This afternoon I participated in the University of Tampa graduate readings for the MFA in Creative Writing program. I read an excerpt from the first chapter of my thesis, based on my experiences as a chaplain in Iraq. Here’s the text I read.
When they told me where I was going, they said it was the safest place in Iraq. But two weeks before I got there, things had changed. On a Tuesday night during dinner, the dining facility was crowded, bustling, hardly an empty chair, when mortars landed on the building. The report I received said that of the more than two hundred people in the DFAC, eighteen were killed. Forty-seven wounded, some seriously, but they’d survive – with or without that arm or leg or eye. People were stunned, walking around like zombies. Most avoided eating in the DFAC even after it was repaired and they started serving meals again. From that moment, incoming mortars and rockets became a daily occurrence, part of the routine that was soon to be my daily life.
I volunteered to go. My philosophy as an Army chaplain was that I wanted to be wherever Soldiers had to be, and if they were in a war, I wanted to be there. Not because I enjoy fighting. We all know that a chaplain is a non-combatant.
I wasn’t there to fight. I was there to encourage, counsel, and pray. To provide worship opportunities, friendship, and guidance. To nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. To guarantee the constitutional freedom of worship to men and women of all faiths. And to men and women of no faith. Camp Echo was my home, my parish, my fiery furnace.
Located on the main rail line between Baghdad and Basra, Ad Diwaniyah is known for its manufacturing, famous for its automobile tires. Dust-colored high-rise apartment buildings line the streets, each building home to more than a thousand people. Water from the Euphrates River irrigates the farms and groves outside the city, making the region one of the nation’s most fertile.
Men from Diwaniyah would drive to a vacant field on the edge of town, bringing their rockets or mortars to launch towards us. They did this on their way to work, at mid-day, during a lunch break, or in the evening on their way home. Often just before or right after their prayers. Occasionally it was in the middle of the night. Sometimes, the people shooting at us were teens or younger.
Camp Echo was a small, squarish FOB, about a half mile across and three quarters of a mile long, in the middle of the desert. The temperature averaged 115-120 degrees. The dirt, sand, and heat were inescapable. Every day began with a new film of dust on each desk, table, chair, bed, and floor. The layer of dirt thickened as the day wore on. Surrounding the entire FOB was a 12-foot high concrete T-wall. Outside the wall were dry fields inhabited by rabbits, snakes, and scorpions. An occasional wild dog. And of course the men and boys firing the mortars.
One morning, about a week after I arrived, a mortar made a direct hit on the hooch of one of the female civilians who worked on the FOB. She was a vibrant thirty-five-year-old from Houston. She was smart, pretty, popular, and dead. Seventy-five of our civilian workers packed up and went home the next day. They liked the job and the money, some of them earning more than $100,000 each year they worked in Iraq. In a few years they could make enough to fulfill several dreams and goals. But they didn’t want to die. The fact that they could pick up and leave was great for them, but awful for the Soldiers’ morale. We didn’t have that option.
Right from the start I had a premonition that I was going to lose my right leg. It was a weird feeling, and I came to accept it. How or when? I had no idea. But every time there was another explosion, I wondered if this was the day.
My wife, Linda, also knew I might not make it home alive. Or if I did, I might be a broken man – crippled, blind, or psychologically damaged. It was something we talked about several times. With that possibility in mind, she told me before I left home, “I don’t want to find out after you get back or after you’re dead that you were in danger. I want to know right away.”
The phrase “I want to know” describes much more than how she felt about her husband going to war. It’s true about everything she does. She loves learning, is an avid reader, and always wants to know more about everything. She might not have invented the Internet, but it was certainly invented for her. She might not have read every book in the world, but I would bet there’s not an important book in the world she hasn’t read or skimmed or at least knows something about. When I was taking off and heading to Iraq, she was writing her doctoral thesis in British literature and preparing for a new teaching position. So, to hear her say “I want to know,” elicited my response, “Oh yeah? What else is new?”
Many of our military personnel won’t tell their spouse and family what they’re going through during war, thinking they’re protecting them. Plus, we’re limited in what we’re allowed to say or write to our families. But I have a feeling, there are many, like my wife, who are better off knowing what’s going on as it’s happening, and who want to know.
The first time I mentioned during a phone call some of the dangerous things that were happening, she softly said, “I already know. I saw it on TV, online, and in an article in the LA Times. They’re mentioning Diwaniyah and Camp Echo by name.” She scanned and sent me the LA Times article. Some of our own people didn’t know what was going on outside the wire.
The day I arrived I met the commander, a pleasant, graying fifty-nine year old from Illinois who wanted to survive, go home to his wife, and retire to a life of fishing with his grandchildren. He told me our troops’ morale was horrible, and that part of my job as the chaplain was to encourage them to stop grumbling and complaining. Three months later when I walked into his office to check on a few things he started spewing out his own frustration and anger.
“We’re sitting ducks inside this FOB,” he yelled. “And the general refuses to let us shoot. If I had my way, we’d put snipers in each tower along the wall, and whenever someone shows up with mortars and rockets, shoot ‘im dead. I’m tired of sitting here doing nothing.”
“Sir, my job is to help put an end to grumbling,” I teased.
He laughed, remembering his own words, then continued griping. Even the colonel needed someone safe to vent to, someone who would listen and care. It was a terrible place to be, and a terrible time to be there.
Exploding mortars and rockets weren’t the only danger. My busiest time was in the afternoons and evenings, so I got into the habit of working out in the morning, sometimes on a treadmill in the gym and sometimes outside. I got to the track one morning and discovered a large group of people huddled toward one end of the oval. A nineteen-year-old Soldier from a small town in Pennsylvania died of heatstroke while running. The temperature was over a hundred twenty degrees that morning. He had returned from the States the night before.
While at home for his two-week mid-deployment R&R, he took his girlfriend out to dinner and proposed to her. Excitedly, she said “Yes” and was wearing her shiny new engagement ring, eager for him to finish his deployment with his Reserve unit, come home, get married, and live happily ever after. 19-year-old men aren’t supposed to die like that. Nor should they die from bullets, rockets, or mortars.
Heat, danger, dust, and death formed the context for the ministry I was sent to do. Operating from the philosophy that “ministry follows friendship,” I built relationships among the men and women at Camp Echo. This allowed me to be there when they were at their best and at their worst, in their strongest and weakest moments.
This is the story of what happened in my life and theirs. Drawing on personal experience, I create a narrative that includes the atrocities of war, but also some powerful miracles and answers to prayer.