Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Test of Faith

The evening was warm, virtually indistinguishable from the night before. It was the fall of 2005, just a month away from the first national elections in post-Saddam Iraq. A dozen young Marines relaxed inside the open porch of the Oasis, a crude plywood shack that served as chapel, watering hole and gathering spot for the Marines of Regimental Combat Team 8 aboard Camp Workhorse, a small "warrior base" nestled inside the larger confines of Camp Fallujah, Iraq. Amid the haze of half-smoked cigars and cigarettes, a single officer sat quielty, listening to the ebb and flow of conversation, knowing full well the good humor belied the events experienced by the Marines of the RCT over the previous days and weeks.

United States Navy CDR Dale C. White, then-Chaplain for RCT-8, 2nd Marine Division (forward) had become a father figure to most, a man whom many Marines would seek for guidance, comfort and encouragement. Despite his rank, the cross on his collar made him the most approachable officer in the battalion, which the Commander understood as one of the most important aspects of his job. From the moment he'd arrived in Iraq, Chaplain White knew his duties were much more involved than simply providing spiritual services. "I had probably 150 Marines from 8th Marine Regiment when I was at Camp Lejeune,” recalled White, a New York native. “Now I'm the pastor for 1200 Marines, because of all of our attachments (to include) tanks, tracks, the batteries, counter-battery, CEB...none of them came here with a chaplain. That was a surprise to me. I'm doing far more counseling, marriage counseling, coping with combat stress and those types of things, than I had expected." White waved at a young Marine strolling past, a freshly filled coffee mug in hand. "We've got an ongoing coffee mess from 0530 on," White says in response to the passerby. "We started brewing just one pot of coffee a day, now we're up to about twenty." Like many other men of the cloth, CDR White quickly became a shoulder to lean on, a man who'd listen without interruption, an officer whom junior Marines felt comfortable approaching despite the rank on his collar. "To realize someone (of such) rank is here to care for them," says White, "is a blessing. Here at the battalion, there's no bad time to talk. Come in whenever you want. If it's two in the morning, my RP (religious perogram specialist) will come and get me."

Since the creation of the first Continental Navy, chaplains have honorably served the United States Naval forces . Strictly noncombatants, they carry no weapons and are virtually forbidden to engage hostile forces. They include, but are not limited to Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and Protestants, as well as those of the Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim faiths. Normally accompanied by an enlisted religious program specialist, or RP, they serve in every major Marine Corps unit at home and overseas. Inevitably, serving chaplains have died in action, sometimes in significant numbers. The U.S. Army and Marines lost 100 chaplains killed in action during WWII, a casualty rate greater per capita than any other branch of the services except the infantry and the Army Air Corps. Many have been decorated for bravery in action (five have won Britain's highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross). The Chaplain's Medal for Heroism is a special U.S. military decoration given to military chaplains who have been killed in the line of duty, although it has to date only been awarded to the famous Four Chaplains, all of whom died in the USAT Dorchester sinking in 1943 after giving up their lifejackets to others. (1)

Over the last 4 years, Operation Iraqi Freedom has offered no exception to the dangers facing today's Navy chaplains. Captain Bryan Weaver, former Division chaplain for the Second Marine Division (Fwd), Camp Fallujah, Iraq in 2006, commented on the effects of combat on Marines and Sailors who've served in Iraq. "Men who come out to a combat zone either find their faith or they lose their faith. Most Marines who come to a combat zone will use the opportunity to do a lot of soul searching. Even I do that. It's a great opportunity for reflection…and for honing our spiritual disciplines and spiritual direction. That's what I bring to the table as Division chaplain - I provide spiritual direction to the Regimental chaplains, who in turn to do so for the battalions." Reflecting upon his own experience in Iraq, Weaver continued. "When a chaplain goes out to a forward firm base or the front lines, the morale increases. We bring a sense of hope and stability to the Marines. It really encourages the provides a sense of home (to them). It's important to be seen, not holed up behind a desk somewhere.” Captain Weaver paused, searching for an appropriate explanation. “It's leadership by example. I subscribe to MBWA - ministry by walking about. Men need encouragement. They feed off of that. Life out here is hard. A chaplain brings intangibles to the table - enthusiasm, attitude, spirituality. You can't put your hand on it, but you know when it's present."

