The Presence of Christ in a War Zone

January 18, 2011 — As I lie awake each night in Iraq, I ache with homesickness for the abundant water, the evergreen trees, the peaceable mountains, the lush farmlands, and the loving safety of my home in Washington state. This is the most difficult year of my life and yet, paradoxically, the most deepening and meaningful. I would not relive this year, but neither would I trade it. Go figure.

The tests here are arduous, and they stretch my soul. But the growth of spirit and the meaningfulness of ministry are every bit as tangible as the ordeals. It is a year of terrible trial yet beautiful blessing . . . a paradox for this Army chaplain.

My assignment is Phoenix Base in Baghdad, where I am responsible for 900 soldiers. I also fly across the country to distant FOB’s (Forward Operating Bases), where I minister to another 300 scattered soldiers. Mostly I travel via Blackhawk helicopter, but occasionally we convoy into the Red Zone. I never sleep well the night before we fly over dangerous areas.

As chaplain to these troops I counsel them, befriend them, conduct their chapel services, listen to their heartaches, sit with them in their tears, pray for them when they are wounded, and hug them when they need it. I conduct their memorial services if they die. I perform these ministries no matter what their faith or lack of faith. An Army chaplain serves every soldier in the unit.

The Worst Day

What a trial this war is! The most graphic cost has been performing six memorial services for seven of our soldiers. One was for a 24-year-old airman who only had two weeks of service left before he could return to his wife and little girls.

In March 2008 a rocket attack killed two and wounded 18. That attack knocked me to the ground. I spent all afternoon and evening in the hospital, praying with the wounded, crying with the grieving, and committing the deceased into the gracious arms of the Lord. The floor was awash in blood. At day’s end I dropped my body armor onto the floor of my hutch with a thud and literally collapsed into bed. The next day I began counseling those with survivor’s guilt and ongoing trauma.

Colonel Stephen Scott was one of our two KIAs (Killed in Action) that horrific day. A few weeks before, he had approached me in the mess hall with a sunny smile and thanked me for the message about heaven I’d given that morning in chapel. Now, as I stared into his lifeless face, contorted in violent death, I wondered what it was like for him to be with Jesus his Savior.

Another killed that day was Major Stu Wolfer. I sat between two Army captains with my arms around their shoulders as they wept over their dear friend. Sometimes ministry is simply being present as people weep—even tough Army captains need to cry. That very night I gazed down at those two black body bags ready to be airlifted out to the States. We call these “Angel Flights.” Indeed, may God’s angels bear them home. We all stood saluting in the dark until the choppers were gone.

That horrible day in the hospital was its own paradox. On the one hand I felt so helpless. I am not a doctor or a nurse. All I could do was walk among the wounded, touch them, say a prayer, be present, hold those who wept, and pray over the dead. I could not do anything medical for them. I felt so inept.

On the other hand, in that very weakness was God’s power. To be present in the name of the Lord, to pray, to touch as Jesus would touch, to read Psalm 23, and to weep with those who weep is to feel divine strength.

Ongoing Trials

Trials continue. Seventeen soldiers came to me after their spouses in the States told them their marriages were over. Sit with me and listen to their agony. Or stand with me by the bed of a 24-year-old soldier whose right leg was just amputated because of a bomb attack. Or listen with me to a high-ranking officer as he expresses his raw fear. Or sit with a suicidal soldier and try to bring some sanity back into his life.

We have endured more than 460 rocket attacks this year. Continual dashes to bunkers become a daily habit. After one attack I held a sergeant in my arms as he sobbed on my chest, realizing how close he came to never seeing his little boy again.

We often awaken at 6:00 a.m. to the warning siren as another attack comes in. At those times, all I can do is lie there and pray with my heart racing and sweat pouring off my forehead. The crack of a rocket hitting 50 feet away punches home how quickly life can be over.

I also minister to the Iraqi workers on base. One morning I arrived at Phoenix Base to discover that one of our translators had been found beheaded in the Tigris River. We gathered in a room for prayer and to calm the other workers’ terror-stricken hearts.

I walk to our church service on Sunday morning as the sound of a gun battle resounds a few blocks away. You get used to it. Or you hear the explosion and feel the concussion of a suicide truck bomber trying to crash our gate and you wonder how many people died in that instant. You get used to that too. You hear the medevac helicopters ferrying the wounded and dying to the hospital all day and all night. I will never forget that day-in, day-out drone.

You trudge into your empty hutch night after night without your loving spouse to greet you, thinking, “How many nights can I endure this, Lord?”

Ongoing Blessings

Paradoxically, blessing and meaning live here as well.

Chapel services on Sunday run 120 soldiers. They don’t care about the worship wars of churches back home. They just want to sit in the presence of God and be fed in their souls. They crave assurance that God is with them in this place.

And there is the blessing of being present for a soldier who needs a human pastor to sit with him as he cries. Or the blessing of wearing the cross on my uniform where soldiers can see it and be reminded that God is here. Or the beauty of how God uses this desert experience to enlarge my soul and deepen my walk with him. Or the openness of 500 soldiers at Chris Frost’s memorial service to the statement before the message: “In a time of sadness like this, we need to hear a word from the Lord.” Or the blessing of praying for our troops and their families with my chaplain assistant, Staff Sergeant John Lucero, as we arrive at Phoenix Base each morning.

All this is part of what your military chaplains continue to do each day in Iraq and Afghanistan, in places where the touch of Christ is especially needed. That is why we wear the cross on our uniform—not to endorse war, but to be the living presence of the Prince of Peace in these places too. Yes, even here.

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