Before he was deployed to the Persian Gulf two weeks ago, a parishioner at St. John's Episcopal Church in McLean alerted his minister that he was about to go to war.
The rector e-mailed the bishop's office in Richmond with the information, and the church member, an officer in the Air Force's Office of the Judge Advocate General, received a surprise in the mail: a pocket-size prayer book and an Episcopal Service Cross.
"He was very appreciative of both," said the Rev. Edward Miller, whose congregation includes at least six active military personnel and dozens of people in the intelligence community and diplomatic corps, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
The officer put the cross on a chain and hung it around his neck with his dog tags. First issued in World War I, the medallion carries the ancient Crusader's Cross design and the inscription, "Christ Died for You."
Thousands of the U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq are carrying concrete symbols of their faith, according to military chaplains. In this war, as in others, such objects -- crosses, Orthodox icons, Muslim prayer beads, Stars of David and prayer books -- provide soldiers with a spiritual connection not only to God but also to family members, friends and fellow congregants at churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, the chaplains said.
Even many of those who have fallen away from their faith upbringing or have never participated in a religious community readily grab New Testaments, daily devotionals, inspirational calendars, patron saint medals, crosses and rosaries that are available to troops at military processing centers across the United States.
"At least 50 percent take something, maybe more," said Lt. Col. Donald Lindman, an Army Reserve chaplain assigned to Fort Dix, N.J., a deployment center for National Guard and Reserve personnel in the Northeast, including the Washington area.
The intimate ties between soldier, family and God were evident this week when the mother of Spec. Shoshana Johnson, an Army cook who was taken prisoner near the Southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, told a television audience that she is certain her daughter has her rosary with her and is praying regularly.
"She's praying every day, and that's going to get her through," Eunice Johnson said Tuesday night on NBC's "Dateline." She said her daughter, 30, had called just before leaving Fort Bliss, Tex., for the gulf and asked if her mother could get the rosary from her dresser and bring it to her. Eunice Johnson said she got there just in time to give it to her.
The conflict in Iraq has volatile religious overtones, with allegations by Muslim nations that the predominantly Christian nations invading Iraq want to suppress Islam throughout the world and strengthen Israel. A few Jewish soldiers from the United States and Great Britain have asked that their religious preference not be printed on their identification tags, fearing that they might face added reprisals if captured by Iraqi troops, one chaplain said.
But for the most part, concerns about providing evidence of one's religious affiliation have not been an issue, said Lt. Col. Eric Wester, spokesman for the Army's Office of the Chief of Chaplains at the Pentagon.
"There have been no reports in my area of [soldiers] hesitating to identify themselves by their faith or expressing any particular anxiety that it would put them in a more vulnerable place," Wester said. The level of violence that "takes people to the mat in wartime" transcends considerations of religion, he said.
Navy Lt. Diana Lantz, a chaplain on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Mediterranean, said crew members often ask her to bless an object they have brought with them -- a cross, a rosary, a St. Christopher medal or a biblical text. The most precious items are those that were given to them for such special occasions as baptism, confirmation and departure for boot camp, Lantz, a Presbyterian, said by e-mail.
She has her own special object, a pocket-size devotional with a suede cover called "In Green Pastures," given to her by a church elder 15 years ago when she was called to the ministry. The book had belonged to a an elderly member who had received it from her parents in 1926 and bequeathed it to the church.
Carrying heirlooms and other objects passed through generations heightens the sense of unity with God and family, chaplains said. Of particular value are Bibles, crucifixes or other items that were taken by fathers and grandfathers into previous wars -- and that returned safely with their owners.
"They love to share it, and we really enjoy seeing it, too," said Lindman, an Evangelical Lutheran Church clergyman.
For those who want religious items but don't have them, numerous organizations make them available to military chaplaincy offices, processing centers, houses of worship and individuals. Among them:
* The Military Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ has distributed more than 400,000 Rapid Deployment Kits -- including a New Testament and Psalms with a camouflage cover -- to military personnel worldwide since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Thousands more are being prepared for distribution to the gulf.
* The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, has 10,000 rosaries ready to ship to the gulf, with 100,000 more in a warehouse awaiting orders and requests. A detachable label says, "Blessed by the Supreme Chaplain."
* The General Commission on United Methodist Men recently published an updated edition of a pocket devotional first distributed during World War II to more than 750,000 service personnel. The new edition, proposed by a California Eagle Scout candidate who found his grandfather's copy in the attic, has 40 new entries and includes contributions from an imam and a rabbi. Ten thousand copies were shipped to Afghanistan for distribution in Asia and the Middle East, including to soldiers in Iraq. Thousands more are being printed.
* The Jewish Welfare Board, a New York agency that recruits Jewish chaplains, plans to ship 1,500 "solo Seder kits" to Jewish troops in time for Passover, which begins April 16. The board also provides prayer books, pocket-sized Torah texts and Stars of David to those who request them.
* The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod provides members of the armed forces with a "Lutheran dog tag" to be placed on their identification necklace, an inspirational pocket calendar and a book of devotions.
* Love and Blessings Inc., a private company in Indiana, has shipped 10,000 bronze guardian angel pocket medallions to personnel in the gulf "who believe in guardian angels," medallion creator Lori Bennett said.
Some military personnel place less emphasis on jewelry or keepsakes and more on internal spirituality. "We give them Jesus and the support of the church," Mary Mason, community outreach coordinator at Cherrydale Baptist Church in Arlington, said of the church's 27 members in the military.
That means helping anyone who has not professed a faith in Jesus as savior to do so through prayer and Scripture study and to seal that commitment through baptism. Through baptism a person becomes a "member of the church family" and receives full support through prayer teams and mail sent by members of the congregation, she said.
Mason's fiance, Sgt. Scott Robison, a nurse in the Army Reserve, wanted to be baptized before being reactivated and assigned to the gulf. It almost didn't happen.
The ceremony was scheduled for Feb. 16, the day he was supposed to fly to Wisconsin for processing and the day Cherrydale and other churches in the Washington area were closed because of a snowstorm. Mason and Robison found an associate pastor who lived near Cherrydale and enlisted the help of a friend with a sport-utility vehicle to get them to the church.
The four held a private baptism, and Robison was soon on his way to join his ambulance unit awaiting deployment to Iraq.