Weaver's view of chaplains at war echoed the sentiments of New York Times best selling author Stephen Mansfield, who commented on the state of the military chaplains during a 2005 interview with the National Review online. Remarking on the progress they've made over the last three decades, Mansfield stated "Military chaplains are not chosen according to a denominational quota system as they were during the Vietnam era. They are chosen according to a “best qualified” standard. This means that the chaplains serving today are deeply committed to ministering to the fighting man and woman and have met very high standards for entrance into the corps. Some of them are even decorated warriors themselves who left the military and then returned as chaplains. They are doing a hard job gloriously." (2)

Doing a hard job gloriously came easy to LT William Stewart. Assigned to the II Marine Expeditionary Force (Fwd) in 2005-2006, LT William Stewart found himself ministering primarily to US Navy Seabees assigned to the tactical movement teams (TMT) of Naval Marine Construction Battalion 22. Originally enlisting in the Navy in 1984, Chaplain Stewart served as a religious program specialist for 5 years on active duty before entering the Naval reserves in 1989. Following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Stewart applied for the US Navy Chaplain Corps and was subsequently assigned as Chaplain to his former unit, NMCB-22. "A lot of the duties are typical of what you think a Chaplain would be doing," stated Stewart. "I provide services, bible studies, prayer meetings and counseling. (In Iraq), I also do a lot of what I call movement prayers for TMT's, basically convoy escorts. You never know when there's going to be a convoy leaving the wire. I try to do a prayer before each of these if I'm available. It doesn't matter what time they leave, day or night, because I found that it really comforts folks to have that prayer.” LT Stewart smiles, recalling the reactions of his sailors. “Goodness, the stories of people coming up to me, saying "Chaps, I know that prayer saved us today"... is very humbling to me, because I don't feel like I have that much power. But I guess that person I'm praying to upstairs - hopefully, he did see them through - they believe in that, they trust in that; it gives them confidence."

Despite their commonalities in faith, the chaplains of OIF hail from a wide variety of backgrounds. LT Brian Crittendon was a former Marine Corps CH-46 pilot in the early 1980’s. Resigning his commission in 1985 to become a civilian chaplain, he spent 13 years as a civilian pastor before deciding to return to the military. In 2004, LT Crittendon reported to the Second Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, only this time in the uniform of a sailor, not a Marine. Deploying to Iraq in 2005, LT Crittendon set up shop inside a derelict rail car at the abandoned Al Qaim train station, commonly referred to as the “soul train” by resident Marines. Ministering to the men of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Chaplain Crittendon faced one of his toughest days in November, 2005 when an insurgent ambush wounded 12 Marines and killed 4 of their comrades from 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Rushing to the forward rescuscitative surgical suite (FRSS), Chaplain Crittendon prayed over the dead and wounded. “I had two primary roles while I was down there. One was to minister to those who were make contact with them, pray with them, encourage them and to bring them as much comfort (to them) as I can. The other is to keep an eye on the staff and to be a presence there (for) the spiritual encouragement of the staff." Crittendon continued. "There were points where I was putting my arms around surgeons and nurses and technicians who were having a long day....we stopped and I held prayer for everybody who was involved." Crittendon recalled the moment the Regimental Commander walked into the FRSS, encouraging his wounded Marines as surgeons struggled to save a fellow Marine who ultimately passed away from his wounds. "I view these men as being, in a sense, ministers to their country," said Crittendon of the Marines with whom he serves. "They have a mission...they've been called as much to their job as a warrior as I've been called to be a minister." Crittendon quickly changed the topic with a lighter comment . "The good news story for me, especially as a minister, (was when) a young man found his faith and asked me to baptize him a few hundred yards from the Syrian border, with his will always be a highlight (for me) as a Christian minister."

Evey chaplain who experiences combat ministry comes away with a greater appreciation for the men and women they serve. "There's no doubt that being in combat, with rounds coming and IED's going off, that those Marines have a very different life than sailors on a ship," explains Chaplain White of RCT-8. "It's life or death (here). Whereas I can go on a cruise and come back with everyone alive, that's not the case here. There is definitely a level of committment and a level of risk that far exceeds anything we've had on a carrier.

Even though you could lose your life on a flight deck very easily, the rubber meets the road here.

1. Wikipedia Online - Military Chaplains
2. NRO - God and Man on the Front Lines, a Q&A by Kathryn Lopez, May 27, 2005