earlier, while Maj. Jonathan Landon, Dunkin's chaplain at the CSH, was making his rounds, he sat down in the nurses station to enter his visits in patient charts.

"He was depressed," an Army nurse tells Landon quietly, tipping her head toward the one-armed Iraqi man.

Landon looks up from the charts. "To lose one's right hand is culturally significant here," he explains. "The left is considered unclean." But the nurse reports that the Iraqi soldiers in the beds on either side of the one-armed man, all strangers before bad luck landed them here, have been reaching out to buoy him.

Landon is a minister in the Charismatic Episcopal Church, a small evangelical denomination founded 14 years ago. In a pouch on his belt, he carries a narrow purple stole. He drapes it around his neck when casualties are coming into the trauma area so that he's easy to identify in the rushing, shouting crowd. He also carries an Anglican rosary, oil for anointing and printed prayers for Jews, Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

When he and Dunkin are working together, Landon can fill Dunkin's silences with talk about almost anything. Standing with arms crossed, Landon tells a story he heard here at the CSH. "It happened before I got here two months ago, so I'm not sure exactly when it was; however, there was a MASCAL [mass-casualty incident]," he says. "I'm told that there were so many civilian causalities coming in that every chaplain on the base was called to the CSH to help. One was a visiting Jewish chaplain, a rabbi. Now this rabbi had taken classes in Arabic, so there he was, moving among the Iraqi casualties, praying with them in Arabic, and he was wearing his yarmulke, his camouflage yarmulke with his uniform. Isn't that amazing?" He leans closer. "That would be enough of a story right there, but it gets even more amazing. There was a 6-year-old girl, and the rabbi saw her being wheeled away to a quiet back hallway. She was expectant." In the terminology of the CSH, she was expected to die. "And the rabbi rocked her --" Landon's smooth voice breaks down. "And he sang Arabic lullabies to her." His eyes shine with tears. "Until she died."

Soldiers tell stories like this in an effort to make sense of the random, often meaningless violence of war. They tell these stories to one another. They tell them to combat-stress-control teams. They tell them to chaplains like Landon. Whether the stories are factual doesn't matter as much as whether they help the teller and the listener get at a larger truth. It's that truth that helps them cope with what they've experienced.

For Landon, this story that he tells means, "we can't let the horror overwhelm us and keep us from helping someone through the biggest, scariest experience of their lives." The larger truth helps him do what he has to do.

The actual facts of the story are this: When a car loaded with explosives blew up last October in a crowded market in Tall Afar, and the helicopters loaded with the injured touched down outside the CSH, Chaplain Carlos Huerta saw two children with severe head wounds go by on stretchers. Huerta, a rabbi from Brooklyn, N.Y., followed the children through the double doors into trauma. In an essay for the West Point newspaper, Huerta wrote about praying in the operating room as the surgeons struggled to stabilize them, and helping to carry the children into ICU, where nurses rushed to replace the blood the children were still losing. When supplies ran low, he rolled up his sleeve and gave his own blood. He held the hand of the youngest, an 8-year-old boy -- a boy, not a girl. The boy fought for each breath, but the staff never gave up, never wheeled him away to some back hallway.

Later, outside the ICU, Huerta would stumble into the arms of a Catholic chaplain and cry -- a detail that, had Landon known it, would have added another layer of meaning to his story. But before that happened, Huerta didn't want this boy to die hearing only frightening hospital noises and foreign words. So Huerta held the boy's hand and began to chant in Arabic -- not lullabies, he says, rather the Surahs of the Holy Koran that a Muslim Army chaplain had taught him. He chanted them until the unsteady beep of the heart monitor eased into a one-note wail.

The roar of the helicopters is as loud now as it was then. Chaplain Landon hurries into the trauma area and joins the waiting crowd of doctors, nurses and techs. Landon has begun teaching himself Arabic. He drapes the purple stole around his neck and waits.

Kristin Henderson, who is married to a Navy chaplain, is the author of While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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